The Pride of Baltimore, and in Baltimore

Schaefer tapped into a city's need to swagger

April 23, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Detroit to do a story on Tom Zbikowski, the Baltimore Raven spending the NFL lockout pursuing a pro boxing career, and we were driving from the suburbs to Kronk, a renowned gym that has produced multiple world-title fighters.

"You gotta go to the 'hood,'" Zbikowski said as he turned onto an all-too-typical Detroit street of abandoned buildings and ghostly sidewalks. As a serious boxer for much of his 25 years, he's accustomed to training in this kind of neighborhood, but I still was struck by how he saw beyond the surface woes.

"It's like in Baltimore," he says, "you feel that pride."

Now, Baltimore boosters may freak over the comparison — sometimes I think our battle cry here is, "We're not as bad as Detroit!" — but I think Zibby's onto something.

Great cities retain a certain pride even when they're laid low. It's always there, sometimes many layers below the crumbling buildings and hopelessness, but someone needs to tap it.

I was thinking about this last week, watching and writing about the outpouring of emotions triggered by the death of William Donald Schaefer. He'd been off-stage for some years, in failing health and living in a retirement community in the county, so the swell of nostalgia that washed over the city caught me a bit by surprise.

Civic memory is a funny thing, or at least an ever-evolving thing. How we view ourselves, how we remember our shared experiences and, of course, how we view those we elected gets tweaked as time passes and we get more distance and perspective.

At greater and greater remove, especially if you didn't live in Baltimore during the Schaefer-dominated 1970s, all of Schaefer's chest-puffing and goofy antics started to seem trivial, or at least at odds with reality. As the homiicide numbers climbed, as more and more parts of the city looked as if they'd been strafed, the Charm City nickname that the city's ad agencies came up with at his behest seemed ironic rather than literal, and begat the inevitable and none-too-clever variant, Harm City.

And isn't that so Baltimore — every slogan has to be dissed, as if we have to pre-emptively insult ourselves before someone from outside does. "The City that Reads" has to become "The City that Bleeds";" Believe" has to become "Behave." ("Get In On It" arrived as self-parody; no outside assistance needed.)

In Schaefer, I think we had someone who not so much changed this defensive, downtrodden quality of the city as externalized it. Somehow, he made those insecurities, those feelings of being inferior, work for the city rather than drag it further down.

You think we're rubes in Baltimore? Well, who else would come up with promos like Baltimore is Best? Trashball? Pink Positive? Total rubes, that's who.

But beneath the goofiness, these efforts tapped into a deep-buried sense that we are better than our homicide stats, our littered streets, our Colts-robbed selves. No, they didn't fix all the city's woes, any more than Harborplace stopped all urban decay or building Camden Yards took dem O's back to the World Series.

But all of that made life here better. They fixed what they could, and made it seem possible that even bigger challenges could be tackled.

Do we still feel that way? I don't know. But I think when we mourn a figure like Schaefer, we also mourn ourselves. When I see how the Superblock project has stalled, I wonder how we ever got a Harborplace built.

The other thing that I think prompts so much nostalgia for Schaefer is his unabashed belief in government.

These days, when some governors like to showboat their refusal of federal funds, it seems like oh-so-long ago that Schaefer used to brag about how much he got for Baltimore from the feds. Can you imagine a politician doing that today?

But this wasn't all about handouts. He made neighborhoods that wanted a playground or a rec center come up with some of the funds themselves to match what he'd give them — and then take responsibility for some of the regular maintenance, too. Same thing with the dollar houses — you had to provide the sweat equity for the renovation and then live there, not just sell it at a crazy profit and go off and live in the suburbs.

How amazing this all seems today, at a time when either the government is evil and must be starved, or the government is the source of untouchable entitlements.

Schaefer's genius, I think, was he saw government as neither extreme, but instead as a partner of the people. Imagine that. Yes, it handed out checks, but recipients had to hold up their end, too.

So thank you, William Donald Schaefer, and I hope wherever you are, you're swaggering forward, chest puffed out with pride. As the tributes stack up for you, we're walking a bit like that ourselves.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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