Backstory: Baltimore - 'Home of 1,000 slogans'

Crafting an identity is a million-dollar affair - but would a city by any other name, slogan, or motto, sell as well?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Gilbert Sandler, a popular historian of Baltimore, has seen it before. We all have. "We seem to go through this search for a slogan every few years," he says of this city's latest effort to find or invent an identifying word, phrase or logo.

"Same with a Baltimore song. Maybe we're destined to be slogan-less, and without a song."

Many image makers have passed through here. Faith Popcorn, the famous futurist, arrived in 2001. She branded and repositioned us, left a slogan or two involving the letter "B" - Baltimore is Better - then departed with $275,000.

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Following the year of Popcorn, the city launched the Baltimore Believe campaign. Cost? Over $2 million. It was meant to make us - we who live here, happily or otherwise - feel better about ourselves. The word BELIEVE was affixed to cars, trucks, billboards, anywhere it fit. Vandals altered it to BEHAVE.

We've had a semi-official song, and slogans and odd monikers: Crabtown and Charm City in recent years, Queen City of the Patapsco and Nickel Town from times past.

The song went something like this: "Balti-More than you knowwww...." The rest has fled my memory. Official city songs and slogans are about as indelible as the names of poet laureates.

One local wrote to The Baltimore Sun insisting we already have a song: "O, say can you seeee..." The proprietary impulse toward the national anthem, because it was written here, is not unusual.

The people of Charm City - one city moniker first put on paper, says Mr. Sandler, by a Baltimore ad writer in 1975 - are mildly animated by the new campaign, not so much by its potential, but by the $500,000 the city will pay to have our many cultural delights and urban amenities marketed to the world.

Chief enthusiast is Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum, and local head of the project known as Baltimore's "Destination Repositioning."

By this spring, he says, Landor Associates, the brand strategists and design consultants who got the contract, will unveil their "basic distillation of our advantages."

Why? So we can lure more people here to enjoy them, and pay us for the pleasure of doing so.

Sound crassly commercial? Maybe, but the competition for the last tourist standing is intense. We must accentuate our differences from Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston, says Clarence Bishop, chief of staff to Martin O'Malley, mayor of the city of Baltimore and world famous rock star. (Well, world famous in Baltimore.)

The Landor people, no doubt, were selected because of their many achievements. They have designed brands for places as diverse as Hong Kong ("Asia's World City"), the State of Florida (The letters FLA over USA.), and, in the Persian Gulf, "Brand Oman." This suggests how chic branding has become. From New Zealand to New Jersey, the urge to brand one's self, country, or corporation is manifest. Poland got a new national logo to draw attention to itself: a kite. Philadelphia, "The City of Brotherly Love," is now "The City That Loves You Back."

"I believe in branding in a big way," said Susan Palombo, of Landor. Their product, or "distillation," she said, "will have a visual expression, color, a logo, banners."

A song? "Music's not part of it ." Drat! "But it will have a tag line."Tag line? "A layman's term for slogan."

In November, Ms. Palombo told the City Council that the perception of Baltimore is "very bad," especially among people who've never been here. This was no surprise, considering Baltimore's alarming murder rate, which the mayor has been struggling to bring down.

(The mayor lives preoccupied about Baltimore's bad rep. He blames it, in part, on David Simon, the creator of three acclaimed HBO series: "Homicide: Life on the Streets," "The Corner," and "The Wire," dramas about cops and drug addicts and the hard side of life in Baltimore. But Landor researchers have found these series may actually attract out-of-towners.)

Not every Baltimorean attentive to city affairs favors the branding project. Lee Gardner, editor of The City Paper, the alternative to the Sun, says, "A lot of people would question the use of that money for that purpose."

As a brand or name for Baltimore, Mr. Gardner prefers the one his paper favors, Mobtown, an epithet pinned on Baltimore after the street riots here in 1812, sparked by the decision to make war on Britain. Despite its venerable legitimacy, Mobtown probably wouldn't attract tourists.

Bernard Lyons, an impresario who books gigs for jazz artists, abides in a cozy green pocket of the city called Lauraville. When told of Landor's purpose, he said, "Instead of drawing tourists here, seems to me we've got to get people out who live in the city." He's a satisfied immigrant, from England: "I love it here!"

He's averse to the kinds of changes image makers bring about. "Corporatization," he calls it, by which he means the invasion of national chain businesses that shoulder aside local enterprises.

It may be that Baltimore isn't amenable to branding, compromised by its very diversity. Some say it has no swank, no "there." Perhaps. Clearly it has few pretensions to high taste. Every Christmas, for instance, people from all over town visit a single block in Hampden, to witness the world famous (in Baltimore) Hub Cap Christmas tree, illuminated by thousands of lights.

John Waters's movie, "Pecker," made Hampden briefly famous for its kitsch, but changed it not at all. It thinks of itself as different, unique from other neighborhoods. It's a common conceit here; many of the others feel the same way. It's understandable: Little Italy is full of Italians; Highlandtown, Poles; and Pikesville sometimes seems as Jewish as Tel Aviv.

One can sense this in Fells Point, from where the old clipper ships sailed out to fight the British in 1812. Though gentrification has come, bohemian Fells Point remains free of Starbucks, Burger Kings, and most other outriders of globalism. Not to be outdone in that regard, Hampden is turning to the City Council to zone out what one Hampdenite called "formula retailers," as a danger to the neighborhood's uniqueness.

Robert Schultz, a Fells Point artist, is disdainful. "People who design slogans and such are never up on how rich this city is. They only try to generate interest in the Inner Harbor, the boutique hotels, and fake Irish pubs."

The rest of town, with its old markets and restaurants in diverse neighborhoods such as Greek Town or Canton, are rarely recommended to tourists, though that's where Baltimore is found.

"Besides," Mr. Schultz added, "Some of the slogans are silly."

Or desperate. Kurt Schmoke, Mayor O'Malley's predecessor, painted "The City That Reads" on every bus stop bench in town. Graffiti artists, apprised that half the children in Baltimore were born out of wedlock, changed it to "The City That Breeds."

Mayor O'Malley, when it was his turn to decorate the benches, came up with: "Baltimore: The Greatest City in America."

The staggering hyperbole stunned every would-be parodist into utter silence.

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