Everyone wants a Baltimore story these days–particularly the New York Times, it seems. This Sunday’s example wasn’t a profile of Sandtown or an excoriation of the city’s history of racist housing policies. Instead, it was an essay by former City Paper cartoonist Tim Kreider, about his nostalgia for the lazy drunks of Baltimore. Reaction, as you may expect, has been mixed.
Kreider, who moved from Baltimore to New York a decade ago, paints a picture of the city that — well, perhaps these few choice phrases taken from the article will give you a sense:
punched in the face for no reason at all
(at least) one prostitute
Like Sodom and Hiroshima, it is a city best known for its destruction
hungry and disenfranchised and heavily armed
Baltimore is more like a permanent hangover
a woman whose long hair had fused into a single filthy dreadlock, like a thick spout of vomit that had been bronzed
Kevin got felt up by an old lady
a man unexpectedly soiled himself
like revisiting my old high school — too small, deserted and dead
Kreider’s main point is that Baltimore’s beauty and blight come from the same place: “all the ambitious people are siphoned off…leaving the lazier, saner remainder in peace to enjoy low rents, cheap beers and a life undisturbed by the clamorous egos of the driven.” He has a point. But if you know a few of Baltimore’s urban farmers, start-up founders, artists, activists, lawyers, and/or musicians, you know some people who disprove that statement every day. Perhaps Kreider is just projecting his own dissolute, aimless youth onto the city as a whole?
Reaction from Baltimoreans on social media has been mixed:
I enjoyed reading this: http://t.co/p36z9rIGCJ Local opinion of the piece is split about 50/50. Or so says my wife, based on her FB feed.
— Jesse Walker (@notjessewalker) July 6, 2015
— Justin George (@justingeorge) July 5, 2015
— Nina Walia (@missmodular) July 5, 2015
That said, there is something rough and weird and glorious about Baltimore. Since I read Kreider’s piece, I’ve been trying to figure out why this piece got on my nerves while I also feel that John Waters can talk about Baltimore’s beautiful grotesque and not seem exploitative or condescending? First, he still lives here, at least part of the time. Second, Waters seems to pay real attention to the city’s racial and economic divisions, rather than just turning them into excuses for set pieces about Baltimore’s grittiness. Finally, Waters seems to speak about the city with a genuine affection–and he doesn’t set himself apart from the category of Baltimore Strange, as Kreider does. Instead, you get the sense that Waters only feels like himself when he’s here–while Kreider, for better or for worse, had to move to good old New York City to find himself.
Readers, what did you think about Kreider’s essay?