Grinch or Merrymaker? Our list for the holiday season

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Photo by Pamela Au/Shutterstock.

As 2020 comes to a close, Baltimore Fishbowl has made a list of holiday Grinches and Merrymakers worth remembering:

Merrymakers: Baltimore Restaurants

Here in Baltimore, the restaurant community has taken a hard hit from the pandemic. But that hasn’t kept Charm City’s culinary professionals from stepping up and proving their commitment to hospitality this year.

Since March, restaurant owners and employees have traveled a bumpy road. They’ve been forced to quickly implement new health and safety guidelines and even shift business models in response to evolving rules and regulations. And they did it all with aplomb. From bottled cocktails (one of our favorite COVID-related innovations) and takeaway turkeys for Thanksgiving to chef-curated holiday gift boxes and carry-out New Year’s Eve dinner parties, Baltimore’s restaurateurs’ creativity has risen to the challenge all year long.

The industry stepped up to help its own, too, with regular food giveaways for displaced restaurant workers and the launch of a non-profit, the Baltimore Restaurant Relief Fund, providing short-term help and advice for both employees and the restaurants themselves.

We’re anxiously awaiting the day we can tuck into a restaurant meal under normal circumstances. But until that day comes, we’ll be ordering curbside carryout, tipping well, and raising our glasses in a toast to the hospitality industry.

Grinch: The Columbia Association

The Columbia Association, the far-reaching entity that runs Columbia in the place of a city council or mayor, tried mightily this season to switch off an iconic holiday lights display while a pandemic surged.

The Symphony of Lights has thrilled families for a quarter-century, but Columbia’s recent growth and development has overtaken the wooded area where the display long operated. The current configuration has light displays installed throughout Merriweather Post Pavilion, but to access them, cars must enter through paved driveways owned by the Columbia Association.

The Association sternly argued that the route infringes on land it owns, that cars create environmental hazards, and that proceeds should benefit the organizations of its choosing, rather than going toward the private company that maintains the lights and donates some proceeds to Howard County General Hospital.

Bucking the holiday spirit, the Columbia Association sought an injunction to shut down the display but lost its argument in Howard County Circuit Court right before Thanksgiving. It appealed, and lost that round too right before Christmas.

Meanwhile, cars have been lining up for safe, family-friendly entertainment during the holiday season in a pandemic.

Merrymaker: MacKenzie Scott

MacKenzie Scott, the philanthropist and former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, revealed via a Medium post that she donated more than $4.1 billion of her fortune to hundreds of organizations over the past four months. A good chunk of her goodwill has landed in Maryland, where several historically black colleges and universities are the recipients of eye-opening donations.

Morgan State University has received $40 million, the largest unrestricted gift in its history and the second-largest to higher education ever in the state. “This monumental gift will change lives and shape futures,” said Morgan State President David Wilson.

Some of Maryland’s other HCBU’s also benefitted: Scott gave $25 million to Bowie State University, and $20 million to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Scott made the donations with little fanfare and with no strings attached, according to The New York Times, and targeted her contributions to organizations that serve women and minorities. She received 4 percent of the outstanding shares of Amazon in her split from Bezos, and the value of those shares has soared during the pandemic.

Grinch: Tribune Company

Tribune Company, the parent of the Baltimore Sun, continues on its path of maximizing corporate profits at the expense of its journalists. In recent months, several Tribune papers – most recently the Hartford Courant – learned that their newsrooms are gone, and that journalists will be working from home for the foreseeable future. The newsrooms of the Carroll County Times and the Capital Gazette in Annapolis suffered similar fates earlier this year.

Recently, Tribune announced the sale of BestReviews site for $160 million, but there seems little chance that any of the proceeds will be flowing to the hard-laboring journalists at The Sun.

Those writers, photographers, web content managers and others have watched their resources dwindle, their pay stagnate and many colleagues leave – without much relief. They are begging for Tribune to sell to a local ownership group, but no progress on that front has been announced.

Merrymaker: Baltimore-based authors

Baltimore’s turmoil has resulted in a bounty of quality reads that have earned a spot under the tree this year. Erica L. Green and Wes Moore authored “Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City,” about the immediate aftermath of the Freddie Gray killing in 2015.

Ron Cassie, an editor with Baltimore Magazine, wrote “If You Love Baltimore, It Will Love You Back,” a series of short stories about Charm City. And the scandal of the city’s Gun Trace Task Force has spawned two books: “I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad,” by Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg, as well as a forthcoming book by The Sun’s stellar police and crime reporter, Justin Fenton.

Other aspects of Baltimore living were explored in “The Rest of the World,” a collection of short stories by veteran high school teacher Adam Schwartz and in “Last Couple Standing,” by Matt Norman, a fictional satire involving a fraying marriage, while resident bard Anne Tyler gave us “Redhead by the Side of the Road,” with a family reunion scene in Hampden that is alone worth the price of admission.

JHU neuroscientist David J. Linden added to his impressive shelf of popular science books with “Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality;” while Hopkins English professor Andrew Miller published On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives, a thought-provoking blend of criticism and memoir.  Poetry fans got new books from Steven Leyva with The Understudy’s Handbook. Elizabeth Hazen with Girls Like Us, and Dora Malech, with Flourish  Our own Marion Winik saw her 2005 collection, Above Us Only Sky, reissued with 22 new essays, most originally published here in the Baltimore Fishbowl.

Grinch: Ravens strength coach Steve Saunders

Saunders, a Ravens assistant coach, has been named by the Baltimore Sun and others as the source of the Covid-19 outbreak that rocked the football team last month. According to published reports, Saunders did not follow proper protocols regarding masking or wearing NFL required proximity tracing gear. Among the players who contracted the virus were reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson, and more than two dozen players tested positive in a 10-day span, the largest outbreak in the NFL.

The Ravens have been on the bubble for a playoff spot, but have won four straight games and would make the post-season with a win against Cincinnati in Week 17.

Merrymaker: John Waters

Baltimore filmmaker, author, artist and all-around icon John Waters is now a philanthropist as well. The 74-year-old creator of such classic movies as Hairspray and Pink Flamingos announced in November that he will give most of his art to the Baltimore Museum of Art after he dies.

The collection includes 87 prints, sculptures, video pieces and mixed-media art from Waters himself, whose work was featured in a splashy 2018 retrospective at the BMA called John Waters: Indecent Exposure. It also includes 288 works by about 125 other artists, including such big names as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman.

Walters says the gift is a thank-you to a local institution that has inspired and supported him since he was a child growing up in Baltimore. All he asks in return is that the museum name a rotunda and two restrooms for him. (They’ll be the John Waters Restrooms, not the John Waters Closets.)

The happy announcement was a welcome departure from the previous months of controversy and came just as the museum decided to keep three important works of art, including “The Last Supper” by Andy Warhol, after an enormous uproar over a potential sale of the paintings to fund diversity programs and other museum operations.

Unfortunately, those works remain off-limits for viewing: The museum is closed because of the pandemic.



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