Manufacturing Charm City: The Socio-Semiotics of Baltimore's Decline

Richard Otten

Advisor: Roger N Lancaster, PhD, Cultural Studies Program

Committee Members: Hugh Gusterson, Timothy Gibson

Enterprise Hall, #318
April 05, 2016, 01:00 PM to 10:00 AM


Over the course of the last century, Baltimore has declined from a position as one of the most important cities of North America to a point of general crisis, a crisis that the city’s public and private decision makers must constantly manage. All metrics of this decline, whether in terms of population shift away from its urban core in Baltimore City to its sprawling suburbs in and beyond Baltimore County, its loss of wealth, the quality of its educational system, or its climb up the charts of undesirable statistics such as crime rates, drug use, or teenage pregnancy, are epiphenomenal of, if not caused directly by, Baltimore’s gradual deindustrialization. How do local social actors — urban planners, branders, national and global capitalists with business interests in the city, politicians, city-dwellers, residents of the region who visit the city for shopping and nightlife — make sense of their dispositions within and among these variegated crises? How do they reconcile Baltimore’s high modern industrial past with its postmodern present and future identities, particularly as consumption and entertainment become increasingly important to the local economy? What theoretical framework would help us to understand the city’s decline, and its representation or misrepresentation? (Surely, that framework must account for the contributions of both elite and popular social actors to the production of Baltimore’s urban space and culture.) This dissertation will test the efficacy of available theories – particularly those that understand culture as “everyday life” and urban space as a social construction – to explain and demystify objects and phenomena within the following realms of Baltimore’s popular culture: construction and preservation of the built environment; glocal cultural production; and marketing and sloganeering.  Within those realms, we will need to select texts — objects and phenomena — from a range of fields to study: cinema, sport, advertising, architecture, and the leisure industry.  Doing so should reveal complex networks of relationships among these realms that might enable either the perpetuation of or resistance to the existing systems of power.  All of the processes under examination in these realms will be understood as spectacular expressions of social processes that are at once endemic to Baltimore while also related and connected to national and global processes. Thus, since the crises symptomatic of late-industrial decline experienced in Baltimore must be similar to those experienced in other Rust Belt cities, and for that matter in other cities in the industrialized world, so one should expect to find similar processes at work elsewhere, as well.