I’m not sure you could grow up in Baltimore in my generation and not be acutely aware long before others were elsewhere else of how rotted the state of America already was. As fearsome as Baltimore’s reputation is now, you should have seen it in the early 90s. Until the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992, still the best baseball stadium in America, the Harborplace development at the center of the Inner Harbor was the only reason anybody went downtown if they didn’t have to work there, and had Camden Yards not been built, there would have been nothing but ruins, urine, strip clubs, and beggars. On our way to Camden Yards, my father and my ten year old self would pass the wreckage of The Hippodrome, what was once the most gorgeous theater in Baltimore. The windows boarded up with wood painted black, the paint from the facade chipped, the theater barred from entrance with a giant series of chains around all the doors connected to each other with giant padlocks, broken bottles and the occasional needle on the sidewalk, begging vagrants to encounter every ten feet as my father and I sped our way towards a car sufficiently far away from the stadium that he wouldn’t have to pay $20 for parking.
Tens of thousands of other kids must have trodden as many times as I did through the ruins of a great American city to get to baseball’s newest and most beautiful cathedral. The disparity etched on our brains could have been painted by Hieronymous Bosch; only rather than the unrepentant paying for their sins by being sent to hell, it was as though suburban dwellers made it to the paradise they’d long prayed for by sending hundreds of thousands of other human beings to damnation.
The Hippodrome Theatre opened in 1914 as a 3,000 seat Vaudeville House with a state of the art Moller organ, operating with an entire orchestra on staff until the 1950’s. After World War I, 30,000 people would pass through the Hippodrome every week to see Jack Benny, Bob Hope, the Three Stooges, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, and Benny Goodman, among so many others. One of the most important moments in all of American cultural history happened at the Hippodrome when a once famous bandleader named Harry James hired an unknown singer to front his big band for the promise of $75 a week which James knew he couldn’t pay. Starting on June 30th, 1939, Frank Sinatra fronted his first A-list big band for a week’s engagement at the Hippodrome.
On the one hand, America was at the height of prosperity, and in early 90s Pikesville, the success was tantalizingly palatable. Every McMansion newly hewn from the sturdiest formica and mid-century modern furniture, every family with at least two cars – many of them Acuras and Infinitis, every Jewish doctor and lawyer and accountant making more money than even their parents could ever dream for them, every week construction starting in Owings Mills on a new mini-mall or chain restaurant that seemed to take only a week to go up. And yet, only five miles to the south, the old neighborhood; Lower Park Heights, the lower middle class node around which mid-century Jewish Baltimore spun, no longer middle class at all. Boarded up houses, broken families, heroin and crack and STD, shootings every day. My dad had his business down there, a nursing home near Park Heights Avenue and Belvedere Ave. He’d ride his bike down there every Sunday morning, assuring my mother that the addicts were all asleep after their Saturday night fix.
The problem was not that America was in bad shape; it was, in many ways, in the best shape it ever was and may ever be. The problem was exactly that America was in such good shape — the World’s Indispensable Nation. We had just won the Cold War, we had everything we needed to show the world that history had reached its logical end and liberal democracy was what humanity required to suffer no longer. And yet after achieving everything that could possibly validate the United States in the eyes of world history, triumph had made it decadent and fat, consuming to the point of arterial self-sabotage with money no longer possessed by ever more of its citizens. Victory had accustomed us to wealth, wealth increasingly accumulated and concentrated in fewer hands, and there, five miles from us, lay the new Baltimore. Who but the most dogmatic extremist would have thought in 1992 that Baltimore Country would increasingly seem a mirage from the America past, while Baltimore City, never throughout history incorporated into its eponymous county, would seem a projection increasingly of the American future?
But the truth is that Baltimore County was never particularly wealthy either. Relative to the city it has wealth, but it’s still adjacent to Baltimore. Almost all of DC’s suburban counties are wealthier than Baltimore County. Maryland has 24 counties and Baltimore ranks 12th in per capita income. In Lower Park Heights and all around West Baltimore, heroin and crack; in East Baltimore County, opiates and meth. In West Baltimore, the politics of intersectionality, Bernie Sanders, Democracy Now, Glenn Greenwald, Jacobin and Jezebel; in East Baltimore County, the Tea Party, Donald Trump, Fox News, Alex Jones, townhall.com and Drudge Report. Whatever double standard you might see in the equivalence I list here, the fact remains that both sides of American discourse feel equally furious and humiliated, experiencing a bleak present, looking forward and down, seeing no bottom to touch yet, with 300 million privately held guns circulating around this country with no true limits on what can be done with them. If the Right ever started using them to fire on liberal areas in still unheard of numbers, soft socialists and idealistic intersectionalists would turn themselves into hardened radical fighters in a matter of minutes. And this Cold Civil War between Red and Blue America could turn into the apocalyptically hot war we never had with Russia. And they would look over at the still amazing prosperity five miles from either of them, and it would turn them green with envy, their humiliation would finally have a name and a face.
So how does all this relate to some neo-Nazi nut yelling “Heil Hitler, Heil Trump” at a production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Hippodrome in Baltimore last night?
Wait and see.