Baltimore: The City Nobody Knows

Biographer, historian, and journalist, GERALD W. JOHNSON was born in North Carolina and has tired happily in Baltimore ever since the SUNPAPERS called him to their editorial staff in 1926. For the past twenty years Mr. Johnson has been a free-lance writer, and he has more than twenty books to his credit, including biographies of Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and F.D.R.


THE girl clerk in the Seattle bookstore was comely and seemed to be intelligent, which made it all the worse. The volume I had purchased was too bulky to fit into an already overcrowded bag, so she had agreed to send it by mail and was taking down the address.

“Baltimore,” she repeated thoughtfully. “Baltimore, Maryland. What city is that near?”

When I had recovered my breath I said meekly, “It’s near Washington, D. C.,” which satisfied her. I should have told her that Baltimore lies between the fifth American city, Detroit, and the seventh city, Houston, just as Seattle lies between the eighteenth city, San Diego, and the twentieth, Buffalo; but I didn’t think of that until later. Anyhow, such a retort would not have been properly Baltimorean. It might have been forgiven me, a resident of the city for only thirty-six years, therefore a newcomer, but a real Baltimorean, offered evidence that his city is fading into oblivion, would reply, “No comment.”

For the real Baltimorean is convinced that the real Baltimore vanished long ago. That damnable contraption, the horseless carriage, put it on the skids, and Kaiser Wilhelm II finished it. It was during the incivilities exchanged with the Kaiser that Baltimore, a drowsy but delectable city of half a million people, was dragooned into becoming a great port by reason of the Allies’ insatiable demand for steel, coal, and foodstuffs, especially grain. The wharves of Baltimore lie ninety miles nearer the wheat fields of the Middle West than those of any other saltwater port. Speed was of the essence in the task of feeding J. J. Pershing’s personally conducted party then touring Europe, so Baltimore was hustled into the twentieth century willy-nilly, and in the process lost its identity.

“I know,” said the curator of the Peale Museum, repository of the history of the city, when I told him of the incident in the Seattle bookstore. “I have been inspecting a map just issued by American maritime interests to stimulate foreign trade. It emphasizes the excellent harbor facilities along the Atlantic coast at Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk. But there is not even a dot locating the port that handles a greater tonnage of foreign trade than any other in the country, New York alone excepted.”

I looked it up, and it was so. The Delaware River ports, Philadelphia, Camden, and Wilmington, with the recent addition of the Fairless steel installation near Trenton, together handle more foreign tonnage than Baltimore, but New York is the only single port that outranks Baltimore. What goes out of Baltimore, however, is largely grain and coal; what comes in is largely ores and oil. These are important articles of foreign trade, but they are unexciting. The ships of Tarshish, bringing ivory, apes, and peacocks into New York, are the newsworthy ones.

There is, of course, one Baltimore import attended with definite, if morbid, excitement. When I was a boy in North Carolina, the progression of an illness was signalized by three items of news: positive, “He’s sick”; comparative, “He’s worse”; superlative, “They’ve taken him to Baltimore.” The third announcement was the cue to visit the local florist and commission him to prepare a Gates Ajar in pink carnations.

That continues. Only a few years ago a friend in another state fell upon evil days. His peptic ulcer having gone beyond control, his physician advised the ministrations of some of the Johns Hopkins magnificoes. The surgeons took care of the ulcer, but with difficulty, and the convalescence was slow. A year later I saw him at his home and made the conventional inquiry as to when we might hope to have him as a guest. “Never!” was his uncompromising reply. “To me, Baltimore is a city built entirely of white tile and glass and smelling of iodoform.” So it is to others, and they can hardly be blamed for making earnest efforts to forget that it exists.

RECENTLY Lorin Peterson, an industrious reformer of the Lincoln Steffens school, published a report on a score of these cases of civic acromegaly that we miscall American cities. He found five super and six major metropolitan complexes, of which he examined ten, adding ten of the fourteen smaller ones. The only major complex he ignored was the one he calls WashingtonBaltimore — not Baltimore-Washington, although three fourths of its three million people are residents of Maryland and more than half live in metropolitan Baltimore.

His reasoning is easy enough to follow. He had a thesis to maintain. It is the assumption that the renovation and modernization of American cities can be effected only when political independents — his term is the mugwumps — eject the old-line party hacks from the municipal government and take it over themselves. Then, and not until then, things get done.

Obviously, voteless Washington could contribute nothing to this argument. Washington is handsome because everything is done for Washington by the federal government; so he disregarded it and dismissed Baltimore along with it as a mere appendage of the national capital. In disregarding Baltimore, he probably did better than he knew, for it splits his thesis right down the middle. Baltimore is currently in the midst of a reconstruction program that will eventually cost $200 million — some amateur statisticians estimate the final cost at twice as much — to which the federal government contributed, originally, nothing except an agreement to locate within the reconstructed center an office building that it had already determined to build somewhere in the city.

