Whether they live in Baltimore or its suburbs, whether they're here every day, once in a blue moon or never at all, everyone has an opinion, everyone has prejudices, everyone constructs their own reality about the city.
For some, it's a dangerous urban "hell hole" with a deserving "Third World profile." No talk-radio bigot used those cruel and racially charged terms. Two college professors, one from Johns Hopkins and one from Loyola, did — and in a 2008 essay that affirmed in a national publication what television viewers had seen for years in the prime-time entertainment that exploited Baltimore's complex human problems: poverty, ignorance, violent crime, drug addiction.
For others more favorably predisposed toward city life, Baltimore has great amenities, starting with its waterfront, but it still struggles in the long aftermath of industrial decline, epic white flight, the concentration of poverty and the crack epidemic. Not even its many admirers — the wishful thinkers, volunteers and entrepreneurs who want to make it a better city — think of Baltimore as anything but a work in progress: A city with many problems forged in the 20th century trying to be a more livable place in the 21st.
Every now and then, something happens (usually a high-profile crime) that prompts reflection on all this, causing these various realities to collide. We're at one such moment now, with Baltimoreans (including those who don't even live here) going through a collective self-analysis. What kind of city are we? Are we really "out of control" and ruled by mobs and headed down a hole? Or are we the lovable, always-struggling Baltimore, clawing and scratching our way through the thorns?
Let's be careful about the use of "we" in this regard. People like Pat McDonough, the suburban state delegate who's been sounding alarms about "black youth mobs," are not really into the "we" thing. Pat McDonough is all about drawing attention to himself under the cape of citizenship, pretending he cares about the city. Emphasizing the race of the St. Patrick's night mobsters, telling people to stay away from the city, claiming City Hall doesn't care about public safety — this is a man interested in little more than making his constituents (and/or the listeners of his radio show) comfortable with their prejudices.
But Mr. McDonough performed a service of sorts: He forced the current conversation about Baltimore and, specifically, how our prejudices influence what we assert as reality.
In addition to injecting race into the post mortems on St. Patrick's night — or to bolster his cry of alarm — Mr. McDonough shared a personal story about a "mob" in downtown Baltimore. He claims that on a recent weeknight, at about 9 p.m., he and his wife were in their car at a stoplight when they were about to be surrounded by "100 people who were 50 feet from us." Mr. McDonough says he "ran the red light" to escape the situation.
But what was the problem? What did Mr. McDonough see? Was his panic sparked by the race of the people he saw? Were they really planning to surround his car, or just cross the street? Fixing for a fight, or just headed to a club? Isn't one man's crowd another's mob?
As I said, we all construct our own realities. We see what we want to see.
Last week, a man named Johnny wrote to explain why he considers downtown Baltimore unsafe. It's not holiday weekend mobs. It's panhandlers. He described two incidents:
"I was yelled at and followed by a drunk/drugged man, yelling nasty stuff that was mostly incomprehensible as I walked along the skywalk [over Light Street]. I was walking a few blocks from the Convention Center when a man ran across the street directly at me, eyes on me. I have no doubt he was coming to ask/beg for money. Luckily, he was 'intercepted' by a fellow panhandler."
Johnny says that because of these two incidents — pretty ordinary stuff, by most city standards — he not only avoids the Inner Harbor now but has "advised a large conference to stop meeting there."
That's quite a leap, to tell a conference to go elsewhere because of two non-incidents with panhandlers. But everyone constructs their own realities about Baltimore, based on their prejudices and what they bring to the city.
More on this in my next column.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursdays and Sundays. His is the host of "Midday" on 88.1, WYPR. His email is email@example.com.