Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Taking Every Brick Personally

An oft-told story about William Donald Schaefer, who died yesterday at age 89, recounts how, as mayor, he would come banging into the City Hall in a rage about an abandoned car he passed on his way to work, or pothole that needed fixing. He would harangue his beleaguered staff, huff into his office, slam the door, and by close of business that afternoon, the car would be gone, the pothole filled.

That tale, which I've now heard from several former members of Schaefer's mayoral administration, has always struck me as a perfect illustration of everything both heroic and tragically flawed about the former Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor, and state comptroller.

He was inspiring and infuriating. He was a visionary with a penchant for micromanagement. He was possessed of a larger-than-life personality that he chronically allowed to get in his own way. He was a bare-knuckled politician with little patience for policy wonks. He could be charming and he could be belligerent. He loved his hometown of Baltimore with a towering passion, but it was a passion that hindered his ability to govern the state as a whole. He couldn't decide whether he preferred the trenches or the limelight. He had the tenacity of a mule, but also its obstinacy. He never backed down from a fight, but he never knew when he should just shut up and walk away.

Schaefer was notorious for straying from his script, a habit that was celebrated by some, lamented by others, and dreaded by his staff. A friend of mine was a greenhorn speechwriter for the then-Mayor back in the 80's. He recalled how Schaefer would approach the lectern, glance dismissively at his prepared remarks, tell the audience about the "bright young man in the back" who had "written a nice speech" for him, and then proceed to ad-lib for 20 minutes.

That off-the-cuff tendency got Schaefer into trouble on more than one occasion. Relations were frosty with the Clinton administration after he crossed party lines to endorse Republican George H.W. Bush for president in 1992. More recently, then-Comptroller Schaefer raised eyebrows and ire by criticizing immigrants and making sexist remarks about female staffers in Annapolis.

I admit I was never one of William Donald Schaefer's biggest fans. I arrived in Baltimore in 1989, shortly after he vaunted to well-deserved stardom for the miraculous transformation of the dilapidated docks at the intersection of Light and Pratt streets into the now-world-famous Inner Harbor. My first recollection of him was an unflattering news article that described how Schaefer had tracked down and verbally abused a Baltimore man who had criticized him in the press. Then came the Bush endorsement, and then, years after that, Schaefer's truculent refusal to endorse fellow Democrat Martin O'Malley in his bid for the governor's mansion.

But it was Schaefer's second term as comptroller that cemented in my mind the idea of him as a remnant of a happily bygone age in American politics, a fighter who didn't know when to quit the ring. He drew outrage from the immigrant community in 2004 when he claimed that a foreign-born employee at a fast food restaurant couldn't speak English. That same year, he asserted that people with AIDS "brought [the disease] upon themselves."

In 2006, Schaefer made lewdly suggestive comments to a female gubernatorial aide, then referred to a female reporter as a "sweet little girl." He sealed his political fate during his run for a third term as state comptroller, when he referred to his rival as a "prissy little miss" who "looks like Mother Hubbard - it's sort of like she was a man." He was voted out of his job, and out of the spotlight he loved, that year.

I met Schaefer three times, two of them after his departure from public office. The last time I saw him was at an event to announce the launch of a charitable fund in his honor that benefits Baltimore neighborhoods. This was shortly before he was moved (involuntarily, I should note) from the East Baltimore rowhome where he had spent much of his life, to a long-term care facility in Catonsville.

He was clearly in ill health. His slurred speech, glassy eyes, and confused expression betrayed hints of dementia. At first he refused to take the podium, a demurral that caused some alarm among the organizers of the event. When he finally rose to speak, a baited hush fell over the room as all the assembled news crews, friends, and community residents waited to see whether Schaefer would be able to struggle through his brief prepared remarks. The tremor in his hands was evident as he gripped the lectern. He stood there silently for several seemingly interminable seconds before opening his mouth.

And then he just blew the doors off the place. Just as he had done in countless press conferences before, Schaefer proceeded to ignore his notes and speak with customary frankness and bracing clarity. He was funny. He was insightful. He was inspiring. He mugged. He played to the cameras. He courteously acknowledged then-Mayor Sheila Dixon, who would later suffer her own fall from grace. He displayed none of the petulant incoherence that had characterized his recent public appearances. Through it all shone a dedication to his city that had never wavered in a long and hard-fought career.

Schaefer reminisced fondly about his four terms as mayor, calling it "the best job I ever had." He said that if you want to be a good mayor, you have to "wage war" on blight and garbage, you have to take "every brick out of place" in the city as a personal affront. That you have to care about the neighborhoods and the people in them.

As he delivered this fiery yet wistful valediction, I realized why he was so beloved by so many. It wasn't just that he had given 50 years of his life to public service. It wasn't just because of his operatic personality and considerable charisma. It wasn't just that he was the man behind Harborplace, Oriole Park, the Light Rail, and the surprising staying power of the slogan "Charm City."

Baltimore loves William Donald Schaefer because he loved Baltimore. He fought hard for it for over half a century. People love Schaefer because when he saw an a pothole on the way to work, he felt responsible for making sure it was filled. People love him because he took every brick out of place personally.

Godspeed, Mr. Mayor.


Anyone wishing to honor William Donald Schaefer's memory and legacy may make a contribution to the William Donald Schaefer Civic Fund at the Baltimore Community Foundation. The fund supports projects in the Baltimore neighborhoods Schaefer loved.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Walbrook Film Project Teaches Students About More Than Holding a Camera

Filmmaker and volunteer instructor Josef Sawyer addresses the audience.

