Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Baltimore's Rap Sheet Grows

Sujata Massey

I was as eager as anyone to see Netflix new television miniseries, The Keepers. The program, which investigates an unsolved murder in 1969 Baltimore, has received admiring reviews. It's the story of former Keough School students--now women in their sixties--trying to identify the killer of their beloved teacher, Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik.

The Keepers is a sensitive, well-produced show which gives proper gravity to the crime and its lifelong impact on family and friends. I was sad at the end of the first episode, but for reasons that go beyond what I'd watched.

You see, The Keepers is just the latest Baltimore crime story.

It follows a wildly successful podcast called Serial that re-investigates the prosecution of Adnan Syed, a young Baltimore man for the 1999 murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Sarah Koenig, the investigative reporter who wrote the podcast, discover many pieces of suppressed evidence that might have kept Adnan from jail. After the podcast, a series of legal challenges were made, and Adnan was granted a second trial, which will be held next year.

Serial made its splash following David Simon's The Wire, an internationally celebrated HBO series focusing on Baltimore police's battle against crime, and before that Homicide, another Simon series with crime on Baltimore's streets.

Interestingly, each of these crime dramas involves the hand of an alumnus or alumna of the Baltimore Sun--the great daily newspaper where I began my own writing career. When I was a college intern working at the paper, I had Sunday duty on the "crime desk." It meant calling the various police stations to learn how many people had died and by what means. What I did was the very opposite of hardboiled beat reporting.

 David Simon of Homicide and The Wire, Sarah Koenig of Serial, and Bob Erlandson, who's interviewed in The Keepers--were highly seasoned Sun writers who followed some homicides for months--or even years.  A freelance journalist, Tom Nugent, collected research on Sister Cathy for years and wrote a 6000-word article about her for the Baltimore City Paper in 2005.

I greatly admire the reporting and editing that went into all of these programs. But the rise of this genre disturbs me. It makes me concerned that Baltimore's image around the world is nothing but murder.

It would be cool if network executives were interested in a parallel track: dramatic programming about Baltimore that weren't so deadly. The only non-murder show that comes to mind is Ace of Cakes, a reality show on the Food Network.

 Just thirty years ago, the city's image was charmingly quirky. In the late 1980s, films like The Accidental Tourist, Hairspray, and Diner served up a historic East Coast city short on glamour, but full of characters. People fretted that Baltimore was always typecast as the home of cheerful, blue collar people who spoke with long Os. We all wanted to get beyond that stereotype and diversify.

I wouldn't mind a few Os, if I could get some back.


  1. Alas, I think crime has been a big part of Baltimore's reputation for a long time. Kurt Schmoke was elected mayor exactly 30 years ago, and I remember when local wags remarked that his slogan, "Baltimore: The City That Reads," would be more accurately changed to "The City That Bleeds."

  2. I think that kind of attention comes in waves, as if one big story attracts the attention and the focus is all there.... then a big story breaks elsewhere and the focus goes there for a few years.
    Except if you live were I do, murder capital of Scotland. The city is trying to win the city of culture for 2021. If only they put the money they are spending on that campaign to keep the young off the street and keep them occupied then we might get somewhere.

  3. Sujata, these things change. I swear to you they do. I don't know how long it will take but I can tell you this: I lived in New York City in the 1970s, at which point it was considered a sink of depravity and violence. One of my clients once said to me, "New York City should be sawed off the United States, towed out to sea, and sunk." Another told me that raising my child in New York City was a form of child abuse. The place where I raised her is now the precinct of billionaires. And New York City is the greatest city on earth.

    I think Baltimore has so much going for in terms of its building stock, it's history gets geographical position, so many things. It will survive all this.

    One of the things that really turned in New York City around when the streets weren't safe, was our mayor Lindsay who advised us to stop hiding from the violence in the streets, to get out in the streets, and take them back from the night vermin who had turned them to their criminal pursuits. People started having block parties, the police force helped by providing some security but in discrete ways. And the tide turned. There are a lot of things citizen groups can do. Baltimore has a lot of patriotic citizens who appreciate its advantages. They will figure out hoe to make their city back into the place they want it to be. They will.

  4. I think your concern is well placed, Sujata. The City of Pittsburgh (Ravens fans have heard of that place I'm sure) has been smoke free for seventy years, yet its image is still haunted by those WWII pre-emmission controls, industrial output photos, newsreels, stories and jokes. But the upside to all that is it does keep the town from being overwhelmed by those who don't know what a terrific place it is to live.

  5. Don't worry about it! I live in Johannesburg so we probably get through in a day what takes you a month in Glasgow and Baltimore as far as crime is concerned!