A City in Crisis? In Chaos?

by Alex Hooke
The big (and ignored) story about the tunnel fire is how well city residents coped.

At first I did not take the smoke seriously. Trains pulling through Mount Royal Station leave an occasional mark in the air. Television crews were arriving, but they and their offspring pop up anywhere. So when firemen quietly but quickly began alerting local residents, merchants, and pedestrians of possible poisons in the air, I sensed something urgent was happening in Baltimore.

Typically, my worry was the mile-long trek home. For Baltimore residents, that meant avoiding the jams generated by commuters from nearby counties. While they anxiously sought for the magic passage to the JFX, city residents knew, for example, that going north on Eutaw Street to Druid Hill was the way out.

To those living near Mount Royal Station (and downtown, as it turned out), things were more precarious. Should they leave their homes or apartments? How drastic was the potential hazard?

From the eyes of television, however, people who lived closest to the sources of the train wreck were given a cold shoulder. Instead, the focus was on all those who were passing through—not in their tattered clothes carrying all they own on their backs, as of earlier nomads, but in their mobiles stocked with cushioned seats and climate control buttons.

The local networks warmly embraced commuters, patrons of a baseball team, and the tourists who never venture past the Inner Harbor. Trying to “get personal” meant: an interview with the sorrowful family from Columbia or White Marsh who could not see the O’s, a quick survey if the Hooters or ESPN Zone lost money for a day or two, or a screen flush with diagrams of roads blocked and transportation systems altered that might affect tomorrow’s commute.

To highlight these possible horrors, local stations led with headlines about a city in crisis or chaos.

Ignorance? False advertisement? Anti-urban hype?

Those with a sense of Baltimore history would answer yes. Hearing of a city in chaos, they recall riots, bloodshed, destruction, and conflicting passions.

Picture Baltimore after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Imagine the city when a large chunk of its downtown burned down in the Fire of 1904. Or study how a racially progressing Baltimore of the 1830’s transformed into polarized neighborhoods a decade later, bringing about fiery battles among freed slaves, immigrant Irish and Germans, and conniving entrepreneurs.

The train wreck of 2001 pales in comparison.

Of course it could have been worse—never underestimate luck or fortune. Yet this was unknown by television figures who stare at the station’s computers and then feverishly read from them to the audience, as if filing a report from the trenches.

Given the stations’ expensive and modern gadgetry, one might assume that television would find compelling such scenes as city parents putting their children asleep or friends inquiring about the safety of their neighbors in a climate that could resemble chemical warfare. Viewers could then discover how people in the city face a possible crisis among the vagaries of urban life.

Irresponsibly, however, the television networks decided that the catastrophe of not seeing Cal one more time or missing the Aquarium’s latest shark exhibit spoke of a city already in chaos.

To the contrary. With police and fire departments giving immense attention to the train accident, Baltimore was in anything but chaos. No stores were burning, no curfew was ordered, and no National Guard was called in.

At least the train accident in the secret tunnel reminded or taught many of us how essential Baltimore is to life in Maryland and in the country.

This lesson should be remembered during the next election campaign, when politicians curry the favors of voters by protesting against additional support for Baltimore.

Or, displaying rare nerve, will they ask the commuters from Columbia or White Marsh if they would rather have freight trains full of hazardous materials regularly passing the Pavilion or running parallel to The Avenue?

Alexander E. Hooke, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at Villa Julie College.

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This story was published on September 5, 2001.