After the project was well under way, an amendment to the federal law enabled the city to obtain from the national treasury $8 million toward the cost of the land, reducing the city’s original obligation from $21 to $13 million. All the rest is attributable to private enterprise, and it was accomplished without any kind of political revolution. The politicians then in office went along, and no extensive bribery was necessary to get the thing started. Which ruins the theory of the indispensable mugwump.

But Baltimore was left out.

Near the end of 1961 an Evening Sun columnist who writes under the name of Mr. Peep was dismayed to find Baltimore omitted from a chart summarizing the findings of less solemn sociological research conducted by New Yorkers. The object of the study was to determine the cost of a night on the town in thirty-two representative cities. The irreducible expenses listed included a haircut, a shoeshine, a wash and set, a suit pressed, a dress cleaned, a corsage, a baby-sitter, cocktails and dinner, theater tickets, drinks, and transportation. It could be done for $15 in Bombay, cheapest of the cities listed, but it would cost $80.55 in Buenos Aires, “the most expensive big town on earth.” A New Yorker could get out of it for $78.00, a Muscovite for $32.52, and a Virginian in Charlottesville for $32.

The cost in Washington was set at $40.40, but Mr. Peep’s earnest and assiduous inquiries of people who know showed that the same goods and services would run to $57 in Baltimore, 22 cents cheaper than in Atlanta but $1.40 more expensive than in San Francisco. This would seem to indicate that, Mr. Peterson’s assumption to the contrary notwithstanding, there is a difference between Washington and Baltimore — a difference, to be exact, of $16.60, which is considerable.

However, the shrewdest blow at the city’s identity has been that struck by the airlines, some of whose timetables list the flights served by big, fourengined jets — the transcontinental and transoceanic flights—as, at best, from WashingtonBaltimore and, at worst, as from Washington, with an asterisk referring to a footnote, “Friendship airport.” The reason is that if one of those monsters tried to land on that postage stamp at Washington, it would bring up in the Potomac River before the brakes could take hold, but the 11,000foot runways at Friendship International can take anything that flies out of Los Angeles or Croydon.

When Baltimore built its airport at an initial cost of $18 million (paid by the city of Baltimore, without one cent assessed against the taxpayers of Washington), the planners made it three times too big for the planes of twenty years ago and were criticized for saddling the city with a white elephant. But with the coming of the jets, their apparent extravagance turned into the prudent foresight that now enables Washington to boast of nonstop flights to the Pacific coast.

On the property at that time stood a little country church called Friendship. A better name for an international airport serving peaceful commercial interests could not be imagined, so it was retained; but only to add a drop of gall to the dose that Baltimore must swallow. It is bad to have our $18 million investment designated as Washington’s second airport, but it is worse that the name goes with it. “Who steals my purse steals trash

. . But he that filches from me my good name —” Oh, well.

There is some hope for eventual recovery of the name, but at what a price! From zero milepost, behind the White House, to Friendship is thirtytwo miles, almost exactly the distance from Willow Run Airport to Detroit. There is a limited-access, divided expressway (legal speed limit, 60 mph) from the District of Columbia line to Friendship, making it less than a half-hour trip from residential Washington; but the politicians, needled by realestate agents with land to sell, found the distance intolerable. So they have crossed the river down into the formerly Old but presently Byrd Dominion, and are building a new airport at Chantilly, Virginia, at a cost estimated recently at $180 million. Are the taxpayers of Washington assuming this burden? Not they! The federal government holds the bag, which is to say Baltimore, along with other American cities, will pay. However, the valuable time of the politicians will be saved. Chantilly is only twenty-six miles from the White House. By burning the taxpayers for ten times the original cost of Friendship, the politicians will save all of five minutes, maybe six if they start from the White House, and not from the Capitol, which is a mile nearer Friendship.

Yet these evidences that Baltimore has become the metropolis of anonymity make small impression on the real Baltimorean. It is his fixed idea that it all happened long ago, when the merchant princes and their grandes dames took to the hills, for the dam was busted. The merchant princes had made Callao, Peru, known as “the Baltimore port,” and had transferred the name of Canton, China, to Lazaretto Point, but they couldn’t stem the tide of immigration. The calamity of two world wars had dumped into the place three quarters of a million weird characters from God knows-where who took over the town and made a mess of it.

At Sparrows Point they built a steel plant bigger than any in Pittsburgh, and it smokes abominably. Along the opposite side of the harbor they strewed tank farms and chemical plants that, when the wind sits in the wrong quarter, cause Baltimore to outstink Los Angeles in its smog. It is said that they have infiltrated the sacrosanct Maryland Club with members so benighted that they spell Eutaw Place “Utah.”

You can no longer trace even the geographical limits of the city with any precision. At the Patuxent River, eleven miles northeast of the District line, a distinctly urban settlement begins and straggles all the way to Havre de Grace on the Susquehanna, a matter of sixty-five miles. Somewhere in that amorphous assemblage is Baltimore, but where it begins and where it ends, who can say?

IN THE minds of serious thinkers three names stand out as architects of the intangible Baltimore. The three are Gibbons, Gilman, and Hamerik, a priest, a pedagogue, and a precentor.

