Look closely at the lime green wood bench at Fawn and Albemarle Streets and see the faint remnants of an old slogan —The Greatest City in America — still painted on it.
The moniker was on thousands of benches as part of a city campaign in the early 2000s, and years later the words have become iconic — often featured as part of Baltimore-inspired art.
“The Greatest City in America” is one of a string of nicknames, taglines and slogans Baltimore officials have adopted over the decades. They typically spoke to the vision of the time and were often used to counteract negative perceptions of a city often hammered by outsiders for its socioeconomic issues. Usually these slogans were part of a advertising and branding campaign. The benches, for example, were requested by former Mayor Martin O’Malley, who felt the city suffered from “pathological modesty.”
Slogans have become a part of Baltimore’s constant struggle to earn respect. And they’ve often proven short-lived. Sometimes, their meanings are warped to something more sinister. “Charm City,” a campaign during the William Donald Schaefer administration, became “Harm City;” and “The City that Reads,” adopted during the administration of Kurt Schmoke, became the “The City That Bleeds” in response to the city’s high homicide numbers.
Sometimes the vitriol came from the city’s own residents, exemplifying the love-hate relationship Baltimoreans have with where they live.
In national outlets, Baltimoreans penned acidic odes to the city. Baltimore, one writer said in 1966, is an “anonymous city even to those who live there, a city that draws a laugh even from Philadelphia, a sneer from Washington.” A city worthy of two particularly brutal taglines, per the writer’s suggestions: “A Loser’s Town” and “Yesterday Town.”
“We don’t have as much history, we don’t have as many ancestors, we don’t have as much money,” James Bready, an editorial writer for The Evening Sun for more than three decades, told The New York Times in 1973. “We are an innocent city. We never surrendered to the success dream. We are a city where people don’t think they are very bright.”
That wave of collective self-deprecation was what Schaefer, Baltimore’s 45th mayor, was fighting against when he reached out to the city’s largest and leading advertising agencies in the early ’70s in what began the slogan trend. Schaefer, despite his stern personality, was perceived as the city’s biggest cheerleader, ushering the city through an economic renaissance with the development of the Inner Harbor as he worked on improving its image.
The Charm City campaign, which cost the city $40,000, included half-page ads in newspapers in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago. The ads featured the artwork of quiet neighborhood streets with rowhomes, marble steps and the Washington Monument. The city gave out charm bracelets, too, at popular attractions like Lexington Market and Fort McHenry.
Also rolled out was a 12-minute film showing aerial shots of downtown and quick clips of restaurants, sports and cultural activities in Baltimore — the town that is “anything but perfection,” but “everything a city should be.”
Bill Evans was one of the five people Schaefer entrusted with the advertising initiative who wrote the line during a brainstorm session that inspired the campaign: “Baltimore has more history and unspoiled charm tucked away in quiet corners than most American cities out in the spotlight.”
“And it just caught on,” said Sandy Hillman, who worked in the city’s office of promotion and tourism from 1971 to 1983.
The timing, however, wasn’t ideal. That summer, the city garbage workers went on strike over better wages.
“It was not exactly charming at that time,” said Matthew Crenson, a professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University. “In fact, it smelled pretty bad.”
The city was losing population at a faster rate than at any time in history amid a national recession, Crenson said — more than 118,000 residents by the 1980 Census. Bethlehem Steel, a large employer, wasn’t dead yet, but it was on a slide. “Charm City,” Crenson said, felt humorous to many who lived there.
And soon the campaign was a bust. The city could not raise additional money to keep it going, officials told The Baltimore Sun in 1976. Some claimed there was too much competition with other city programs and that potential investors thought “Charm City” evoked “small-townness.”
Critics said the effort was steering away from more complicated issues, Crenson said — and often at the expense of city schools and neighborhoods outside of downtown.
Kurt Schmoke, at the time the state’s attorney for Baltimore, took on the issue despite the criticism, Crenson said, and as the succeeding mayor in 1987 to 1999, Schmoke had “the courage to face it in public.”
“And he got into a great deal of grief,” Crenson added.
Schmoke believed education could address the city’s “wide range of tough problems”, he told The Baltimore Banner. He wanted to get the city committed to learning, improving schools and “lifelong literacy.” Hence, “The City That Reads.”
“It would make me the proudest if one day it could simply be said that this is a city that reads,” said Schmoke in his inaugural speech.
“The slogan was embraced by some and mocked by many,” said Schmoke, now president of the University of Baltimore. Skeptics came back with “The City That Bleeds” and “The City That Breeds,” a nod to the city’s high teen pregnancy rate.
Not helping the effort, the city continued to see rising crime rates and failing public schools that placed its students as the worst test-takers in the state. Population continued to decline.
So when one of the first “The Greatest City in America” benches popped up at a bus stop at St. Paul and Saratoga streets in November of 2000, people laughed at it.
The Sun in response called on readers to submit suggestions of nicknames. Plenty suggested morbid parodies of the official slogans. Other ideas: “The City that Cares” and a take off John Water’s line: “Come to Baltimore and be shocked.”
“How about ‘The City That Pretends’?” Danny Brown, then a 23-year-old man, suggested in a story by The Sun. “Or ‘The City That Act Like It Cares’?”
“How about ‘Bodymore, Murderland,?” His friend said.
O’Malley, the mayor at the time, said that he largely ignored the blowback and that Baltimoreans had stunted expectations and the line was made to wake people out of their stupor.
The city council voted to change its slogan again during Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s mayoral administration. Baltimore has been “the birthplace of the Star-Spangled Banner” since 2015.
Mayor Brandon Scott hasn’t come up with any slogans yet, but the city’s destination marketing organization Visit Baltimore will send out requests for proposals of advertising campaigns for creative agencies this year.
“We’re going to be bringing in a new creative agency to not start the process from scratch but to say ‘OK, now, here’s where we are,’ ” said Trish McLean, chief marketing officer for Visit Baltimore. “‘Where do we want to go next?’”
As a city transplant and marketer, Bill Ward notices people react emotionally to the city — whatever it is, love it or hate it, Baltimoreans respond to it.
Ward, executive vice president and managing director of the advertising agency TBC, said the city and any campaign should embrace its jagged edges and appreciate its character.
What does this long search for a satisfactory slogan say about Baltimore? It could be a story of divisiveness, a read on misconceptions about Baltimore — or it might be a love story written by the wrong person.
Ward says none of these past slogans and taglines seem quite fit for the city. Schmoke also does not think any mayor has found a unifying vision for the city.
“It’s going to have to come from the community,” said Schmoke.
This story has been updated to correct the slogan to "The Greatest City in America."
Aaron Henkin from The Baltimore Banner’s partner WYPR contributed to this report. Henkin and Clara Longo de Freitas produced an audio version of this story for the “The Maryland Curiosity Bureau.” The Baltimore Banner and WYPR have a joint operating agreement that allows the nonprofit organizations to work collaboratively to deliver quality journalism across the region. To learn more about the partnership, click here.