Progress?

April 1, 2009

Recently, on a local radio talk show, a very high city official complained about slow growth in the municipal tax base. He said that if Baltimore is to prosper, we need a massive influx of dynamic, tax paying professionals. rehabI know the kind of “Young Master of the Universe” types he has in mind. In fact, he was talking about some of my best friends. These are special people with special needs, and if that city big shot is serious about attracting them, he must make an effort to understand and meet those needs. I can be of service in that regard.

My friends cannot survive without fancy hair salons and boutiques that sell designer jeans and t-shirts. They absolutely must have neon-lighted dance clubs and restaurants with cute items on the menu like Choo-Choo Burgers, Caboose Omelets, and Latté Grandés—whatever they are. My friends are unable to resist the attraction of little shops that sell expensive gifts that have no practical of aesthetic value, which they buy with “disposable income” and give to friends and relatives who all ready have everything. And, most importantly, my friends require new housing that appears to be old. This usually involves renovating vintage buildings by replacing everything in them, right down to the mortar between the exposed bricks in the walls.

A perfect example of what it takes to attract these folks can be found in South Baltimore around Cross Street Market, now called the fancier-sounding “Federal Hill.” In that area whole blocks of old homes were bought cheaply years ago and, in the process of renovation, prices were raised to levels the former tenants—working-class people, many of whom had lived there for generations—could not afford. So the renovated homes were sold to newcomers with unlimited resources. The rich class tends to swarm, like ants, and once a few were introduced into the area the picnic was over for everyone else. In South Baltimore the “renewal” continues to this day. Young Masters of the Universe clones are everywhere, and the neighborhood has become a sort of Georgetown-by-the-Harborplace. Where once was heard the sounds of the working-class struggling to survive, one now hears the rustle of Wall Street Journal pages being flipped, laptop keyboards being tapped, and café au lait being slurped.

The thing is, creating a trendy urban oasis such as the one I’ve just described is relatively easy. As long as working-class people cannot afford to wear designer clothes, drink expensive coffee, and rebuild their modest row homes from the ground up, the Cross Street Market model will work just about anywhere in town—it’s simply a matter of applying economic pressure to drive out the poorer population. And once every working-class neighborhood in Baltimore has been converted to an urban utopia for people like my friends, that high city official will have his wider tax base. And we’ll have a very different city. Wonderful.

This anger-tinged essay was originally published on the op-ed page of the Baltimore Evening Sun on July 5, 1979, under the editor’s title “Drink to me only with thine Perrier,” and with a different illustration (a really bad cartoon by someone on the Sun staff). Aside from the illustration, the only changes I’ve made are a few words here and there to update the text somewhat. This bit of satire was written at a time when I was pretty unhappy with the changes I saw happening in a part of town in which I had spent the formative years of my youth. As you may be able to tell by the tone of the piece, at the time I wrote it I was a sad, angry, even depressed young man. These days, thank goodness, not so much.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


Pity the Poor Rich

August 21, 2008

The other evening I attended the opening of an art exhibit at a tiny gallery in an old loft building on the east side of town. You know the one, it’s in that gentrified area near what used to be our run-down but still working harbor. As I wandered among the incredibly high-priced images and sculptures, I felt sorry for the people who would one day own them. At first that seemed a bit strange, but I felt my concern was justified because the people who make art are usually from the poorer classes, and of course the only people who can afford to buy it have to be affluent. Since the poorer group has a corner on the creative process and the rich have only money, there is a built-in opportunity for unfair trade practices. The rich folk among us are being systematically exploited by a greedy segment of the poorer population—men and women otherwise known as “artists.”

Allow me to speculate on how this tragically unfair situation came about. One day, a long time ago, a clever poor person noticed that rich people have more money than they know what to do with. This budding Michelangelo or Picasso or Judy Chicago figured out that the rich were so busy making money that they had no time to learn how to do anything else. So the Artist (having awarded him- or herself a capital “A”) began making cute little objects—sketches and paintings and statues—and selling them to the wealthy folks to use as decorations in their offices, homes, yachts, private jets, and beach condos. Because these objects were attractive, and because the wealthy clients had no clue how they were produced, the various items took on a mystical aspect. For the rich, owning art objects quickly became spiritually chic, and before long they were paying outrageous prices for worthless artifacts and feeling enriched by the process. They were very happy—as were the sniggering Artists.

Today rich people continue on the same foolish path, but the process has been scaled-up. And the higher art prices rise and the sillier the subject matter, the more secure the wealthy folks become in their belief that the things they horde have real value. They rationalize their religious-like belief this way: The importance of an art object, they argue, is inherently aesthetic and therefore unmeasurable in objective terms. (This, by the way, is a theory originally spread by the capital “A” Artists’ themselves, and by their agents.) The rich victims are convinced that they are really buying “beauty,” as if that were possible, and they are willing to pay thousands of dollars for, say, a small painting of a tree. The Artist, of course, would rather look at the real tree for free, and on the side grind out a gross of pictures to foist on the gullible rich. Of course smart poor people know that any object that cannot be eaten or worn is of no real worldly value. This fact is lost on the rich because, never having been hungry, they have no rational point of reference. Dealing with graduates of the art school of “hard-knocks,” they are at a huge disadvantage. That’s why I pity them. When it comes to so-called art, the rich are little children attracted to bright objects, and they need to be protected from their own ignorance.

Since I believe that most “Art” is an illusion created by self-anointed Artists for one purpose only, to separate the rich from their disposable income (here defined as any money over the amount needed to live comfortably, which is most of what the rich possess), a way must be found to protect the wealthy class from art class grifters. For starters, I propose a law banning the sale of art objects to persons with annual incomes over $300,000. I know that poor people will claim that any money taken from the rich, by whatever method, is simply wealth redistribution, but I disagree. The poor may think of it as just normal “capitalistic art commerce,” but I say it’s the blatant exploitation of one economic class by another, and in a just society this situation cannot be allowed to continue. After all, what if the tables were turned?

This post is a slight revision of my essay titled “People Who Buy Art Shouldn’t Read This,” originally published in the May 25, 1979 Baltimore Evening Sun. The angry reaction to it by several of my “Artist” friends, who seemed to have taken it personally, and not in a spirit of fun as intended, totally surprised me. Oh well, I guess that’s what I get for playing with fire . . . uh, I mean playing with satire. (The gag cartoon above wasn’t used to illustrate the first version of the essay—it didn’t exist then—but it strikes me as apt. Click on the image for a larger view.) Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.