City Squeeze: Long live City Paper

City Paper editor Evan Serpick's farewell to the paper

This is my last issue as City Paper's editor. After three years and two months with the paper, I resigned to take a position as director of strategic communications for the Open Society Institute–Baltimore.

I'm more proud of the work we've done at City Paper than I am of anything else I've done professionally. When publisher Jennifer Marsh hired me in June 2012, several of the editors who had led the paper in the previous years had just left or would leave within a few months. Thank Cthulhu that Art Director Joe MacLeod, Production Director Athena Towery, reporters Van Smith and Edward Ericson Jr., and Webmaster Andrew Vogel were there to provide a link to City Paper's proud tradition. But among the editors, Calendar Editor Erin Gleeson—who had been with the paper about a year—was the veteran.

So the newcomers, Arts Editor Baynard Woods, Associate Editor Jenn Ladd, and myself, soon joined by Calendar Editor Brandon Weigel and Web Editor Joe Giordano, did our best to keep the paper coming out every week and to maintain the high standard of journalism our forebears had set, while trying to figure out how we could improve the product and serve Baltimore even better.

One goal of our coverage was to be "militantly Baltimore," in everything from our news and arts coverage to the event listings. We would skip national politics and national artists—you have the rest of the internet for that—and focus exclusively on Baltimore stories. Augmenting Smith and Ericson's stellar work in Mobtown Beat, we launched the Baltimore City Power Rankings with master illustrator Alex Fine, artfully chronicling the ups and downs of the city's most prominent players. We created the City Folk section, telling the stories of everyday Baltimoreans, from a truck driver aspiring to be a rapper to a bartender/ballet dancer.

Guided largely by Woods, our arts coverage dove deeply into local galleries, theater companies, record labels, musicians, artists, and authors in a way that no other outlet ever had. We asked important questions about the gentrification of arts districts and the segregation, or silo-ing, in our arts community.

We vastly stepped up our web presence, thanks mainly to now-Photo Editor Giordano, and later, Calendar Editor (now also blogs editor) Weigel and current Web Editor Charlie Herrick, but also by the rest of the staff—everyone was asked to contribute more, to write more than they ever had. Soon, we had a steady stream of daily, web-only content, and Giordano corralled a team of talented freelance photographers to document events all over Baltimore, from sweaty underground clubs to angry protests, for regular photo galleries.

It was difficult, especially at the beginning, with so many new editors. Our deadline-night Mondays typically ran until midnight or 1 a.m. And that first year, putting the behemoth Best of Baltimore issue to bed required 40 hours straight at the old office on Park Avenue. The only thing I remember of that two-day marathon was how Woods and I planned all night on getting egg-and-cheese sandwiches from Milk and Honey at first light and how, after we got them, he dropped his—business-side down—while unlocking the door to get back into the building. I don't know that I've ever felt so bad for anyone in my whole life.

But we got the hang of it, mostly, and just when it seemed we did, we learned that our largely absentee, out-of-town owners at Times-Shamrock were looking to sell. For months, we dangled on the edge of oblivion, unsure of our future—or if we would have one. After what seemed like an eternity, word came that the Baltimore Sun Media Group would buy City Paper. Fear replaced uncertainty, as we all wondered not only if we'd keep our jobs, but what an alternative weekly owned by the mainstream daily might look like. Could we still be City Paper? Could we still say "fuck"? (We can!) Would our new bosses make demands that would kill the paper's spirit?

During the transition, Times-Shamrock acted so badly—censoring content and denying 25-year CP vet MacLeod severance after he was laid off (he sued them and they settled)—that BSMG sounded inviting by comparison. And soon enough, we learned that BSMG really did stay out of our editorial business. Not that it's been all groovy: One portion of our online archives was seriously mucked up in the transition, and another portion remains totally offline (we're working on it and hope to have them restored later this year). And transforming from a largely autonomous staff operating out of a renovated brownstone on Park Avenue to a tiny cog in a giant corporate monolith operating out of cubicles on Calvert Street has been difficult, in many ways. But the paper's heart—the passion of its staff—remained intact.

