Judging City Paper and life in Baltimore by 35 years' worth of each

Perhaps the best tribute to a long-lived publication like City Paper would be a full-on Synecdoche, New York-style compendium of everything in every issue ever, all between one set of covers. (Or, you know, a complete run of 35 years’ worth of issues scanned in their entirety and available as PDFs online. Someday.) But flipping through old issues, it’s the covers that draw the eye. Each was (and remains) the print edition’s face to the world, announcing what the paper’s about, even if sometimes cryptically—the 1977 issue with nothing on the cover but a photograph of cheetahs stopped me cold mid-flip.

Thirty-five years of covers also serve as a sort of museum of publication design, as the black-and-white, blocky covers of CP’s earliest years gave way to spot color, then more elements, then fewer, then full color, then the telltale spidery fonts of early computer-assisted graphic design, and on up to the present. You can watch the elements ebb and flow: single images to multiple images and back, scant coverlines, as many coverlines as will fit, and everywhere in between.

But these covers not only provide a survey of the history of City Paper, they also scan as a thumbnail history of Baltimore, at least through the alt-weekly lens. The politicians of yesteryear made their way to the cover—Mayor William Donald Schaefer, fresh-faced young State’s Attorney Kurt Schmoke—as did the issues: the number of covers dealing with AIDS is a sobering reminder of the hopelessness and devastation it wrought on a generation. Plenty of less-weighty topics did as well; it’s difficult to imagine the City Paper of today running as many travel pieces on the cover as it once did. And, speaking as the editor, it’s enlightening to come upon issues where the editor and art director were clearly having an off week, followed by those in which they were totally on.

Perhaps not all of these nuances will be evident as you look through this sampling of covers from the past 35 years, but there are all kinds of stories to be read herein, threads to be picked up, memories and revelations to be explored. Looking back over 35 years of covers only makes me more curious to see what the coming years will bring.

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