So young, so pretty: Death of a magazine

Former Urbanite writer Lionel Foster says the publication dared greatly to try to improve Baltimore

September 20, 2012|Lionel Foster

I almost didn't become a writer.

By the time I returned to Baltimore after a few years abroad, I already held three university degrees and was taking a break from my fourth. Just one requirement away from an MA in creative writing, I was the most over-credentialed storyteller I knew. I was also a chicken. Too afraid to try to earn a living allowing what I'd learned in urban planning courses to inform my writing on cities, I took a job with Baltimore's department of planning instead.

It didn't work out. My re-entry to the U.S. was brutal. I was sick before I took the position — and would add to that, through no one's fault but my own, "stressed" and "unhappy." But as I spent some time trying to fix myself, one of my college mentors introduced me to the publisher and editor-in-chief of Urbanite magazine. And that's how I got started.

Last Friday, the Sun's David Zurawik reported that Urbanite has printed its last issue and will soon shut down its website as well. This is sad news. I'm young. I haven't been to very many funerals, so I've spent a lot of time since Friday thinking about how to say goodbye to a publication that evolved, for me, from a refreshing idea to an employer, and — if such a thing is possible with words and paper and pixels — a friend.

Urbanite was an unusual publication.

First, it was free: a glossy, luxurious piece of street art adorning intersections, college campuses and boutiques — any place with foot traffic. If other readers were like me, the first time they saw a copy, they looked around to make sure there wasn't a price tag or camera tucked away some place they couldn't see. "Really? I can just take this? They want me to have it?"

The monthly magazine was idealistic and ambitious. Each issue had a theme: for example, transportation, crime or suburbia. Some articles zeroed in on people with knowledge of that topic in the Baltimore area. Others pointed readers to thinkers and practitioners elsewhere. Collectively, these pieces formed a mini-toolkit that opened up new space for thought and action.

This engagement with people and ideas extended beyond the printed page. As publisher Tracy Ward explained in a December 2011 editorial, "[M]y vocation, is ... community development. ... So I write as a community developer currently using a media company and the power of narration to do my work. I believe stories matter."

The annual Urbanite Project was the best example of the way Tracy used the magazine to foster collaboration: assemble creative people with complementary skills, ask them to develop a project that chips away at a problem, and give them a few precious pages to spark something. In 2007, a graphic designer, tired of Baltimore's bad reputation, used the Urbanite Project to re-brand and rename the city. He had several suggestions; "Old Bay, Maryland" was my favorite. In 2008, an architect, an artist and a public health professor challenged the city to make its polluted waterways swimmable and fishable again. And today, Urbanite will announce the winners of $12,000 in funding to help push back the boundaries of some of Baltimore's food deserts, neighborhoods with poor access to quality food.

We didn't always know what we were doing. For a while, the magazine's oversized pages were too big and flimsy. They didn't travel very well. And sometimes, coming up with good stories to fit a particular theme was like pulling teeth.

But Urbanite got a lot of things right. It educated Baltimoreans about our architectural heritage, made convincing arguments about ways cities can be environmentally sustainable, and handled big, sensitive topics like race and crime deftly and humanely. This down-to-earth sophistication won "best of" nods from Baltimore City Paper and Baltimore Magazine and national recognition from Utne Reader.

Tracy told the Sun it was the economy that did Urbanite in. The money came from ads, not subscriptions ("Really? I can just take this?"), and during the slow recovery that has followed the Great Recession they just couldn't sell enough of them. But like any inspirational figure, I think its impact will live on.

I have been insanely fortunate. Seven years ago, after studying agglomeration theory and narrative arcs, I came home to find a community of creative people who cared about both. That's what Urbanite was for me. My adopted family in Clipper Mill gave me the confidence to write like I meant every word — to be naked and thoughtful and bold.

If it hasn't happened already, I hope that you, too, will find something that welcomes you in and validates what you'd like to do with your life. For more than eight years, every time it hit the streets, Urbanite asked if we might one day call that place "Baltimore."

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. You can reach him by email at lionel@lionelfoster.com and Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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