Late last year came local protests in response to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and we found ourselves perfectly positioned to cover a movement as it emerged. We covered those protests and followed the people and organizations at the heart of them in the months that followed. When Freddie Gray died earlier this year, we knew this was a pivotal moment in Baltimore history, when so many long-festering frustrations—from police brutality and entrenched poverty to segregation and inept leadership—boiled to the surface. On the afternoon of April 27—a deadline Monday—with violence breaking out in Mondawmin, we decided to scrap the issue we had worked on and start fresh, covering the history unfolding before our eyes. That was my second all-nighter at City Paper.

We finally closed that issue at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning. I snapped the picture of the staff seen here as we walked out of the offices into the light of a new day. The moment I'll always remember is piling four carless staff members into my beat-up Buick for rides home and playing them the Kidz Bop CD still in the player from driving my kids to school 24 hours earlier. Cruising through deserted downtown with the Kidz Bop version of Pharrell's 'Happy' blasting, Visual Arts Editor Rebekah Kirkman asked, "Is this real life?"

The following days were maybe the most real that Baltimore had seen in years. And for weeks, we obsessed over it. Led by reporting from Woods, Managing Editor Brandon Soderberg, Ericson, and others, and brave, heartrending photography from Giordano (who was knocked down and beaten by police outside the western district), we aimed to provide insight and coverage that none of the national outlets swarming our city could approach. The months and years of work by the staff, building relationships and dedicating ourselves to understanding the deep-seated problems in our city, made it possible.

In the months since, I think our staff has felt invigorated. The renewed passion that we all felt then for our work has lingered. I don't think I could be leaving the paper at a better time, in better hands. The addition of young, smart staffers like Kirkman, Soderberg, Herrick, Managing Editor Anna Walsh, and Performing Arts Editor Maura Callahan, collaborating with experienced pros like Ericson and Senior Designer Towery, have put the paper in a great position. And with the imminent hire of another news reporter and a new editor to replace me, things are looking bright for City Paper.

As my time here was winding down last week, tragedy struck, as it too often does in Baltimore. Neely Snyder, a 37-year-old mother of three daughters and a friend of mine, died in a car accident in Reisterstown. Our kids went to preschool together and I worked with her husband Josh Snyder—a rabbi in the progressive Reconstructionist tradition and the Hillel director at Goucher College—when I moderated a discussion series called "4 Rabbis, 5 Opinions."

I always admired Neely, both for her work at Pearlstone Center, a Jewish retreat center where she led programs in environmental education, many for Baltimore City public school kids, and as co-founder of JQ Baltimore, a Jewish LGBTQ outreach group. The diversity of the hundreds who attended her funeral last week was a testament to the broad reach of her life and passions.

One morning last week, I stopped by the shiva house where family and friends would mourn Neely for seven days, in the Jewish tradition. Her brother, Noah Harburger, told me a story about a visitor who had come by the house the day before. Apparently last year, Neely had approached a school in West Baltimore about coming to the Pearlstone Center for a weekend retreat. At no expense to the school or the kids' families, she was their guide at the center, showing them the farm there, teaching them songs, offering a green respite from the concrete of their neighborhoods. Afterward, Ms. Neely, as the kids knew her, stayed in touch with the teacher and kids. During the uprising, she reached out to them to make sure they were OK, to see what they thought about things.

Noah never knew about these kids, so when the teacher showed up at the door of the shiva house with three overstuffed backpacks, he was confused. The kids, she explained, had heard what happened to Ms. Neely. They decided to pool their money and buy school supplies for her three daughters, so her husband didn't have to worry about it while he mourned the death of his wife.

I heard this story, cried, then headed in to work. I couldn't help but connect these acts of kindness with Baltimore. They represent the best in us, the good and the great that touches all of our lives amid the tragedy, the misery, and the trenchant problems that plague us. I hope that our work at City Paper not only highlights the tragedy and the misery, not only addresses the trenchant problems, but also remembers the kindness in our midst. I'm glad to know that work will continue after I'm gone. It's the most important work I've ever done.

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