“These used to be the servants’ quarters. The Irony is not lost on us.”
That, or something to that effect, was what former City Paper editor Lee Gardner told me as he showed me around the top floor of a grand old house at 812 Park Ave., the paper’s headquarters, after my job interview.
It was once a mansion with a huge main stairway, fireplaces, and incredible plasterwork. Save for a few places, most of those design details were now gone, the building fitted out to include desks, computers, office supplies, and so on. The intact features were painted in wild colors and there were funky posters and ephemera on the walls, at least.
At some point the servants’ quarters on the top floor had been converted into small apartments, the remnants of which were divided up among the paper’s editors and reporters. (Or maybe they were made apartments for the servants? I don’t know for sure.) Edward Ericson Jr.’s tiny office, for example, still had the tilework, drain pipe, and toilet stub-outs from when it served as a bathroom. Van Smith worked in a converted closet.
Spartan offices or not, this is where I needed to be. After graduating from the University of Maryland, I held several entry-level jobs as an editorial aide at The Washington Post. Jumping to City Paper was, in my view, the best chance to make a career of reporting and writing. The music stories I had written as a freelancer, and the edits I got on them, were key in developing my voice and storytelling—two hallmarks of City Paper journalism.
This was in October 2011, and though I didn’t get the calendar editor job then, I did wind up in that role nearly a year later. By that point, the paper had almost completely turned over, with Evan Serpick and Baynard Woods at the helm. It ended up being everything I wanted and more. I never could have dreamed that my job would take me to the White House in the last days of the Obamas or get me on the phone with Johnny Fuckin’ Marr or allow a trip to Orioles spring training during the workweek with detours at a Trump rally and Hulk Hogan’s sex tape trial. Those all happened because of City Paper. But I also came to understand what Lee meant after that first interview.
Mondays were always a bear. Most of the staff would work late into the night poring over pages of copy, and we’d all crowd into the office of the art director, Joe MacLeod, to add our changes. The staff was smaller than ever, but we managed to put out an issue that still had stories dedicated to Music, Eats & Drinks, Stage, Art, and Books week after week, in addition to the regular stuff like a cover story with a word count in the thousands, Mobtown Beat, Murder Ink, and my domain, the calendar.
And by some miracle of God we would put out special issues like Sizzlin’ Summer and EAT. For reasons lost to time, Sizzlin’ Summer had to include farmers’ markets on the Eastern Shore, camping spots and parks all across the state, and a lot of other info we wouldn’t ordinarily cover. And EAT involved all of us mindlessly cranking out short blurbs about most of the city’s restaurants, even if the individual writer had never eaten there. OK, it wasn’t divine intervention so much as many hours of overtime.
We all did it, at low pay, because we loved City Paper, because, to us, its legacy of in-depth reporting and a critical eye meant something and we wanted to preserve that as best we could. The inherent benefit to that was and is having great freedom to engage with the city and its people and to write about what you discovered, or to challenge it, in a way the mainstream press wouldn’t or couldn’t. I think that’s what many of us treasured most.
The news, in August 2013, that CP was for sale presented the first of many hurdles. Even back in my college days journalism professors were warning of the radical shake-ups facing the industry. So it always felt inevitable that I would be part of a sale or downsizing or a total closure in my lifetime. I just didn’t think it would be so soon.
When we all found out in early 2014 that The Sun, the city’s daily and our primary competitor—or, at least, the paper we see ourselves as the antidote to—was the buyer, it felt like certain death. The Sun already had a free weekly, b, so it seemed like either they would merge us and kill the spirit of what we did, take the name and slap it on something else, or God knows what.
In all honesty, once we finally moved over to Calvert Street, it wasn’t all bad. It was weird to go from the servants’ quarters to a cube farm, but The Sun let us be us. Our first issue under their ownership was Jenn Ladd’s oral history of the soon-to-close video store Video Americain, and I remember a lot of care was given to make sure everything looked right. Eventually, we were able to bring on Brandon Soderberg, Rebekah Kirkman, and Maura Callahan in various roles.
(Quick aside: Callahan inherited the calendar from me, and she’s a goddamn saint for it. There was a point where the program for spitting out listings became such a headache that she decided it would be easier to type listings out by hand. Think about that for a moment.)
The Baltimore Uprising changed everything. From the start, Woods, Soderberg, and photo editor J.M. Giordano, in particular, were out covering the protests after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. When rioting started on that Monday, as we were closing the issue on the protests, they bolted out the door to cover it. Once it was clear a small group had moved through downtown, smashing windows along Charles Street, I headed south to the Inner Harbor, which by this point had already been secured by riot police. Just west of there, some people had placed signs in their windows indicating the businesses were black-owned in the hopes they would be spared. It was a surreal scene.
After everyone came back that night, each member on staff pulled together to get everything written, edited, and fact-checked as best we could.
I still remember looking out our kitchen window, toward Hopkins, to see the sun rise over Baltimore as we finished up. There was a calm in that orange glow over a quiet city, but questions about what would come next remained. And so we continued to report, covering clean-up, protests, and curfew. I’ve never been as proud to be a working reporter as I was then.
Since that point, we’ve covered social justice issues with more consistency. Until the hirings of Lisa Snowden-McCray, Reginald Thomas II, and Kenneth Breckenridge sometime later, we were an entirely white staff with a largely white readership in a majority black city. Continuing to cover the protest movement and pointing out things like institutional racism seemed to alienate some of the hipsters, punks, and bros who were ostensibly our audience. There was plenty of pushback in the way people discussed our work, with many coming to the conclusion that City Paper had gone downhill since its heyday in the 1990s and early ‘00s. We also gained new readers that way and pushed ourselves to be more thoughtful about covering this truly messed up city of ours, people who are on the margins, and those working to create change, which seems more meaningful anyway.
Over the years the masthead continued to evolve, and when Woods and Serpick left one after the other, it felt like the paper was once again in a perilous place. Karen Houppert coming on board quickly changed that. Suddenly, some of our old conventions—like the need for certain sections to be in every single issue—were thrown out the window. That may have reduced our page count, but it also helped us keep our sanity. At the same time, all of the writers were encouraged to try out new ideas—nothing was off the table. If it cost lots of money, we’d figure out all the details later to make it work. That was unimaginable before. After Houppert left, Soderberg maintained the same culture of authorial autonomy and the willingness to change on the fly.
I’m biased of course, but I really believe we were hitting our stride in the last two years or so and keeping up the pace, Facebook trolls be damned. Now, that run is over. To modify a tweet from my colleague Ed Ericson, Baltimore will keep on Baltimorin’, and that’s the case with or without City Paper. Even our most vocal supporters will eventually move on. For me, and I think for everyone else who worked here, the paper will always mean so much more.
Brandon Weigel is the web editor at City Paper.