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Ratting Out Washington's Tiresome Anti-Baltimore Contempt

Courtesy of Alan Stanton/Flickr

As someone who just moved back to Baltimore, where I lived for five years before spending the following six bouncing around greater Washington, I was glad to hear that the Washington Post, my former employer, had a big piece in its magazine about my new-old town. After all, the Post’s publisher had not long ago famously decreed that the magazine stop publishing “depressing” stories, so this piece would surely promise to be an upbeat dispatch—unlike, say, the Post’s incessant, borderline gleeful commentary on Baltimore’s jail scandal, or its epically patronizing Travel section feature on the city.

So, what aspect of Baltimore would the Post magazine choose to grace with 2,885 words by Karen Houppert, a "writer living in Baltimore"? Here goes:

Seven years ago, my husband landed a job teaching theater at a university on the outskirts of Baltimore. Though I didn't want to leave my beloved Brooklyn, I put on my rose-colored glasses — I'm an optimist; I really am — and we moved south.

The glasses fogged over.

I suppose it is partly because I remain a relative newcomer — in New York City, everyone is from elsewhere, while in Baltimore everyone was born and raised here or was dragged here kicking and screaming by spouses with dreams of tenure twinkling in their eyes — but there’s one aspect of Charm City I still can’t get used to:

The rat corpses strewn about. And the relative apathy surrounding them.

Yes, apparently mandating that a magazine run cheerful stories does not preclude taking another swift, gratuitous kick at the ugly-duckling just up the road. After all, what’s more cheerful than schadenfreude? So, onward then with yet another round of pity-the-postindustrial-blight. The Post travel piece just a few months ago lamented that the “long, slow exodus from Baltimore continues” while granting, with all the hopefulness of one talking up a deluxe assisted-living facility to one’s declining parent, “but some folks who study cities say that a place like Baltimore can improve its reality and its reputation in part by getting smaller.” Similarly, the magazine's rat essay describes a city where white flight has left “a population of 621,342 rattling around in a town built for a million.” Both writers must have missed the news that Baltimore’s population is actually increasing.

Of course Baltimore still has problems—enormous ones. While the homicide rate has fallen over the past decade, eight people were fatally shot in the past weekend alone. But surely the journalistic heavyweights of the media capitals of America that bookend Baltimore on the Acela line could find more to write about in the place—good or ill—than the revelation that the city has more than its share of rats. Yes, it does! I’ll never forget the time, in my previous Baltimore home in Hampden, when our feisty cat proudly brought a bloodied one into the house from the backyard.

But the next time I saw rats in any quantities? This past year, heading home in the evenings across Franklin Park in the heart of the Washington business district along K Street, where the rats feast on the remains of the lunchtime food-truck brigades. (I may be mistaken, but I also seem to recall Houppert's previous home, New York, having a few rodents here and there.) And here’s the thing: the Post has, to its credit, given ample attention to Washington’s own rat problem over the years. But when it writes about it, it tends to cast it as a symptom of success: rats, the stories go, proliferate in areas with booming restaurant scenes, like Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle, and in places undergoing new construction, where rats are shaken loose by demolition of old infested buildings. Funny, that’s not how the Post frames the rat problem in Baltimore.

But enough: simply by noting the ongoing Washington condescension toward Baltimore, I am violating the spirit of the definitive, ageless screed by Tom Scocca in the Washington City Paper back in 1999:

OK, let's get this straight: So you have this John Hughes-movie fantasy going, in which you (the District of Columbia) are, let's say for the sake of argument, the sensitive kid, upper-middle-class, high achiever. Part of you pines for the homecoming queen (New York City), but, given that it's a John Hughes movie, there's this other girl (Baltimore), a loner, working-class (not too hard on the eyes in an earthy, winsome way), you met maybe while slumming in metal shop, or in driver's ed. And now you've started to chafe against your high-achieving life, and you find yourself realizing that the homecoming queen is not really the girl of your dreams, but just a symbol of the very bourgeois, Type-A expectations that are suffocating you, and your heart truly belongs to the salt-of-the-earth girl (who is, now that you notice it, a genuine looker), until in the final reel—hey! presto!—you'll fall into each other's arms, true friends and soul mates, and you'll be redeemed by her pure, honest love. Right?

Well, Mr. Class President, I've got some bad news for you: That girl doesn't even know who the fuck you are. While you were putting up streamers for the Homecoming Committee, she was getting herself a scholarship to art school and a 20-year-old boyfriend and basically all the other ingredients of a life, a life like the life you don't have, and which has no room whatsoever for your sorry, tightly wound, 1,500-on-the-SAT self. This is what Baltimore-D.C. relations look like from our end. We don't care about you. Ever. No, that's not even it. We don't think about you. You're the median strip on the highway, the lettuce in the taco, the little ink doodles in the New Yorker: filler. Something has to be between us and Virginia—and, oh, hey, it happens to be you.

I'm not trash-talking here. That's the second mistake D.C. makes, thinking that there's a rivalry here, that it's somehow vying with Baltimore for regional primacy. Baltimore is, no question, a very status-conscious and touchy city. We resent New York; we scowl at Boston; we look nervously at Cleveland and smooth down our shirt front, swearing that we know we're not like that, at least. Yet D.C., despite its closeness, doesn't trouble our civic mind. Which is not to say that D.C. can't be irksome in the same way as that little prick who's always raising his hand in class, not to ask a question, of course, but to show exactly how much he knows. You're annoying, nothing more.

Words to live by, as one sits on the wraparound porch of a big old house in North Baltimore that costs less than a one-bedroom apartment in NoMa, with a Duckpin Ale in hand, and no rats in sight.

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him on Twitter @AlecMacGillis