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.


Return of the Moose

May 28, 2008

Bob Weber, creator of the classic comic strip “Moose Miller” (titled “Moose & Molly” since 1998), visited Baltimore recently and invited me to dine with him at the Bob Evans establishment out on Ritchie Highway, eight miles south of South Baltimore, the neighborhood where Bob was born and raised. It’s also where I spent the happiest five or six years of my youth. In fact, I moved back to South Baltimore in 2003, which is proof, I guess, that you can go home again. Bob, on the other hand, lives and works in Westport, Connecticut and calls his adopted home “Westpork.” Until he called I hadn’t talked to him for at least ten years, hadn’t seen him for over twenty, but I wasn’t at all surprised to hear from him. You see, Bob sort of owes me—or at least I think he thinks he does.

Our connection goes back to at least June 27, 1986, when I wrote the following note to the Features Editor of the Baltimore Sunday Sun: “I’m a big fan of comic strips—have been all my life—and I especially love some that appear daily in the Evening Sun: “Peanuts,” “Andy Capp,” “B.C.,” and, more recently, “Zippy,” “Calvin & Hobbes,” and “Moose Miller.” However, it’s very disappointing to follow these features each day of the week and then not be able to enjoy them in color on Sunday. I refer to “Calvin & Hobbes” and “Moose,” my two very special favorites, which have so far been missing from the Sunday pages. Can this situation be corrected?”

That was the first of several letters I wrote, over the span of a few years, to insure that “Moose Miller” got some respect in the Sunday comics section, and to help see to it that the feature was reinstated once it had been dropped from the funny pages altogether—which, if memory serves, happened three times, with the third strike turning out to be terminal. Sadly, “Moose” has not run in Bob Weber’s hometown paper since, I believe, 1995.

(Click images to enlarge.)

During the period I was able to help keep “Moose Miller” in Baltimore my arguments for the strip emphasized the local angle, the fact that the characters referred often to Baltimore landmarks such as “Sparrows Point Shipyards” “Curtis Bay” and “Pratt Street,” and used the names of local people in the balloons, mine included. Here’s a memory jogger for Balti-morons, as we like to call ourselves. In the strip below “Bill Buxton” refers to the Baltimore Sun fishing writer Bill Burton; “Vince Baggy” was the beloved local sports columnist Vince Bagli; and announcer Stu Kerr plays himself, a real announcer for a real local TV station; and me, Jim Sizemore. Along with Vince Baggy I’m the “written by” guy. For some reason Bob didn’t, or couldn’t, come up with nicknames for Stu Kerr and me. (There are also three names in the strips I was unable to I.D. See the end of this post for more about that.)

But I believe the strongest points I made in favor of the strip were aesthetic and social. The gag writing is excellent, words and images working together to create the humor, a characteristic always present in the best visual/written humor. The visual appeal of “Moose” is the result of strong composition and the use of simple shapes to define human and animal characters, places, and things, as in the “Nancy,” “Henry,” and “Snuffy Smith” mold, all of which, like “Moose Miller,” read well visually when reproduced at very small sizes. That’s important these days with the shrinking space given to comics features. The strip above is an excellent example of Bob’s astute way with dramatic visual composition—it couldn’t be simpler, or bolder, or better. In my opinion “Moose Miller” was (and is, since it’s still running) a unique work at once fluid, funny and very lively—and it’s an example of very good graphic design. And finally, the strip has social value. It is one of the very few remaining syndicated comic strips that depict the day-to-day humorous conflicts of working class family life. These are simple comic characters but they have real lives and real jobs. Well, except for Moose—but at least he makes an effort to find work, he just can’t seem to hold on to it.

The way I see it, Bob repaid my small efforts on behalf of “Moose Miller” many times over with his friendship—intermittent but always fun—plus the pleasure the feature gave me when it ran locally and I could read it every day, including Sunday. (Not to mention the sliver of immortality having my name appear in it from time to time.) Bob, being a humble South Baltimore guy, doesn’t realize I’d happily settle for that. Well, a bit more than that. I would like Bob to show up in Baltimore more often so we can stroll around the old neighborhood and gab about the misty days of yesteryear. But it’s O.K. with me if he never again feels he has to spend big bucks on me at fancy restaurants. After all, guys like us have simple tastes.

Help the Blogger Plea

If you know the identities of these folks—”Johnny Walker,” “Andy Thomas,” and “Don Puff”—all mentioned in the comic strips above, please use the comment space below to clue me in. I’ll be forever grateful.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.