Degenerate City: Charm City Demolition Derby

Columnist Michael Farley on Hogan's plan to invest $700M to give Baltimore more of nothing.

Baltimore is getting a major investment in more nothing. Right? I've been traveling for all of 2016, but trying to stay somewhat informed. Apparently Gov. Larry Hogan has generously offered to give Baltimore $700 million worth of nothing, by way of demolishing vacant buildings to make way for vacant lots. And some say the Grinch's heart grew three sizes as big that day.

Or is it actually $75 million? Or $19 million now and the rest is sorta an IOU? Who can keep up with the fact-checkers? I'm not that kind of pundit. I have kinda given up caring, because $700 million worth of nothing looks a lot like $19 million worth of nothing to me. Hell, that's more nothing than I'll ever see!

Part of me wants to yell, "Hey wait a minute! Don't demolish West Baltimore! Use that money to stabilize shells for people like me who have been desperately trying to buy a vacant building for years! The state could use those funds to contract new collective roofs for distressed blocks, lowering rehab costs in bulk for new low-income homeowners! Or just build the fucking Red Line so West Baltimore might actually function! Or maybe change your right-wing stance and say Maryland actually wants Central American and Syrian refugees because we have plenty of free bombed-out homes that are still a lot nicer than Homs is looking right now and people might be grateful to have them and do that thing immigrants do where they open businesses and save neighborhoods! What the fuck happened to that 'Dollar Houses' program everyone loved?"

But I'll save my breath. The truth is, Baltimore is overjoyed at the prospect of getting more nothing, and by god our elected officials will fight tooth and nail to get the full $700 million of it. Most community groups are probably overjoyed at the prospect of demolishing "eyesore" historic buildings and replacing them with gorgeous vacant lots. "Amber waves of grain," or something. Nothing is Baltimore's largest export and our biggest import. Our precious few rail stations are surrounded by half-empty parking lots. Fun-hating old people want to shutter bodegas in favor of empty storefronts. Downtown Partnership plans to bulldoze the very-present McKeldin Fountain to make another void. Don't get me started on eminent domain and the Superblock. We are connoisseurs of nothingness—an entire city gazing approvingly at a thousand Ground Zeroes, waiting for a hypothetical over-budget, subsidized megaproject to sprout around the holes.

I've seen a lot of nothing come and go. I moved to East Oliver Street a decade ago, when it was very much defined by emptiness. The corner of Greenmount was a field, because in 1994 the city decided no one would ever want to reuse the sturdy prewar Lord Baltimore Press building that stood there and reduced it to rubble. Behind the field, a block of vacant houses served as a filming location for "The Wire." Their stoops served my roommates and me as benches for our accidental park. Around the corner, a block of renters was booted out to make way for some gentrification scheme that was put on hold until after the recession. At community association meetings, some neighbors suggested the city demolish what's now the Baltimore Design School so we could have more nothing. Eventually, my cute little stoop-sitting houses were razed by the city, because, I was told, at 800 square feet they were too small to ever attract new inhabitants (and like, combining them wouldn't work, right?). Mostly, the community association was afraid people were doing drugs and having sex in them.

Shortly thereafter, City Arts Apartments (where units are about 800 square feet), a parking lot, and some truly hideous prefab housing were built on the field. I moved into City Arts, mostly because I'd rather live in a building with heat and have a view of the Annex than live in the Annex and have a view of what looks like suburbia. The little-house lot is still rubble. Are people doing drugs and having sex in those new prefab houses where none of the aluminum joinery meets at logical junctions? Probably. I don't really care. They must've at least been high when they signed the purchase documents.

The point is, I'd rather be living in the former Lord Baltimore Press building that the city owned and demolished than the one I live in now, which the city (and various other entities) went through great expense and effort to build. My street looks like an office park. About a year ago, a friend's mother who lives in the county drove me home and remarked, "Wow! This area looks so much nicer. Now all they have to do is tear down that thing," pointing at the Annex, still home to many of my friends.

I wondered, why do most people hate dilapidated buildings so much? When I see an empty building, I wonder about its past and future and if I could live there. But the city is the ultimate piece of visual culture, authored and curated by a society's collective values and ambitions and desires and horrible flaws. When there's visual evidence of dysfunction, it's a troubling reminder that late capitalism sucks and the logic of our property system leads to waste and pesky aesthetic blights. Anything can be swept under the rug so long as it's reduced to dust. And what replaces that dust is inevitably something that reinforces our comforting notions of business as usual: expensive, produced/controlled by those with money and power, and constructed in the false architectural "vernacular" of a false-consensus culture. God forbid the poors should glean the surplus produced by the mercurial market! It's the same reasoning as retailer H&M shredding unsold winter coats (true story) while the homeless freeze on the street.

But people like some ruins. Traces of ancient civilizations' triumphs and failures fascinate us. We're grateful the Mayans didn't raze their temples when it became evident their gods had abandoned them. And thank the whole damn Pantheon of deities that Rome wasn't un-built in a day. When ISIS destroys the heritage sites of the Middle East, we're heartbroken. But it's our ruins we don't want anymore. How embarrassed we would be, should a future archaeologist find evidence of industrial America's decline. Let's tidy the place up on our way out.

Even some recent ruins are treasured—so long as they were ruined by nature and not societal deficit. Mexico City preserves the shells of historic buildings damaged by the 1985 earthquake for future use. Today, architects have a rich context to work with, squeezing modern high rises into and around and over stabilized colonial walls. Similarly, Miami Beach saved the Art Deco structures gutted by Hurricane Andrew. To this day, there are still a handful of boarded-up buildings in South Beach, but that doesn't detract from the glamour.

It's only evidence of man-made crises we seek to destroy: corruption, injustice, political dysfunction, economic disaster. It's a wonder the Romans didn't tear down the Coliseum in the twilight days of their sickly empire. Then again, bread and circuses are always the last to go. If you loved the photo ops at the Grand Prix, you'll love the Charm City Demolition Derby. Somewhere, Larry Hogan is playing a fiddle.

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