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Stiehm: A key to Baltimore’s broken heart

By Jamie Stiehm - | Apr 4, 2024

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Jamie Stiehm

A week ago, while Baltimore slept, the Francis Scott Key Bridge stood, its gorgeous and graceful truss lighting and spanning its busy global port. It is — was — a beloved landmark.

When the city woke in the dawn’s early light, the bridge was not still there. A massive 21st-century cargo ship rammed it and it all fell down, severing a vital artery to the city’s heart. Six workers, immigrants all, lost their lives in the frigid river.

A “cathedral of architecture,” a Baltimore congressman, Kweisi Mfume, told The New York Times.

Bridges belong to everyone, and the deep loss is shared by all who crossed and viewed it shaping the skyline, core to the city’s identity.

“Repeat that, Chief,” the stunned mayor, Brandon Scott, said at 1:30 a.m. when the fire chief told him the bridge was “gone.”

Knowing Baltimore almost by heart once as a newspaper reporter, I feel the insult to its infrastructure, history and everyday working-class economy, the port a hive for stevedores and longshoremen.

Abolitionist great Frederick Douglass once worked on the waterfront as an enslaved young caulker.

Key, the wealthy lawyer, poet and enslaver who wrote the verses of the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” witnessed the 1814 British bombardment of Baltimore near the 1977 bridge’s site while floating on a boat. His subject, the American victory, helped end the War of 1812.

“The flag was still there,” flying over the star-shaped Fort McHenry on the water’s edge.

Key’s inspired verses, which he dashed off that day in Baltimore, gave the young nation symbolic new meaning. Flagmaker Mary Pickersgill, with her daughter, niece and an enslaved servant girl, Grace, had made the huge banner in record time.

I’ll come back to why it would be wrong to name a new bridge after Key. We’re starting to see him in antebellum light, not a pretty sight.

Unlucky Baltimore did not need this tragedy.

It was shaking off a recent spate of mayors sent to prison, stretches of empty rowhouses and a high murder rate. The HBO series set there, “The Wire,” painted a dark Dickensian canvas. It’s often seen as a country cousin to Washington, an hour south on I-95.

But there’s much more to its story, I found on the beat.

I met the city griot, a storyteller in the African tradition. The museum of art has the country’s largest collection of Henri Matisse paintings, thanks to a pair of sisters who knew the artist. Johns Hopkins’ family invited me over to discuss Quaker history.

Baltimore has a surprising store of literary talent.

On assignment, I visited the tiny house where Edgar Allan Poe lived. From poet Ogden Nash to novelist Anne Tyler to filmmaker John Waters, unconventional creators roam there. The curmudgeon columnist, H.L. Mencken, was called the Sage of Baltimore.

The nation’s first Catholic Basilica is perched downtown near the harbor. The vibrant Jewish community’s mark is just as clear. I think of Terry, the interior painter who listened to opera while working.

Maryland was a slave state, so Baltimore has a stain on its soul. The Civil War’s first blood was spilled there, when a mob attacked a Massachusetts regiment.

Gov. Wes Moore and Mayor Scott are both Black, charismatic new leaders.

Camden Yards, a beautiful brick ode to old baseball parks of lore, led the way back to cities for a generation of baseball clubs.

The city is a mosaic of ethnic enclaves: Italian, Greek, Polish and Ukrainian all have their parts. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi grew up in Little Italy as the Baltimore mayor’s daughter. Baltimore was second only to New York as a destination for Ellis Island arrivals. The Black majority is tight-knit over time.

Back to Key. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald was named after his ancestor and lived in Baltimore for a troubled spell.

The aging Key hated the budding abolitionist movement and prosecuted leaders as Washington’s U.S. attorney. Worse, he got President Andrew Jackson to name his brother-in-law Roger Taney chief justice.

Taney ruled Black people could never be citizens. His 1857 Dred Scott opinion enraged the North and helped set off the Civil War.

An avowed racist must be “gone” from bridge-building in the 21st century.

The author may be reached at JamieStiehm.com.


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