I am delighted that I now have a measure against which to gauge my own daily exploits. However rough my day at the office, I have only to read the analagous day in the diary of Samuel Pepys to see that, as long as the black death stays its hand and a great fire doesn't consume Baltimore (we can only hope), then I can salvage something from the day. Praise to Phil Gyford for undertaking this project. He augments this version of the text with footnotes on another 'blog. Fantastic work. Link courtesy of Metafilter
While in Denver, émigrés from the east and west coasts would frequently pay Denver a back-handed complement: "Denver's great for not being a real city." Considering the population of 554,000 in Denver alone (not counting Aurora, or any of the cities numerous and interchangeable suburbs), I never really understood this assertion. Denver provides a home for half a million people, their government, their economy and their culture. How does this deviate from the modern definition of the city – the imperial center that aggregates wealth and materiel, while broadcasting its culture to the periphery?
Denver does indeed meet the theoretical definition of a city. It even meets the High-Powered French Theorist version of a city: the location of Astral America - the place where we reify our fictions (including/ especially our grand narratives) to subordinate the ageless geography that laps at the edges and flows into an under the city itself. In all ways it matches our expectations of the urban area: traffic, a mildly congested downtown, sports franchises, and the same collection of chain-link stores that change citizens into consumers in every American city. But the observation still persists - Denver mimics a city’s charms, but it remains a small town. In the imaginations of the newly arrived, long time ex-pats, and even the savvier residents, it remains a cow-town, known for an omelet and a parking control device. But what makes it so sub-urban to these emissaries from the effete precincts of the coasts?
While the preceding question bears the provincial bias of a member of a small town chamber of Commerce, it also reflects the hubris and unevenly alloyed self-image of Denver. The mayor's office frequently makes reference to Denver as a "World Class City” and, as they should, competed desperately for the favor of major corporations (United Airlines most recently), high profile events (multiple Winter Olympics bids since they turned one down in the 70's), and the entertainment industry based on that image. Denver desperately wants to project an air of cosmopolitan urban, delectation while insisting on its friendliness toward families and corporations. Denver also wants, however, to retain a patina of lingering trail dust, an affectation of the old west.
In some ways, this represents a more authentic version of Denver. The stockyards and train yards still stretch out busily on the plains. They form great, reticulated labyrinths of steel fence and rail through which great beasts move in regulated patterns, as in long observed ritual. These reminders of economies past provided much of the money in town prior to the oil boon of the 1970's. But it is something that World Class Cities simply do not do.
Historically, Denver has always seen the cyclical return of money based on the mineral wealth of the region. In the nineteenth century, miners laid siege to the front range in search of gold and, later and more fruitfully, silver. . In fact, Denver was founded as miners found trace amounts of gold in the waters of the South Platt River. While the gold didn't last long, the settlements that sprang up out of those short lived mining camps became Denver. Denver's first suburb, Park Hill, actually developed when citizens left downtown, fleeing the debauchery of the miners who had come down from the mountains for the vices that only a mining town can reliably provide. Silver carried the cost of building up (and periodically rebuilding) the city from an aggregation of frequently flooded wooden saloons to an ordered city of brick and marble. It even took Colorado from a territory to a state. But silver would become the first mineral cross on which Colorado hung her ardent belief and self-image. Since the value of silver depends upon the capricious whims of the market, Denver saw its first speculative bubble burst early in its history. It repeated that cycle with oil in the 70's, never seeing the great recession of the 80's - already written in its history.
This is all to just to say that Denver has never been as stable or as “world class” as it believes itself to be. But what keeps it from being a real city? The answer lies in a particular trait of Americans: we resolve conflict though space rather than over time.
I now live in Baltimore, Maryland. I live just a little under two miles from the city's inner harbor, perhaps a more familiar landmark for many. I have to confess an ignorance of the history of the city. For instance, I have no idea why row houses prevail as the dominant form of residential dwelling in urban Baltimore (other that the evident efficiency of space they offer). Because of this ignorance, I will have to content myself, and you, dear reader, with a description of Baltimore, and of my encounters with the city.
Navigating Baltimore is essentially a comic and instinctive act rather than rational - a kind of gambling, betting that certain streets do not terminate abruptly, change name, veer off unexpectedly, suddenly merge onto the beltway, or do any numbers of these in combination. As in many older cities in the east, a notion of rational grid has long since faded, if it ever existed. A few main thoroughfares actually traverse the town. These are the main arteries for traffic. The other streets tend toward the labyrinthine. They wind through the city only to terminate suddenly, or in a way that creates an odd juxtaposition. For example, Falls Road runs from semi-rural estates to a gritty, urban body-dumping ground – in a surprisingly short distance. The way road construction and traffic move, some neighborhoods become very isolated. You find Mount Washington, for example, at the end of the intersection of a very meandering Lake Avenue and one of the more verdant parts of Falls Road. It feels like a small, yuppie-ish village, though it actually lies within the city limits.
