In her latest book, Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore beyond John Waters and The Wire, Mary Rizzo examines the city of Baltimore as seen through the eyes of popular culture as well as ordinary citizens.
From the 1950s, a period of urban crisis and urban renewal, to the early twenty-first century, Rizzo looks at how artists created powerful images of Baltimore. How, she asks, do the imaginary cities created by artists affect the real cities that we live in? How does public policy (intentionally or not) shape the kinds of cultural representations that artists create? And why has the relationship between artists and Baltimore city officials been so fraught, resulting in public battles over film permits and censorship?
Baltimore has sold itself as a white, quirky, eccentric city.
Rizzo, who is Assistant Professor of History and Associate Director of Public and Digital Humanities Initiatives at Rutgers University-Newark, specializes in modern U.S. cultural history, urban studies, public humanities, and digital humanities. Rizzo has a long track record as a public historian and educator. She created the Telling Untold Histories Unconference while serving as Public Historian in Residence at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers-Camden. The annual unconference, which has been hosted at Rutgers-Newark the past several years, uses a radically democratic format allowing participants to create discussion sessions to examine how to tell more inclusive public histories.
At Rutgers University-Newark, Rizzo created the public humanities M.A. track in the Graduate Program in American Studies. Through her public and digital humanities courses, her students have engaged in hands-on public history work on issues including mass incarceration, immigration detention, police misconduct in Newark, social justice movements, and LGBTQ history. In 2017, Rizzo won the Teaching Award for Excellence from the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance for her work teaching New Jersey history through the travelling and digital Rebellion to Review Board exhibits. She is also on the advisory committee for the award-winning Queer Newark Oral History Project.
Through her research for Come and Be Shocked, Rizzo discovered a lost Baltimore poetry magazine called Chicory, which she helped digitize. She is also the author of Class Acts: Young Men and the Rise of Lifestyle.
In the following interview, Rizzo shared a little bit about the making of Come and Be Shocked, and what she hopes readers will get from it.
Why Baltimore? Do you have a connection with the city? And what made you decide to tell the story through the lens of the arts?
Actually, I've never lived in Baltimore. I got interested in the city when I was doing research for my dissertation on how people perform class identity through dress and style. I heard about an annual festival in Baltimore called HonFest, which is where mainly white middle-class women dress up as this Baltimore icon, the Hon. To picture a hon think of a 1960s diner waitress with a beehive hairdo, cat's-eye glasses and a sassy attitude. I went to Baltimore for research on why this festival was becoming so popular in a neighborhood that was rapidly gentrifying from being blue-collar to more professional. I published that research in a couple of essays, but it didn't make it into my first book. But as I was doing that research, I began to think about how Baltimore has been represented in culture. For a city of its size, there have been a lot of TV shows and movies set in Baltimore. That led me to thinking about the role of culture in shaping how people see the city. As I began to do research, I realized that Baltimore was a leader in the move towards urban branding and using culture as economic development in the 1970s, but no historians were writing about the relationship between culture and politics in Baltimore.
Tell us a little bit about the title. Is it a quote from somewhere? How does it fit what you're trying to say in the book?
The title comes from a story told by John Waters, the Baltimore writer and filmmaker. In 2005, Waters was invited to speak to the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce. He told them that the best slogan anyone could use for Baltimore to attract tourists was, "Come to Baltimore and Be Shocked." I love this story for several reasons. First, Waters may be best known now for the movie Hairspray, but his earlier movies are all about queer people, crime, and degeneracy. He reveled in shocking audiences. In fact, his movies were censored by Mary Avara, the Maryland state censor, for depicting sex acts she deemed unacceptable on screen. But, by the time of this dinner, the business community was asking him for ideas on how to sell the city. One of the arguments I make in the book is that Baltimore has sold itself as a white, quirky, eccentric city. Waters is central to having created that image, especially since the popularity of Hairspray as a musical and then movie-musical. That image of Charm City, though, is contrasted with an image of Baltimore as Bodymore, a place of death, danger and crime, particularly for African Americans. So, Waters' trajectory from Baltimore bad boy to advisor to city officials maps onto the argument I make in the book about the use of white working-class eccentricity as the image for Baltimore.
When you were researching and writing this book, was there anything that surprised you?
The issues that people wrote about in Chicory in the 1960s and 1970s are both specific to that time period, but resonate today.
The biggest surprise was finding Chicory, the forgotten poetry magazine published by the Enoch Pratt Free Library. This magazine, which ran from 1966-1983, basically published unedited writing by working-class black residents of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods. These are not the voices that we usually find in archives, so it was amazing when I went to the library and they wheeled out a big cart with box after box of issues on it. The issues that people wrote about in Chicory in the 1960s and 1970s are both specific to that time period, but resonate today. In the first issue, for example, a 17-year-old black man named Turk, wrote a poem about being harassed by the police and having to run away, fearing for his life. Obviously, that story could be told in 2020 as easily as 1966. Seeing its importance as a source about the past, I worked with Pratt library to digitize the magazine. Since then, I've also been working with former editors of the magazine and youth writing organizations in Baltimore to use Chicory to raise issues around social justice through poetry. You can find out more on our Instagram Chicory_Baltimore or at maryrizzo.net.
You put together a playlist while writing this book. What's on it and why? Did you listen to it while writing the book?
Because the book is about Baltimore in culture, I wanted to put together a playlist of songs about Baltimore (publicly available on Spotify). My favorite songs on the playlist have to be the two versions of the song, "Baltimore." Originally written and recorded by Randy Newman, it was then covered by Nina Simone on her album, Baltimore. The song has such a different feel to it depending on who sings it. Newman said he didn't know anything about Baltimore when he wrote it except that it seemed like a struggling town. When I hear him sing it, I think of the white working-class people who lost their jobs in the factories in the 1970s. When Simone sings it, though, because she's so associated with the civil rights movement and because she adds a reggae beat to it, it feels like she's talking from the perspective of black Baltimoreans, giving the song a different perspective. I use the two versions of this song to discuss the racial segregation of Baltimore and how culture reflects it.
Who should read this book? What do you hope they get out of it?
I hope that people who know and love Baltimore and cities like it read this book. The book raises important questions about the role of arts and culture in contemporary cities. More and more cities try to sell themselves as cultural centers in order to attract upwardly mobile residents and business investment. However, this often leads to those cities becoming too expensive for working-class people who have lived there for decades. If my book can spur conversation about this dynamic--and push cities to think of the arts as less about economic development and more about civic good--than I will be deeply satisfied.
Mary Rizzo will give a talk about her book on October 5th for the Baltimore City Historical Society (info here).