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Mobtown’s Charmed History

A long parade of rugged patriots, corrupt politicos, and visionary reformers helped build Baltimore. Yet the metropolis known as “Charm City” has also been a haven for a distinguished line of artists, eccentrics, and malcontents.

Baltimore: A Political History (Johns Hopkins University Press)—written by Matthew Crenson ’63, professor emeritus of political science—provides a comprehensive look at the manifold forces that influenced and impeded city government for more than 300 years.

Crenson also possesses a keen eye—and nose—for the two-way traffic between politics and the body politic. He scrapes away charm (and myth) to expose less savory features of civic history, including the herds of pigs that roamed Baltimore’s streets to dispose of garbage before the outbreak of the Civil War, and the noxious sewage that befouled the city’s air into the 20th century.

As a professor and go-to source for political journalists, Crenson steeped himself in the city’s political history. His Neighborhood Politics (1983, Harvard University Press) was a provocative investigation into how Baltimore’s local conflicts often provide more of a spur to communal action than solidarity.

Crenson says he came to see continuities in Baltimore political life throughout history as more striking than any changes. “What I began to see is the way things stayed the same,” he says. “There are constants in Baltimore political history that just stay there, sometimes for centuries.”

One perpetual battle is the fierce tug of war between Annapolis (Maryland’s capital) and Baltimore. The General Assembly’s long history of denying Baltimore fair representation, or sufficient power to tax or police itself, often led city residents to create quasi-governmental bodies or take to the streets. This latter tactic gave rise to another name for the city that has stuck: “Mobtown.”

Baltimore leaders pursued civic improvements such as gaslight and electrified streetcars. They foresaw the rise of American railroads. Yet Baltimoreans never fully exploited these innovations, and also allowed significant health and safety issues to fester. Baltimore was the last major American city to install a sanitary sewer system.

Crenson says the “city’s political incapacity” hindered progress. “There was political division about the desirability of having swine in the streets,” he says, “and city government was not strong enough and assertive enough to resolve that. Same thing with the sewers. Building a citywide sewer system required a degree of political coherence and integration that the city was not able to achieve until after the Great Fire of 1904.”

That immense conflagration destroyed over 140 acres of the city’s center. Crenson calls it a “great unifying moment” that compelled Baltimore to confront the 20th century. But why didn’t it happen sooner? One reason was Baltimore’s lack of a political machine—such as the Tammany Hall organization built in New York City by William “Boss” Tweed—to centralize power and overcome opposition.

“We had a political machine,” says Crenson. “But it was a feeble machine. They had to make concessions to reformers.” Isaac Freeman Rasin, the key political boss of late 19th century Baltimore, even placed reformers on his candidate lists to “perfume the ticket” for voters.

Avoiding conflict was priority for municipal leaders who grappled with a Mobtown legacy of major riots triggered by politics, secession, and labor unions between 1812 and 1877.

“This weak machine found ways of dealing with points of conflict, substituting bribes and patronage,” says Crenson. “They saw what [Baltimore residents] were capable of in the way of violence, and they found ways to tiptoe around it.”

On the surface, the riots of 1968 and 2015 may appear to be a return to the city’s Mobtown roots. But Crenson says the battles that Baltimore’s black residents have waged for civil rights and long-deferred political influence weave into a much more complex narrative.

Before the Civil War, Baltimore had the highest number of free blacks of any U.S. metropolis. Jim Crow was pervasive and pernicious in Baltimore, but also less violent, in part because its political bosses often chose to suppress black votes by bribing that community’s leaders.

Crenson observes that the city’s racial politics, while fraught, has lacked the nasty edge of other American cities. He cites the 1987 election of Kurt Schmoke as Baltimore’s first black mayor as one example.

“The very fact that we elected our first black mayor without making an issue of race. That’s extraordinary. That didn’t happen anywhere else.”

Baltimore’s political triumphs and failures rest uneasily side by side over three centuries. Or is it that they are inextricably intertwined? Crenson renders his own verdict at the end of his book: “Perhaps it is possible to be Mobtown and Charm City at the same time.”