Good Morning, Baltimore!
“Good morning, Baltimore!” sings teenager Tracy Turnblad in the upbeat opening anthem of the musical Hairspray, based on director John Waters’s 1988 movie love letter to his hometown. But the relentlessly positive Hairspray glosses over some unhappy realities, substituting a brightly colored cartoon for a complicated city with a moody past and a troubled present. For a more nuanced view, you may want to watch The Wire.
Filmmaker John Waters has a pronounced Baltimore accent. So did most of the Baltimore-bred actors who appear in such early Waters films as Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), films so outrageously tasteless that Waters was dubbed the Prince of Puke. For a heaping helping of the dialect, watch any scene featuring Edith Massey—an overweight, dentally challenged, middle-aged barmaid whom Waters improbably fashioned into an underground movie star. But as Waters turned toward the PG mainstream in the 1980s, the voices of his actors, many of whom now hailed from elsewhere, were deracinated. The Baltimore setting remained, but the accent mostly vanished—though Debbie Harry, playing stage mother Velma Von Tussle in 1988’s original Hairspray, gave it a game try. As, surprisingly, did John Travolta in the 2007 musical version based on the 2002 Broadway hit. Reprising the role created by Waters’s drag queen diva, Divine, Travolta plays Edna Turnblad, a homebody laundress content to take in neighbors’ “worshin en arnin” (Baltimorese for “washing and ironing”) until her upstart teenage daughter, Tracy (Nikki Blonsky), inspires her to dream of greater things. Trouble is, only Travolta speaks Baltimorese, which, oddly enough, makes Edna sound out of place.
Baltimore is a city of row houses: the colonial-era dwellings of harborside Fell’s Point; the elegant, capacious 19th-century town houses of central districts like Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill; and, across vast tracts of Baltimore’s east and west sides, the thousands of often minuscule row homes built for the city’s working class in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Baltimore is now losing many houses in that last category, as whole neighborhoods of derelict buildings fall to the wrecking ball.) Some famous Baltimoreans have lived all or part of their lives in row houses—journalist H.L. Mencken, Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and Senator Barbara Mikulski among them. A typical working-class Baltimore row house is home base for Tracy Turnblad, the big-haired, “big-boned” heroine of Hairspray. And though Tracy’s nemesis, Amber Von Tussle, may put on airs, she too resides in a modest row house, at least in the 1988 film, which John Waters shot on location in the city. Aside from its opening aerial view of Baltimore’s endless row house blocks, the 2007 musical remake (in which we never see the outside of Amber’s home) was shot in Toronto, making its exterior and interior scenes inauthentically roomy.
Several eastern cities—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond—can lay legitimate claim to Edgar Allan Poe. He spent part of his brief, miserable existence in each, but Baltimore’s connections with the gloomy writer may be the strongest. Baltimore is where, in 1835, Poe secretly married his 13-year-old first cousin, Virginia Clemm, and where he died, 14 years later, under appropriately mysterious circumstances. One oft-told account posits that Poe died in alcoholic delirium, the victim of “cooping,” i.e., being liquored up by political bosses and forced to cast repeated votes on Election Day. Poe did have occasional drinking problems, but historians dispute this version of events. Poe’s grave, in the Westminster Burying Ground on Baltimore’s west side, is a short distance from the tiny house where Poe stayed several times with the Clemm family—and where he wrote his chilling tale “Berenice,” about a man’s morbid erotic obsession with his young female cousin! Now a museum, the Poe House is incongruously stuck onto an ugly row of 1940s urban renewal houses, but it was originally a duplex, what Baltimoreans refer to as a “semidetached”—a relative rarity on Baltimore’s mostly row house–lined streets.
Some of Baltimore’s row house neighborhoods (e.g., Federal Hill, in south Baltimore; Canton, in the southeast; Hampden, in the northwest) are flourishing, with scads of renovated homes, new restaurants and boutiques, and inexorably rising real estate values. Great stretches of the city, however, haven’t fared so well. The decline began in the 1940s, with the first wave of urban “renewal” projects that, though intended to rescue the poor from blighted row houses, imprisoned many in apartment towers where crime flourished and conditions sharply deteriorated. In the 1950s and ’60s, racist blockbusting by unscrupulous realtors hastened the flight of white Baltimoreans to the suburbs. Decades later much of the inner-city landscape, populated by the desperately poor—African Americans, mostly—and those who prey on them, is a mix of vacant lots, grim public housing and broken-down (often abandoned) row houses. This is the squalid mise-en-scène of David Simon’s The Wire, a tough HBO police procedural that, for all its merits, didn’t burnish the reputation of Charm City (Baltimore’s semiofficial nickname). Even the pilot’s opening scene depicts the aftermath of a murder on a street of derelict row houses—a backdrop with which viewers, particularly in the fourth season, became fearfully familiar.
Edgar Allan Poe is best known for his Gothic horror tales and melancholy poetry (his mournful masterpiece “The Raven” somewhat inexplicably inspired the name of the Baltimore Ravens, the city’s NFL team). But Poe is also credited with inventing detective fiction, in such short stories as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and “The Purloined Letter” (1844). Poe’s gentlemanly crime solver, C. Auguste Dupin, was a model for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Granted, there’s little resemblance between Dupin’s subtle investigative “ratiocination” (Poe’s word) and the gritty police work and wiretap spying done by The Wire’s detectives, but Poe does have a presence—ghostly and ironic—in the show. The Barksdale drug gang that anchors The Wire’s first several seasons operates in and around the Poe Homes, a dilapidated housing project in the same west side Baltimore neighborhood as the house where Poe once lived. That proximity inspired a scriptwriter’s pun (in season 3, episode 2), in which a member of the all-black gang recounts his run-in with a white tourist: “He’s like, ‘Young man, you know where the Poe House is?’ I’m like, ‘Unc, you kidding? Look around, take your pick.’”
Hairspray is a feel-good romp and, finally, a celebration of interracial harmony, and its story takes huge liberties with the Baltimore history that John Waters, in his original film, nostalgically evokes. The Corny Collins Show, the teen dance program on which Hairspray’s story centers, is based on the real-life Buddy Deane Show, which aired on a local TV station six afternoons a week from 1957 to 1964—at the height of the civil rights era. At Hairspray’s finale, the once rigidly segregated Corny Collins Show (blacks are allowed to dance only on the monthly “Negro Day”) is rather painlessly—and jubilantly—integrated. In reality, Buddy Deane was never integrated. The station canceled the show rather than permit racial mingling.
The long-term legacies of segregation and the civil rights movement are documented on TV’s The Wire. With a gripping, disheartening realism, the show portrays inner-city Baltimore’s black underclass as trapped in an impoverished, lethal environment where victim and victimizer seem to be the only possible life options. But The Wire’s diverse range of African American characters—on both sides of the law—simultaneously displays the civil rights movement’s achievements, with blacks occupying every stratum of latter-day Baltimore society.