Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What's wrong this this populist rant about downtown Baltimore?

If a guy who writes a daily blog once set out to describe "the Baltimore you missed because you were tired from work or too busy moving to Brooklyn" and now writes a long rant about how unsafe, dirty and generally unpleasant this Baltimore is, one has to wonder if he any longer describes what others can't see, whether it isn't now he who was too tired from work and he who is too busy moving to Towson, a place he wanted to move to per his own account. Or if Baltimore has really arrived at a place where those rants are justified. Here what the anonymous writer of Baltimore Chop said what the purpose of his blog is:
Screenshot of the Baltimore Chop website with the article in question
..meant to be a personal blog, but it turns out that if you’re writing a personal blog which is also a daily blog, you stop talking about yourself pretty quickly. You talk less about yourself, and more about the world around you. So this has morphed into a music and nightlife blog. It’s become an urban lifestyle blog. [...]
The Baltimore Chop presents my Baltimore. It’s the one you missed cause you were tired from work. It’s the one you didn’t see because you were too busy moving to Brooklyn. It’s the small town within a big city- hip without being esoteric, smart without being pedantic, dangerous without being reckless, and kitsch without being cute.
Needed more than ever
Instead the blogger writes  a long, profanity laden tirade about downtown this week ("What's wrong with Downtown") in which he kicks down just everything in his way. and doesn't shy away from generalizations that sound like County Republican Patrick McDonough had been his ghostwriter. McDonough is famous for his racist anti-City rants.
Violence in Baltimore is what sunshine is to Florida. It is omnipresent. 
Downtown is not actually safe. It is an unsafe place. Period. An unbelievable amount of crime happens downtown every day. 
For those of us who live in the city, and who frankly don’t get out of it often enough, it can be easy to forget just how safe the rest of America is. 
It is our belief that downtown is dangerous in general, but that there is a specific threat associated with leaving the ballpark after Orioles games.criminals have been known to target Orioles fans specifically, where the crowd has fallen away, the orange shirts are easy to spot, and the wide expanse of West Baltimore provides a convenient maze in which to fade away after an attack. 
..the entire city of Baltimore is a very dangerous place and downtown is not immune from that. [...] Aside from these attractions Downtown is a fucking mess.
If this diction sounds familiar ("unbelievable amount of crime"), keep reading, you will find more parallels. It is obvious that he has a rich reservoir of hate, espcially for Councilman Eric Costello and Council-President Jack Young, but he doesn't stop there. Its the entire council! Derision for politicians in general is one of those populist moves that is so dangerous in a democracy in which we elect politicians to represent us and where insulting politicians is also an insult on voters and the idea of representation altogether.
sinkhole about to open? Howard Street
The voters of course do not appreciate the council, which is why half of those motherfuckers are leaving office in the first place. This has been absolutely the worst council in living memory
Of course Downtown Partnership CEO Kirby Fowler and anybody promoting downtown gets to feel the blogger's scorn as well:
There are a few people whose entire job it is to sell the idea of downtown. The BOPA, Downtown Partnership, BDC, Visit Baltimore and their ilk make very high tax-generated salaries for planning events large and small, successful and not, for being (ahem) a liaison to anyone in the business community who hasn’t completely given up on downtown, and for getting quoted in the paper about how great it all is.[...]
In the years of writing his "positive" blog he hasn't gotten very far in finding anything worthwhile:
The positives, the actual amenities for locals that exist downtown can be counted on your fingers. Power Plant Live and Port Discovery are okay for their clientele, the Everyman, Hippodrome, the Main Library, and the newly opened Shakespeare theater are pretty nice. There’s maybe half a dozen decent restaurants that cater to locals and about two decent bars and a couple of coffee shops. That’s it. [...] No clubs ever last in Downtown Baltimore. There’s always some motherfucker shooting someone. [...] Lexington Market, which is a shithole that visitors in general do not like at all with the possible exception of Faidley’s
yes, sh** is flowing through downtown
(photo: ArchPlan)
The sinkhole and utility mess can't be left out in a rant. of course, and so it comes out like this:
[...] Even if a visitor could make himself immune to crime, he can still never know when the next sinkhole will open under his feet or the next water main will burst, the next building will crumble, or the next car will crash without the cops even bothering to show up. [...]
No matter that these sinkholes are equal opportunity events that regularly show up in the suburbs as well.
The Chop blogger says on his webpage that he is a "progressive" and he has, indeed, written in favor of the $15 minimum wage. To boost his credentials he makes  some passing remarks about the disadvantaged in his rant as if he was sympathizing with them. only to insult all those who are less fortunate as a plague that has befallen the City, whether they are homeless, transit riders or teenagers. Again, sounds familiar? In his probably most ridiculous conflation he creates a big heap of all the folks he hates to see:
Both sides of downtown are now host to permanent homeless encampments, which the city has demonstrated it has neither the will nor the ability to deal with adequately. Junkies, dirt bikers, roaming bands of teenagers numbering as many as 200, political demonstrations, predatory tow truck drivers, meter maids and traffic cops; these are all people you’re likely to find in downtown [...]
Our transit system, the buses in particular, are completely fucked up. [...]buses jamming the streets of the choke-point hub are themselves unpleasant to visitors, the large crowds of very poor people waiting on bus stops are even more of an anathema to visitors and their tourist dollars. [...] 
Poor people at bus stops: a deterrent for tourists?
One gets the sense that this man isn't much of a progressive. He kicks in all directions for entertainment, certainly a popular pattern these days. So it fits that he also rants against the massive investments that he otherwise says are needed to turn Baltimore around and displays the usual fundamental misconception about Tax Increment Financing as money that pays Peter and robs Paul:
Now that our city has invested astronomical sums in Harbor East, Harbor Point, and Port Covington the renaissance needed in downtown is virtually guaranteed never to happen in our lifetimes. [...]
In a complicated calculation that is so bogus that it is funny, he subtracts from what he thinks are maybe downtown 100 blocks all those that shouldn't count as "downtown" somehow until he ends up with only 10 blocks. He dismissed government offices, garages, churches, the UM university campus and even the "Block" itself.

