August 2, 2011

Grand Prix

Despite Grand Prix glorification,
Baltimoreans are NOT adrenaline junkies
This is what the Inner Harbor will look like in a few weeks, as all the frantic preparation of the past year finally comes to culmination - Planners talk about "livability" and "sustainability", then give us 180 mph race cars. And that's just the latest in what they want.

This city's sad plight seems to boil down to one thing. Our civic leaders seem to think we're all a bunch of adrenaline junkies. Most of the crazy schemes they've concocted to "save the city" are based on their assumption that the citizenry needs ever increasing jolts of stimulation to keep us going.

Like most misconceptions, this one is rooted in points which really are true. Yes, Baltimore is the source of most of the themes, focus and energy that drive the surrounding region. But when visitors and suburbanites swoop into the city for some action, it's increasingly manufactured action, not something inherent. And most city residents have grown weary of it. So much so that hundreds of thousands have fled the urban zoo in their quest for some normalcy.

Michael Dresser's column in yesterday's Sun is the most recent summation: "When there's a need for a shot of adrenaline, Baltimore is the place to find it." So the city gets subjected to "special events" like the upcoming Baltimore Grand Prix, which is merely the latest in a long series of grand cataclysms, some of which are very  nice and temporary, like Artscape and other city fairs, some of which were promised to be temporary and turned permanent, like mass total destruction for the "Highway to Nowhere", and a whole range in between like the Charles Center and Old Town projects.

Dresser says the alternative is "doing nothing", by which he means "fading into the third tier of American cities."  He then admonishes, "If you're really a city person - whether full-time or on weekends - the traffic problems caused by special events are more a challenge to be surmounted than an ordeal to be endured."

Wrong. City residents do not crave challenges.  Real Baltimoreans love the calm moments we get when the invading crazies are no longer around, when all the visitors and suburbanites have gone home.

Yes, real Baltimoreans are also amused when we are able to witness and attend all these big events without getting into the fray induced by the visitors and suburbanites. Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon and Midtown residents get real pleasure when they are able to attend Artscape just by walking down the street instead of getting into the gigantic traffic-frayed hassles among suburbanites and other visitors.

The perception of city residents amid Baltimore visitors and suburbanites is similar to the perception of wild animals among national park visitors. Artscape and the Grand Prix are not our natural habitat any more than  Yellowstone campgrounds are the natural habitat of wild bears. So it's no wonder when these things drive us neurotic, just as bears like Yogi are taunted with pic-a-nic baskets.

City residents are no different from suburbanites, in that we want our lives to be a mixture or excitement and calm, even boredom. We also want it all on our own terms, not like the Grand Prix invasion foisted on our native habitat, or the city officials who announce that a neighborhood needs to be destroyed to be saved.

Boredom and conformity are actually a Baltimore tradition. We're a city of rowhouses. Suburban houses are often accused of looking alike, but not nearly as much as Baltimore rowhouses. It's soothing. Similarly, mass transit was once a calm, drama-free way to get around, but nowadays it often doesn't go where we need to go, if it works at all. Dresser speaks of mass transit as part of city residents' challenges and opportunities. It's not supposed to be that way. Mass transit is just supposed to be a support system for a calm urban life.

Overstimulation beyond the Grand Prix

Most of the "big ideas" that have been pushed upon Baltimore by our civic leaders have not delivered the level of success promised in their hype. Billions of dollars later, we still don't have a decent transit system, Howard Street is still in shambles, the "Highway to Nowhere" is a wasteland, and the city as a whole is still an economic basket case with thousands of abandoned houses.

But the Inner Harbor is a success, right? All those gleaming buildings surrounding it are surely a result of brilliant planning, right?

Well... the focal point of the Inner Harbor is the water itself. The water hasn't changed much. It may be a bit cleaner, yes, but not enough to really change anything.

The real reason for the Inner Harbor's success amid of all of Baltimore's failure is that the water itself is a large reservoir of calm that resists change. The gleaming new buildings around the waterfront and its promenade cling to the water like a baby clings to mama. Baltimore's harbor is that unique place that has the ability to absorb massive change while staying rooted in the stability that the water provides.

So our civic leaders keep pushing more and more massive change upon this watery vessel of stability. Despite the fact that the Inner Harbor has already been given far more attention, far more renewal and far more investment than any other part of Baltimore, our leaders keep doubling down for more.

The Grand Prix is but the latest tip of the iceberg. Despite the fact that the entire city needs better mass transit, they want to build the multi-billion dollar Red Line right along the waterfront. (Yes, they also want to put it in the median strip of the "Highway to Nowhere", not to renew it, but only to contain it. If they really wanted to renew the corridor, they'd get rid of the highway.)

Incredulously, the Greater Baltimore Committee now concludes that the Inner Harbor, one of the few places in Baltimore where renewal has actually been reputed to be a real sustainable success, is in need of a whole new round of renewal to the tune of another billion dollars plus. So among other things, they want to knock down a large part of the Convention Center and the adjacent Sheraton Hotel for a billion dollar expansion with an arena.

And they're putting it in terms of jacking up our urban adrenaline.

So the cataclysms created in the name of the Baltimore Grand Prix are a mere prologue for what our civic leaders now have in store for us. And they've co-opted that ode to adrenaline gone wild, Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run", as the soundtrack for their sales pitch. The Greater Baltimore Committee has presented the following seven minute video vision of a brave new Inner Harbor to the strains of The Boss:

"Baby this town rips the bones from your back,
It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap,
We gotta get out while we're young,
'Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run..."
As incongruous as is Springsteen's message of impending death and escape, fueled by a "runaway American dream", it is actually shared by the hundreds of thousands of residents who have indeed escaped Baltimore. And it is actually consistent with the city's unstated but all-too-prevalent promotion of high-stakes urban redevelopment as an adrenaline high.

