Grand Prix's coming, quit bellyaching about it

Baltimoreans still don't trust the Big Idea men, and we love to gripe about stuff

August 17, 2011|Dan Rodricks

Here's a suggestion for all those who hate that there's going to be a Grand Prix in downtown Baltimore: Don't go. Don't pay for a ticket. Don't even pay attention. It's happening Labor Day weekend. Find something else to do. Go to the shore. Go shopping. Plant a tree as a memorial to one of the dozens that had to be cut down to make spectator sight lines for the big race.

You see where I'm going with this?

There's nothing you can do about the Baltimore Grand Prix now except bellyache about it, and what's that get you?

I know: Bellyaching is fun and therapeutic, and not as hard as yoga. It's a way to show you're engaged in civic life without breaking a sweat. Call a radio talk show or Tweet a grouchy comment, gripe out loud and you can aggrandize yourself an active citizen.

Baltimore bellyaching always gets louder when we get a sense that our city is "gettin' above its raisin'." That's a Southern expression about social class. I get to use it here because I'm talking about something endemic to the region's character and its ancestry.

Maryland is the southernmost Northern state or the northernmost Southern state. It was a border state with significant Confederate sympathy during the Civil War. Its largest city was a destination for largely poor families from Southern states during the Great Migration and during World War II. John Waters believes Baltimore picked up more than its share of characters in the process, too. "It's as if," he once wrote, "every eccentric in the South decided to move north, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay."

The result has been an odd mix of southern rube, tattered aristocrat, yearning immigrant and landed gentry, reflecting a middle temperament that in the 21st century is still suspicious of pretense and leery of collective civic ambition. New York or Boston can compete to be the center of the universe; Baltimore just snorts along, with a post-industrial drip, hardly ever making a boast or brag. The city has always had a strange inferiority complex.

And, at the same time, there's this concern about Baltimore "gettin' above its raisin'," meaning above its rank as a middle-grade city. And that's most noticeable when someone comes along with a Big Idea.

The late mayor William Donald Schaefer faced this a lot. People groused about his plan to turn Baltimore's vacant waterfront into a tourist attraction with a mall. We groused about having to build the Orioles a new ballpark, and about all the effort that went into luring an NFL team here more than a decade after the Colts left town in an embarrassing snowstorm of national publicity.

Some of the complaints stemmed from a legitimate debate about priorities — brick-and-mortar (and big contracts to big developers) winning the day over pressing human needs.

But a lot of it emanated from that quirky Baltimore thing against too much progress, too fast.

I'm not saying the Baltimore Grand Prix is progress. I'm not convinced this is a good idea, racing cars through the streets along the Inner Harbor each of the next five Labor Day weekends. (With all that stalag-like fencing along Light Street we should call it "der Licht Strasse.")

People have been grousing about the city's investment in the event. There's been a flap over trees being cut down to make room for grandstands. And some elitists just resent that motorheads are taking over li'l ole Charm City.

I say: If you don't like it, avert thy gaze. Find something else to do. If the race is a bust — assuming such a declaration would even be fair in the Baltimore Grand Prix's first year — I'm sure you'll hear about it, and you can post, Tweet or call in your I-told-you-so's and condemn the BGP.

But in the meantime, I suggest grinding up a chill pill and mixing it with your morning latte. Some entrepreneurs have been given a chance to try something big on the streets of Baltimore. There's a possibility that thousands of people who would otherwise be elsewhere will visit our fair city — and spend money here — during Labor Day weekend.

Sometimes I think we should rework the slogan that the bygone Baltimore Opera used for too many years: "Baltimore — it's better than you think. It has to be."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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