It seems to be natural that somebody who feels like that about Baltimore would want to move out of the City. And sure enough, in May the Chop Blogger with the royal "we" announced:
[...]the city was busy voting for Pugh, Young, Pratt and Mosby (who are bumbling incompetents at best and criminals at worst) we were busy voting with our wallet and our feet. We’re giving up home ownership in the city voluntarily to go rent an apartment in Towson, two miles above the city line and an entire world away. 
Purse snatcher during the unrest (City Paper)
Alas, unfortunately, that did not come to pass. The blogger apparently isn't as good in real estate as his model, or not good in keeping his house in shape or in promoting it (well, the latter is abundantly established). Home values in the City have steadily increased, but he couldn't sell:
As much as we’d love to move out of the city today, our house failed to sell at a loss so we’re stuck here for the time being. .. 
I bring attention to this relative obscure writer not to give him more popularity but to point to a pattern. This pattern is a familiar line of thought. The danger that comes from populism in which folks simplify matters in crude tones until large parts of the population lap it up eagerly because it meets their own predispositions and bias so neatly. As if we didn't have enough suburbanites who already think that this City is a hell-hole. They nor the writer aren't bothered by facts. What matters is the entertainment value and the good feeling that comes from letting off steam.

Populism isn't interested in solutions, nuance or actual progress. Populism is interested in stoking fear, exaggerating the problem and splitting the community. Populism works from some basic truth. There is no question that there is a grain of truth in all of the statements the blogger makes. The Baltimore SUN just analyzed this week that Baltimore is the deadliest city in America when it comes to the ratio of those being shot and those who die from the gunshot wounds. And in terms of the more common metric killings per 100,000 residents, the City is close to the top as well.
Abandoned history at Howard Street:
Promise of a Brooklyn Bakery here

But as shameless generalization the rant is not only factually wrong (no real facts are provided, really, just opinions), it certainly is not helpful, except as a very personal diagram of the writers psyche and his writer's desire to move to the suburbs. Stoking fear doesn't make Baltimore better. Throwing meter maids and junkies into the same pot is not analysis and calling all politicians "bumbling incompetents" and "criminals" is doing nothing to engage more people into the political process.

This little rant by this obscure blogger doesn't change much. But populism in general is dangerous because it has poisoned the well of political discourse. It is dangerous because it gives every yahoo the feeling that he can shout his nonsense from the rooftops. It is dangerous because it is used to derail our national election process, has been used to derail the EU, is used to torpedo international accords and has moved time backwards in Britain, Hungary, Poland, Denmark, Germany and here at home.
Baltimore Police Crime map for  downtown for the last 90 days

Going backwards has never been good in history, even though it has been attempted time and again. I was born in a relatively small country that tried to return to old glory after a brief attempt of democracy about a hundred years back. That country plunged the entire world into an abyss. It must remain a lesson to all who belittle the messy process of democracy.

Another round of flight to the suburbs won't solve America's urban problems. Bringing up the same old tirades this city has heard for 40 years is intellectually lazy and ignores that Baltimore in 2016 is a very different place from Baltimore in 1990, a time when it was maybe at its lowest point.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

updated: The initial photo from the Chop website was removed because of a copyright claim

10/5/06: I added the Downtown Crime map for the last 90 days. Reflecting recent spikes, the figures don't look good. I suppose I am lucky that in 30 years of working, shopping, walking and biking downtown often late in the evening, neither I nor two of my daughters who lived , studied and worked for years in Mt Vernon and downtown were ever robbed or accosted, although there were some close calls for them, not for me. Anyway, the purpose of my article wasn't to excuse the often sad state of affairs but pointing out that the over-the-top generalizations and exaggerations of the rant do nothing but feed the wrong narrative. 



  1. That person does know that there is crime in towson, too, right? And some of the worse heroin use is in harford county, away from the big bad, city.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Philipsen. I agree 100%.