Michael Dresser's rhetoric that the only alternative is a post-industrial wasteland like Youngstown, Ohio is only slightly more overstated than the sales tactics of our civic leaders.

Let's get real economic development

Baltimore is a great city. It is the largest city in the richest state in the world's richest nation, with inherent geographic assets like proximity to the wonderful harbor directly between our nation's capital to the south and the world's economic capital, New York City, just to the north.

Baltimoreans are sick and tired of the emotional hard-sell tactics of our so-called leaders, trying to foist their mega-projects on us like spoiled children looking for their next toy. Recall that taxpayers only recently relented and let them build the Hilton convention hotel with our precious money, while they didn't say a word about their next billion dollar "I wanna-wanna".

All we want is real economic development - a city that works, as a whole, so we can calm down and get some peace for a change.


  1. Um, Gerald, Downtown Partnership has not put out anything to the strains of Bruce Springsteen.

  2. My apologies! The Inner Harbor Springsteen video is exclusive to the Greater Baltimore Committee. I'll change it immediately. Thank you for correcting me.

  3. If you're gonna make points with music, I like this from "Is it love?" by Gang of Four:

    the men who own the city
    make more sense than we do
    their actions are clear
    their lives are unknown...

  4. Keep in mind, this event is going to make your city boat loads of money. More than the Orioles would ever bring in on a weekend.

  5. If we're gonna invoke the Boss, let's do this:

    Got a wife and kids in Baltimore Jack
    I went out for a ride and I never went back
    Like a river that don't know where it's flowing
    I took a wrong turn and I just kept going

    Everybodys got a hungry heart
    Everybodys got a hungry heart
    Lay down your money and you play your part
    Everybodys got a hungry heart

    So these hungry-heart powers lay down their money looking for some Charm City ROI...but with what I take to be unsophisticated market studies or impact studies, making their grand plans, with varying results? As it stands today, I hear a lot of good feedback (and surprise) from those out here in the heartland who spend any time in waterfront Baltimore.

    I agree that incremental, "permanent" improvements will trump annual weather-dependent "events" that disturb the landscape and planscape and transcape and all the other scapes, leading the locals to just want to e-scape! I guess try to enjoy it for what it is, and hope it turns a penny or two in profit.

  6. Thank you Richard and Ben for your great musical suggestions. I'm sure someone associated with the Greater Baltimore Committee is reading this stuff, so we shall see if they change their tune. My guess is they'll spin the words, but keep the "same old song" (as the Four Tops would sing).

    Or maybe they'll make it wordless. The beginning of their video seems to be guitar noodling courtesy of The Edge and then Joe Satriani, if I'm not mistaken. Much less eloquent than The Boss, but suiting their purposes.

  7. Pffft. The Grand Prix folks told DC the same thing, that they'd make lots of money on the event. DC spent a ton of money, they lost their shirt on the event.

    Baltimore City needs to invest in it's neighborhoods and small business entrepreneurs, not one-off events and bringing big box stores to the Inner Harbor. Baltimore's charm and character lies in it's fun little indie shops and restaurants, it's museums and it's arts scene. Invest in great landscaping and public spaces, law enforcement, parking, architecture, and the arts, not in stuff like theme park attractions, casinos, and the like.

  8. O! Say Can You See?December 17, 2011 at 3:42 PM

    Prior to the BGP race in Sept., Anonymous (above) said...'Grand Prix folks told DC the same thing, that they'd make lots of money on the event.' Yes, history repeats itself! Except, B'more will lose a lot more than the $10 million DC lost after their first and only GP race in 2002. Fact. Baltimore's Inner Harbor venue is too complex/expensive to run an IndyCar street race...compared to Long Beach or St. Pete. It's costly and disrupts the ingress/egress commuting and ICC traffic for months prior to the race and for weeks after. It's too expensive to put up/take down the race course infrastructure -- concrete barriers/tires, catch fences, grand stands, closing MTA Light Rail lines, and blocking off commerical and residential streets and surrounding communities...the Otterbein and Federal Hill. Yes, there's a terrific multi-million dollar economic spending factor, but at what cost to the City and its residents? Perhaps a uncomputed cost that exceeds the short-comings which the City provides already in daily services. Ohhh. This is something new... where is the multi-million dollars coming from to resuface and repave the 2.1 miles of f'race course' streets that are going to get damaged after a few heavy snow/ice storms this winter? Hmmm. No one mentioned that this major expense was needed again. Racing on smooth streets needs to be as safe as possible. Long Beach and St. Pete don't have harsh winter weather or the infamous Baltimore DPW manhandling their yellow snow plows driving down Pratt Street for a metal to bare street clearing. Ohhh boy! No Federal Stimulus funds available for 2012 are there? Street racing for the past decade has witnessed five other cities (Denver, Detroit, Houston, Miami (twice) and San Jose) terminating their street races for financial reasons. Fact is, there isn't a decent ROI (Return On Investment) after all the overall operating expenses. B'more needs to stick to what it does best -- Tourism...not sports entertainment promotions. As most knowlegeable motorsports fans can see...there's a 'waving yellow' flag on the race course right now...all the wheels have come off the BGP race car. We'll have to wait and see whether the BGP 2 will get the green flag or the red one...

  9. O! Say Can You See?December 17, 2011 at 3:51 PM

    And one more thing....How about renewing real sustainability in Baltimore City... by planting new trees in place of where the BRD cut them down. Shame on the City for being so arrogant and wrong in that whole tree-cutting circumstance.

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