Loser image: We wear it well

KEVIN COWHERD

October 31, 2007

When it comes to having a huge inferiority complex, Baltimore takes a back seat to no one.

This is a town that belongs on an analyst's couch 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It's a town that could take every self-affirmation course known to man and the consensus would still be: Oh, what's the use? We're losers.

It's a town that would leave positive-affirmation gurus like Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins muttering: "That's it, I'm getting out of this business."

So maybe we should take a lesson from Scranton, Pa.

OK, I know what you're thinking.

You're thinking: Scranton?

Gray little town off the interstate up there in northeast Pennsylvania?

A town so dull it's the setting for the NBC comedy The Office, about a bunch of beaten-down office drones who can barely get through their day without wanting to throw themselves in front of a bus?

Yep, that's the Scranton I'm talking about.

But hear me out.

True, Scranton, with a population of 75,000 located two hours west of New York City, has its own inferiority complex.

Its nickname is "The Electric City," but that's not exactly because the place is jumping. It's because it had the first electric trolley car.

And let's face it: That's not going to have the average Scrantonian puffing out his chest.

Home of the First Electric Trolley Car! Who's going to get all hopped up about that?

Once upon a time, it was the anthracite coal capital of the world. And although many feel it's on the upswing, it's still invariably described as "hard-scrabble."

Try working that into a realestate brochure: "Charming 3-bedroom rancher in hard-scrabble industrial city ... "

Think the Realtor's phone is going to be ringing off the hook?

Then The Office came to Scranton two years ago.

And suddenly lots of people around the country associated Scranton with the branch office of the fictional Dunder Mifflin paper-supply company, where clueless boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell) presides over an office of quirky misfits who'd be in an unemployment line if they worked anywhere else.

At first, Scrantonians wondered if the show were just an excuse to beat on Scranton with a lot of one-liners.

"I thought, `Oh, my gosh, what'll this be like?'" Mayor Chris Doherty recalled yesterday.

"A lot of people at the beginning were nervous about it and about how [Scranton] was going to come across," said Julie Ropoch, community relations director for the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce.

And the show did take some shots at Scranton. Oh, they weren't haymakers. But they poked fun at Scranton's blandness, it's lack of scintillating night life, that sort of thing.

But instead of getting all lathered up about this, the good people of Scranton actually laughed about it.

They managed to laugh at themselves and their image, even as the show took off, won an Emmy, attracted a cult following and became a hit for NBC.

"Now people are comfortable with the show," said Ropoch.

"We're proud of the fact that we're the backdrop of the show," said Doherty.

In fact, Scranton is so proud that a Dunder Mifflin banner flies across from City Hall.

It's so proud that the city held the first annual Office Convention last weekend, an event that attracted 4,000 fans (at $100 a ticket) who attended dinners, seminars and Q-and-A sessions with Office cast members, writers and producers.

"It was a phenomenal success," said Ropoch.

"We're going to do it again next year," said Doherty.

The point is, maybe Baltimore could learn to lighten up a little, as Scranton obviously has.

It'd be a nice if we were a little less defensive about our shortcomings - overshadowed by New York, Philly and Washington, the big crime rep, a baseball franchise that's a national joke - and able to laugh at ourselves a little more.

OK, we don't have a hit comedy series set in this town to illuminate our foibles, and to rally around.

And the series that have been set here - Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire - while brilliant, don't exactly touch on feel-good subjects that end up in Chamber of Commerce brochures.

But Scranton has the right idea: It is what it is. And sometimes you have to laugh at the whole thing.

Maybe there's a lesson there for Baltimore.

And every other town with an image problem.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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