City of Losers - Matthew Crenson

Parishioner and vestrymember Dr. Matthew Crenson offers a meditation that, in our opinion, speaks to both our city and this week's New Testament lesson (Rom 8:26-39). Matt's latest book, Baltimore: A Political History, comes out on September 10.

Baltimore. Sitting here on the Eastern Seaboard between stately Washington and cosmopolitan New York, it has been said to resemble the stupid kid assigned by mistake to the advanced class.  Russell Baker called it the city of losers. He grew up in Baltimore, worked as a reporter for the Sun, and then ascended to the New York Times. But Baker thought that there was something to be said for Baltimore’s losers. Living with their city’s shortcomings and embarrassments helped Baltimoreans to develop a realistic acceptance of human failings, moral and otherwise. They recognized that sin was an elemental constituent of the human condition. It followed, wrote Baker, that theirs was a subtle ,“permissive” city, not given to moralistic crusades.    

The Prohibition crusade, for example, made few converts in Baltimore. In a 1916 referendum, almost 75 percent of the city’s voters rejected a proposal that would make Baltimore ‘dry.’ When the nation ratified the 18th Amendment in 1918, a delegation from Baltimore – led by the city’s Republican mayor – stormed Annapolis to demand that the legislature rescind its approval of the Prohibition Amendment and challenge its constitutionality before the Supreme Court. Their appeal failed. Baltimoreans pursued another approach to Prohibition. They ignored it.

In 1922 Prohibition agents raided a moonshine plant on East Pratt Street that produced 300 gallons of liquor a day. It was thought to be the largest bootlegging operation in the United States, until they raided a building on East Street that housed 22 stills and 3500 gallons of mash.  Criminal syndicates of the kind that bloodied Chicago and Detroit never took hold in Baltimore.  Baltimoreans didn’t need much in the way of organized crime to keep them supplied with intoxicating beverages. They excelled at disorganized crime.

For some Baltimoreans – and Marylanders – opposition to Prohibition was a matter of principle, not just thirst.  Governor Albert Ritchie insisted that states’ rights precluded the federal government’s interference with the regulation of alcohol. Mayor Howard Jackson, elected in 1923, was uniquely suited to carry on the resistance to Prohibition. He was a staunch advocate of states’ rights and an alcoholic – a sinner. 

Four years later local and state political bosses decided that Jackson should not run for reelection. His repeated absences from City Hall had interfered with the functioning of government. Baltimoreans drew the line at sin that had serious and harmful consequences for others. But in 1931, Jackson ran once again for mayor.  He had stopped drinking.  Baltimoreans put him back in City Hall. They understood redemption as well as sin.  Jackson gave them four years of sober service.  

Russell Baker noted that Baltimoreans made a distinction between sin and “vice.”  Vice, he said, did serious harm to people other than the sinner.  It was not to be tolerated.  Today Baltimore falters under a burden of hurtful vice.  Some see solutions in harsh penalties or righteous crusades. These are un-Baltimorean responses, not likely to make much headway here. We need to look for practical, proven, and quietly effective approaches that will turn sinners against evil.  Sinners want to know, not only what’s wrong, but what works.