I happen to live on mixed-use street – meaning some residences in second and third floor apartments above business that occupy a ground floor. The renown Baltimore Row house (town houses taken to the nth power) does not dominate this block as it does others. A mixture of commerce, concerned organizations and general seediness keep people moving through the neighborhood on most evenings, thus avoiding some of the blight that strikes others nearby. You will also see an unexpected concentration of Korean owned businesses on my street. This adds a surprisingly cosmopolitan flavor to an area that is in many ways quite unremarkable.
The businesses that a driver heading north on Charles Street will encounter:
Geri's - a liquor store and fried food emporium, featuring the ubiquitous lake trout as well as frog legs and what I can only suppose are staples of the cuisine called "Delmarva."
WYPR - 88.1 FM - Your public radio station (an excellent public radio station, tune in to the Marc Steiner show to listen for local and regional politics and interests).
Dept. of Corrections Parole Office
Several hair salons, catering to an African-American clientele, though the closest Barber Shop (complete with pole) advertises haircuts in three languages.
Catholic Charities Office
2 barber shops
Several small eateries - walk in diners, set up in shotgun style garden level apartments. On cold mornings when the damp, cold air holds everything to the ground, you can smell the griddles up and down the street.
Baltimore Poverty Center
Korean Grocery Store
As in much of Baltimore, a block on either side will take you to places that most people, especially kids from rural Kentucky, never know exist. A boarded up building, one that looks uninhabitable, may house an unknown number of shifting denizens - young men on street corners shout out "greens!" advertising the crack sold in small green capped vials. The dealers in this neighborhood seem to be about home delivery – they drive about, not so they can move along when the police cruisers come through. Mostly car based dealing, though I have my suspicions about a couple buildings. But this concern is no different from the ambivalence that most people seem to feel here. You don't worry about it - it becomes something you keep in the back of your mind. It becomes architecture of vestigial knowledge - a set of circumstances that trigger a visceral reaction when you see a constellation of signs - the SUV on the corner again, the music at 3 AM, sudden emptiness of the street, the crowd of people you’ve never seen on the block before.
By the numbers, 25% of the populace lives under the poverty line. 10% (over 60,000) of the city's population lives from fix to fix. Consequently, HIV/AIDS also takes a greater toll on Baltimore than other cities in the region. We rank 2nd in America in the number of violent crimes (assault, robbery, rape, and murder), behind Detroit. But because of these issues, there is no pretending that the city doesn't have problems. Consequently, you encounter a higher level of political discourse than in any other community in which I have lived. Political discussions lurk under the complaints exchanged over coffee, or over a backyard fence. People closely watch the actions of police commissioners. The mayor has even driven to a local radio station to defend himself (verbally and then physically) when an on-air attack transgressed all propriety. This last incident personified Baltimore - picked on frequently, but scrappy when preyed upon. But my encounter with Baltimore has convinced me that the specters of indifference haven't taken everyone yet.
And this is where Denver and Baltimore part company as cities. Baltimore's closeness has collapsed the structures that allow Denver to ignore its own problems. Housing prices in Denver stratify neighborhoods by class (and frequently by race as an afterthought). The flat housing market in Baltimore brings us in close proximity to the problems connected with the drug trade. We cannot pretend that this happens in tract housing in a suburb. Here we see the clientele drive in from the suburbs to buy crack and heroin in downtown before getting back on the JFX or I-95. We cannot ignore this because it happens so close to our lives that we think of as being bounded by normality - and this violence and potential for indiscriminate death lingers just across this very thin membrane. Here in Baltimore, more people see through that membrane, see the violence burst through into their proscribed lives. Baltimore is a city because it is too small to pretend that a problem belongs to Druid Park or SoWeBo.
Indeed, Baltimore has taught me a lesson that Denver could not as it exists now: Americans do pay attention when not anesthetized by affluence, comfort, and distance. This is the virtue of a city.
The ACLU has seen an increase in membership in the wake of the war on freedom waged by the Administration and an all too compliant congress. This link will show a brief advocacy ad for the ACLU (hyperbolic, but no less than the claims of the Administration and its hounds). After the ad, click on the link to the actual site for the TIA office. Even in the clinical language of a beuracratese, it is plainly creepy and a step toward the realization of the American Dystopia.