Why Baltimore Persists as a Cultural Beacon

“HEY, where are we [ EXPLETIVE ] today?” Pray at the first moments of the shockingly grotesque 1970 movie “Multiple Checkerboard” from John Waters, one of the members of Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions.The answer was the front lawn of the house of Waters ‘ parents in Lutherville, Md’s Baltimore suburb. Much of the film, like many in Waters ‘ oeuvre, bursts through Baltimore’s streets; the final sequence resembles the triumphant beginning of “A Rough Day’s Night” (1964) twisted on its head, with thousands of young people charging down city blocks in flight from the brazen queen Divine’s drag.(Previously, Divine sexually assaulted by a giant lobster, one of the most disturbing non-sequiturs in a film consisting of almost nothing but them.)

In the world that Waters set up in “Maniacs” and deepened, if that’s the word for it, in “Pink Flamingos” (1972), “Girl Trouble” (1974) and many more, Baltimore is an unfathomably strange place: violently perverse, sexually abject and cheerfully evil.It’s a city where anything can happen — see: lobster assault.In these early films one sees his boldly gay, show stock business the Dreamlanders (a contemporary review of “Maniacs”. In the Baltimore Sun states, the “heavily Baltimore” accents are the funniest thing about the film) and can not help but wonder Great, and sometimes nervously, about the psyche of the community that created it.

WATERS ‘ FILMS, together with the emotionally sensitive family books by author Anne Tyler and the expansive tv tale of public crime by David Simon, “The Wire,” reflect the triumph of an extremely local dream in very different registers.Their work feels different from that created in larger cities like New York and Los Angeles, as well as from that produced in smaller cultural centers like Providence, R.I., and Oxford, Miss.We pose together as a kind of city bards pair, fiercely loyal to a complex region that defies cliché interpretation and causal explanation.A deep variant of strange runs through Baltimore’s water, and it is rare in today’s cultural landscape that such an eclectic group of artists have committed their life and work to an otherwise relatively inconsistent mid-size city.

I was born in Columbia, Md., a suburb of Baltimore, and although I do not claim to be a native town, I travel every year or two to Baltimore and its surroundings.I came to understand the nature of the city in this era, formed by its geographical and cultural inconsistencies, which have always defied classification.I also see a town that fosters external recognition, perhaps due to its nebulous identity — Baltimore is boring, emotionally, but not driven by both the seats of power in and around Washington, DC (when congestion falls). And the coastal farming communities of the East Shore. The episode of David Simon’s pre-Wire book on violent violence in Baltimore referred to him in an event called “Homicide: Life On Street.” The series focuses on the non-Here-Nor-Existence of the City of Baltimore from 1993-1999.A murder suspect in the scene tells an investigator that he has the “homegrown feel”: “that doesn’t look too southern, not too northern, not on the coast but the surface.”

One learns of this in-betweenness in John Updike’s review of Tyler’s 1977 book “Earthly Possessions,” in which he states that “she is at ease in the semi-countrified, semi-plasticized, North-South America where she and her characters live.”Tyler, who has published most of her 22 books in Baltimore after moving to the suburb of the genteel Roland Park in 1967, writes about the area as if it were a small town, describing the intertwined fates and yearnings of her working and middle-class families.When I wrote to Tyler about how the city inspired her writing, she replied, “For me as an author, Baltimore’s meaning was the essence of the city itself — the fact that it is a town, with its distinctive characteristics and foibles that color any story set in it.”

Pike saw Tyler’s work as part of a Southern literary tradition, adding that “she holds fast, in her imagination and her mind, a Baltimore with only Southern exits; her characters never escape North as they run.””The Wire,” on the other hand, indeed the highest-profile representation of the city in the 21st century, fits more naturally into what could be considered a Northern tradition, one in which the rebellious, delicate nature of urban life is central to the city’s conception of the show.As the primary lens through which many non-residents come to know the city, perhaps it could give the casual viewer impression that Baltimore consists mainly of drugs, assassination, and political corruption.(In the latest novel by Gary Shteyngart, “Lake Success,” a group of German tourists take a West Baltimore “Wire “- inspired tour — the drug war has officially become a theme park.)One of the dichotomies and discoveries is Simon’s gimlet-eyed take on the city: the drug dealers are intellectuals; the police are filthy poets. Nothing is another thing at all.

THOUGH THESE THREE reflects only the most historically recognizable of the artists of the area, the current workstream created, most of it by the majority black population of the city, is fueled by many of the same circumstances that have long made Baltimore such an original location. This vitality has been fostered by the long-standing availability of cheap space to work and innovate in tandem with the intertwined collegiality of its cultural organizations, even as Baltimore’s inhabitants contend with the desperate political conditions of the community, artistic and otherwise. This paradox — a city’s devil’s bargain that functions as a laboratory bold visions in exchange for social, economic precariousness — is at the heart of the creative life of the city

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