James Cardinal Gibbons, first American Prince of the Church, is remembered everywhere as possessor of one of the most powerful minds that Catholicism has presented to this country; but in Baltimore he is remembered for his extraordinary ability to dissolve and detoxify the rancorous mutual hatreds of the religious sects. He brought a remarkable softening, not to say a cessation, of religious strife to Baltimore, by sheer intelligence as regards the scholarly, and by his unfailing, genial courtesy as regards the unlettered. He, not Calvert, should have been described by Chesterton as having

Her hundredth name to the Queen of Heaven,
And made oblation of feuds forgiven
To Our Lady of Liberty.

Daniel Coit Gilman, given that heart’s desire of every educator, a free hand with a large endowment, made the Johns Hopkins University the first modern graduate school in America. Years before the legendary Four Doctors arrived to dazzle the world with the success of their medical school, Gilman had already introduced to the town such figures as Sylvester, the mathematician, Rowland, the physicist, and Gildersleeve, the classicist, to make learning immensely, if formidably, respectable in Baltimore. A decade later he recruited the Big Four, Osier, Halsted, Welch, and Kelly, who became hierophants of American medical science.

Asger Hamerik, even in his heyday, was regarded with some suspicion by a population then strongly addicted to Calvinism, but for all that he shaped Baltimore in forms that still persist. He did for the Peabody Conservatory of Music what Gilman did for the university — that is, introduced it to the highest European standards of art. What Hamerik tried to do was never fully understood by a citizenry ill-prepared to appreciate the difference between artistic and strictly intellectual disciplines. But one administrative act of his will never be forgotten. He gave, in his orchestra, employment to (and Gilman later took over) a flute player he found ill and starving in a Brooklyn garret. The man’s name was Sidney Lanier.

Gibbons, Gilman, and Hamerik did more to make the real Baltimore of serious thinkers than thousands of unknowns who passed through the town. But the city has never been inhabited exclusively by serious thinkers. It has, and has always had, a strong contingent of the light-minded who do, indeed, bow respectfully before piety, learning, and art, but who rejoice in lesser but gaudier figures than the cardinal, the teacher, and the musician. To these the fading of Baltimore into a gray monotone is grievous, not because it leaves the world morally worse, but because it leaves it duller.

The light-minded argue that if Baltimore should be remembered for Gibbons, Gilman, and Hamerik, it should also escape oblivion for another trio, the Booths, lords of the stage, Junius the crazy, Edwin the superb, and John Wilkes the damned. They were all inspired, or possessed, but they were all mortal foes of tedium vitae, that spreading curse of an increasingly automatized world.

The disturbance of the peace around Whetstone Point that moved Lawyer Key to voice the celebrated question, “Oh! say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light?”, is certainly worthy of commemoration, but if the talk is of renowned conflict, say the light-minded, let us not forget the contemporaneous war of the Three Graces against lone Aphrodite, which the prosaic describe as the rivalry of the Misses Caton and Miss Patterson. In a day when famous beauties were their own excuse for being and did not have to be ballyhooed by any raucousness at Atlantic City, Baltimore was endowed with four of such surpassing loveliness that primacy among them could be determined only by which accomplished most successfully the predestined end of a famous beauty, a brilliant marriage.

In this the Three Graces, known to literal minds as the daughters of William Caton, merchant, were notably successful. All married upperclass Englishmen, one a rich banker, another a knight, and the third a marquis. The betting was on the Graces, for three of a kind is a hand hard to top. But Aphrodite — literally, the daughter of William Patterson, even more of a merchant — topped it. She married a prince on his way to becoming a king, and that hand wasn’t topped for a hundred years, until another Baltimore girl married a king on his way to becoming a duke. Yet the victory was inconclusive, for the Three Graces remained married and Aphrodite didn’t, owing to the unfortunate temper of her brother-inlaw, Napoleon Bonaparte.

But progress and bulldozers have fallen upon us, and color fades as the gruesome tide of suburbia floods over the hills and into the once enchanting green valleys of Maryland. Oh, I suppose it is a sociological triumph; the miles upon miles of small houses are new, spick-and-span, and highly sanitary, indistinguishable from those in Kankakee, Illinois; Lincoln, Nebraska; and all “bright, bitter cities down the West.” But that is just the point — they are indistinguishable, therefore utterly undistinguished. Once British Chesterton could say,

If I ever go back to Baltimore,
The City of Maryland,
I shall miss again as I missed before
A thousand things of the world in store,
The story standing in every door
That beckons on every hand,

but that was before we became modernized, and a self-respecting contractor took pleasure in building a house. Now, of course, there are no more contractors, only developers. And they no longer build houses, they build homes. And they no longer build one at a time, they scorn to undertake less than eight hundred at a crack. The doors are there, in myriads, but they are empty, no story beckons from them, they have nothing to say.

So the comely Seattle damsel stands unanswered. Baltimore? What city is that near? Washington? But that isn’t a city, that’s a showcase. Baltimore is like Christopher Robin’s stairstep:

It isn’t really
It’s somewhere else