Lack of familiarity breeds contempt for Baltimore?

Downtown Baltimore Part II: How little or no contact with city life fuels the negative attitudes toward it

May 25, 2012|Dan Rodricks

If you're used to watching an Orioles game in the quiet of a family room, then watching one at Camden Yards can be unsettling — fellow fans yelling in your ears, maybe dropping a profanity here and there. If you rarely walk on city sidewalks full of people, it can be a strange experience, especially if there are panhandlers or mentally ill wanderers in your path. If you're almost always with people who look like you, then being in a diverse crowd can be weird, even frightening.

It was always thus, but never more so than in the last few decades in the United States. As people moved away from cities, the suburbs grew, and we spent less time on sidewalks and in coffee shops and more time in cars and in our family rooms.

A sociologist named Ray Oldenburg pointed this out in the late 1980s — how, since World War II, so many Americans had come to embrace a two-stop model of existence, moving primarily between home and workplace with little time for the "third places" like barrooms, barber shops and park benches where people gathered informally or spontaneously. These "great good places," Mr. Oldenburg said, provided a way for people to stay connected to friends and neighbors, to foster habits of public interaction and to generally keep on top of things. And Mr. Oldenburg was dreading the loss of more "third places" even before the Internet further diminished their importance.

I bring this up in the context of the conversation we've been having about the St Patrick's night mobs that hit downtown Baltimore and the relative safety of our city's "great good place," the Inner Harbor and just beyond.

Events occasionally jar us into reflection on the various perceptions of Baltimore we all hold. We're in the midst of that now, with the summer — and particularly the Fourth of July — looming as a test of the city's ability to maintain order and civility at its communal center. And there's a broader question, prompted by the St. Pat's mess: Is Baltimore what the statistics show (a safer, more livable city than it used to be), or is it still, as some would have it, a dangerous "hell hole" people would be wise not to visit?

What I often suspect to be behind the persistent and most negative view of the city builds on Mr. Oldenburg's observations. Two or three generations have come of age fully isolated in the suburbs and instructed in avoidance of Baltimore, other than to see a Ravens or Orioles game.

After announcing increased police patrols in downtown Baltimore for the coming summer weekends, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blakesaid that "people who grow up in the suburbs tend to think of Baltimore like it's a different country. But people from outside the area ... have a much different, and better, opinion than people who live in our own back yard."

Lack of familiarity breeds contempt?

A Sun reader in Middletown, 55 miles to the west of Baltimore, wrote to me recently to say he loves the Orioles but will not be going to any games at Camden Yards. "You have a city that is out of control," he declared, with little support for such a fantastic assertion. Another reader said he's advised others to stay away after two personal encounters with panhandlers.

I could fill 10 columns with anecdotes about Baltimore's depravities. Everyone brings their own sense of reality to this discussion.

But it seems to me that a lot of the people who are so eager to condemn Baltimore as hopeless have not spent much time here. What they know of the city they've seen on television; they assume the violence associated over the years with drug trafficking, primarily on the west and east sides, occurs everywhere. Or, if they pass through and find something less than perfect — a howling homeless man on Pratt Street, loud teenagers at the Harborplace amphitheater — they proclaim it a place to avoid, then head back to the provinces.

So, the city is not for everyone and never will be. Even people who live in Baltimore and pay the taxes here keep handy their reasons for thinking about fleeing.

But despite all, the human yearning for the "great good place" is what will turn a new generation toward city life, which is why it's so important that it be protected and kept safe.

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

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