Arts, community, violence, conflict resolution, history, memory: these were some of the topics explored in three short films by 10 young artists whose work was screened yesterday afternoon at the Walbrook Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

The films were part of the Walbrook Project, a student filmmaking initiative created by Felicia Pride, founder of The Backlist, and her sister Fellina. Using the Walbrook library as a hub, the Pride sisters recruited film instructor Josef Sawyer and other volunteer mentors and armed a group of middle- and high schoolers to document aspects of life in West Baltimore over a six-month period. Support for the project came from a $1,500 Ignition Grant* awarded to Felicia Pride in September 2010.

Learning the fundamentals of filmmaking gave the young participants a new perspective on the media they consume. "I learned how to properly take an interview, how to ask questions and film it," said one student. "[The project] changed my view of media and TV...now when I watch the news, I think about how to set up the cameras, how people don't hold cameras anymore -- everything's automatic."

Another student picked up the theme. "When I watch the newscast, I'm thinking about things like headroom, how to focus on person when they're talking," she said.

The experience taught the young filmmakers more than just the basics of framing, blocking, and editing.

"We learned to work as a team," enthused one of a trio of young women who collaborated to produce the film 'Walbrook: Heart of the Arts.' "I learned how friends can operate together in a work setting."

"I learned that Walbrook used to have a lot of businesses," reflected a young man who interviewed older community residents for the film 'Through Their Eyes: Elders of Walbrook.' "I didn't know we used to have streetcars. I learned that Walbrook can be a better community."

About 60 people, most of them community residents, attended yesterday's screening. Audience members praised the students for they way they applied the skills they had acquired, and encouraged them to dream big.

Felicia Pride (far right), Fellina Pride (second from right), and other mentors applauded the young people's accomplishments.

"You never know where [the study of filmmaking] might take you," said volunteer mentor Dankwa Brooks, who works in the media unit of the Baltimore City Police Department. "Media literacy impacts how we look at messages and the media we consume."

"It's good to see that youth who don't go to Baltimore School for the Arts can still create good art," asserted a man in the audience during a question-and-answer session, drawing heartfelt applause from the crowd.

Participating in the project gave the students an opportunity to delve into particular aspects of their lives and the life of the city.

"We wanted to see how arts impact the community," explained one of the filmmakers behind 'Walbrook: Heart of the Arts.' The film features interviews with members of WombWork Productions, a grassroots company that promotes healing and empowerment through dance, theater, and other forms of creative expression.

Another film, 'Two-Way Mirror: Walbrook,' opens with a shot of two teenage boys playing ball on a grassy field on North Hilton Street, while police sirens blare in the background. The boys are approached by another pair of young men who demand the ball. When the demand is refused, a chase and scuffle ensue, culminating in a fight scene that is unsettling in its realistic depiction of violence.

"We wanted to present what we see every day in the 'hood'," explained one of the filmmakers, who put air-quotes around the word 'hood.' "This is what happens outside of school, and sometimes in school. The violence is getting worse and worse, closer and closer to where you live."

Despite its grim subject matter, 'Two-Way Mirror' ends on an optimistic note. After the beating scene, a title card appears that reads, "what should have happened..." The film then rewinds to the point where the "gang members" (as they are listed in the credits) ask for the ball. Rather than refusing them outright, the owner of the ball agrees to give it to them, on the condition that the four boys play with it together. The film closes on a scene of both pairs of young men tossing the ball back and forth.

While 'Two-Way Mirror' shows a reflection of West Baltimore's youth, 'Through Their Eyes: Elders of Walbrook' offers a portrait of three of the community's older residents.

"I love the city," says S. Bunjo Butler in the opening scene. "Everbody I love is here." Butler, who is the manager of the Walbrook Library, and who was on hand for yesterday's screening, goes on in the film to lament the "heartbreaking" changes he has witnessed to his community over time, i.e. increases in crime, drug activity, and poverty.

Despite these concerns, Butler and his fellow older adults express hope for the future. "In twelve and a half years, I'll be 100 years old," says a surprisingly spry-looking Herman Pittman in the film. A local businessman who owns several properties in the area, Pittman envisions the restoration of North Avenue into "a Main Street." Education is the key to that revitalization, he says.

Some of the reminiscences of the older people profiled in 'Through Their Eyes' provoked warm responses from the audience. "We had Arundel's Ice Cream," recalls an interviewee, who goes on to talk about how racism kept her from going to certain schools and eating at a particular restaurant. The mention of the now-defunct ice cream parlor prompted fond chuckles and murmurs of "Oh, yeah!" from the crowd.

Asked what he learned from interviewing older adults, one of the filmmakers responded, "One of the things I learned is how Baltimore was back then. And Baltimore is still changing now, so hopefully...I'll be able to tell someone who's sitting in my seat how it was back in my time."

Another young project participant said that listening to older members of the community caused her to see the economic potential in her neighborhood, and that she was now inspired to obtain a college degree in order to help realize that potential.

One young woman admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the choices facing her. "When someone asks me what I want to do when I go to college, I don't know what to say, because I want to do everything," she laughed.

Such sentiments were clearly music to the ears of the adults in the room, particularly the many proud mothers in attendance. One after another, family members, mentors, neighbors, and visitors rose to commend the young filmmakers on the works they had produced, and to encourage them to keep achieving.

The young dreamers blushed and smiled.


The three short films will be available for viewing online in the near future. They will be linked from this site.


*Full disclosure: I am a member of the Ignition Grant review team.