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Baltimore Takes One More Hit to the Body

I’ve lived in Baltimore for two stretches—1973-1987 and 2003-present—and though frustrated as a young man, in college and after, that it was a “second-tier” city, one that was jokingly referred to in my City Paper columns as “Tinytown,” there was a reason my family and I moved here after 16 years in Manhattan. It’s comfortable, the residents mostly easy-going, traffic is light compared to NYC, and the schools we enrolled our two boys in were excellent. (Needless to say, that comes with the caveat that American education, public and private, has taken a nosedive since at least the 1980s.) I’ve never been macro civic-minded: as an entrepreneur in the late-1970s I was in favor of Harborplace because it would bring tourists (it did!), provide incentive for people to move back downtown, and not incidentally, create more opportunities for City Paper advertising. Perhaps that smacks of self-interest, but the weekly I owned with Alan Hirsch was a business, as well as a journalistic enterprise that hoped, and often did, to provide an “alternative” view of the city. Not to mention, with each new burst of advertising revenue, we were able to hire more people.

Last Tuesday, upon awakening I saw texts from my sons (Nicky, a night owl, lives in Baltimore’s Waverly neighborhood, and Booker, an early-riser in Manhattan) on the devastating news about the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsing. Fifteen minutes later, my wife tuned into NBC’s Today, but it was hijacked, justifiably, by a local TV station that showed videos of the bridge’s horrific collapse and the scattered early details. Like most Baltimoreans, I felt bad for the victims, but was also glad the incident didn’t take place during the day, when so many more people would be traveling, like every day, across the bridge. I scrolled on Twitter, and was irked when the jokes about Baltimore started—a no-longer-astounding lack of grace—and even worse, the conspiracists began spinning theories that fit their agenda. It’s true this event, catastrophic for the city, was in my “backyard” (we live several miles from the Bridge), but the jocularity and plot invention was rude; I can’t imagine making light of a fatal gun massacre or even the death of a celebrity when the news was still fresh.

Easily the best, and heartfelt, story about the “crumpling” of the 47-year-old, “1.6 mile span” of the bridge was written by Alec MacGillis in The Wall Journal at the end of last week. MacGillis, with whom I don’t always agree with on politics, is nevertheless a diligent and acclaimed reporter (one of the few that remain), who moved from D.C. with his family 11 years ago (previously, he’d worked at The Sun for five years) and is a tireless booster of the city, but not in a rah-rah way; he has plenty of complaints about local government and institutions and will point to them, even if in a story the next day he exclaims about an art exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, the latest revival offering at the Charles Theatre, or concert/play at the Meyerhoff. I’ve never met the man—even though his office in Charles Village is close to Splice Today’s—but believe he’s a mensch, honestly writing about a city he loves, with only scattered cynicism, and that’s more than I can say for myself.

He writes: “For a city that has staked so much of its future on its location, it’s the ultimate nightmare: to still be in the middle of it all, yet inaccessible and irrelevant. Without the port, Baltimore becomes merely a problem to be gotten around. Just ask the many DC-NY train travelers speeding by on the Acela, who gawk at the city’s blight if they bother to look out at all.”

That might be overstated: not everyone rides the Acela, and some like the view of Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore, the Washington Monument, the swath of churches (Baltimore’s architecture throughout the city is still a wonder) and the untidy rowhouses that nevertheless evoke the feeling of an East Coast city. It sure beats the soulless D.C.

President Biden swiftly promised to loosen federal funds to rebuild the Key Bridge as quickly as possible—I’m not sure if Biden can do that, and I assume the state of Maryland will take on a significant part of the burden—but it’s not 1955: infrastructure projects move at a turtle’s pace. Just think of the disgraceful amount of time it took, amidst petty bureaucratic squabbling, to rebuild the World Trade Center. You’d have thought, in the aftermath of 9/11 that it would’ve been a federal and state priority—not only for the emphatic message to Al Qaeda, but to restore the business environment—to get the job done in two years, instead of leaving a hole at Ground Zero. In Baltimore’s case, if, as some speculate, it’ll take maybe 10 years to get the Bridge restored, the economic, and psychic, harm might be permanent.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023


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