Falling in love with Baltimore’s past through archival video wormholes

Published on: July 29, 2022 at 6:00 am EDT

A man and his young helper put on a show for kids at a Pigtown school sometime between the 1920s and '30s.

For the past five years or so, I’ve been developing a new hobby of scouring the depths of the internet to find archival photography and footage that are Baltimore-centric — especially material that centers on Black life.

These deep dives go on for hours sometimes. A visit to archive.org gets me access to an abundance of old local newscasts, and what I love the most is getting so lost in the grainy footage that I start imagining what my life would have been like if I was an adult — or even born — in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

YouTube is also a great destination for these nostalgic binges and a bit more expansive than what vintage broadcasts can provide. There, I get to lean into old music videos, home movies randomly uploaded onto channels with no subscribers, and low budget local documentaries from the 2000s that I haven’t seen since my teenage years. Even an occasional Instagram dig can lead you to random pages dedicated to a particular time in the city.

Whatever the platform, these trips down memory lane help affirm my love for my hometown and spark an endless curiosity in me. Like, what would it have been like to witness Baltimore when it had little-to-no vacant houses and upwards of a million residents in the inner city? Are any of my relatives in these documents that I’m scanning? Sometimes I get emotional thinking that the majority of people I’m watching — who are walking some of the same streets that I frequent — aren’t even around anymore. It’s a sobering, yet humbling experience that helps me come to terms with the fact that there are moments of my own life being immortalized right now that could have a similar effect on someone in 50 years.

But the biggest takeaway from this obsession of mine is that it offers the reassurance of legacy. In our individualized society, it’s easy to assume that present-day concerns, desires and struggles are particular to this time. I’ve learned that couldn’t be further from the truth. We are nothing but a continuation of the people that come before us, and our influences come from the interaction of past, present and future.

Here’s a list of five videos I’ve found to be the most entertaining, striking or just simply weird through my searches.

A young Mo’Nique strutting down the runway

I found this video on YouTube a few years ago while going on an hourslong binge and somehow the algorithm led me to a channel belonging to someone named Lovell Connor, who I assume was a local film producer. His channel is filled with graduations from the ’90s and 2000s, and the occasional special event. This one is a special treat because it features a local fashion show from 1988 that took place at The Palladium and the first person you see is a 20-year-old Mo’Nique — the world renowned comedian and actress who was born and raised in Woodlawn. It’s always fun to get a peek into people’s lives when they were still just trying to figure it out. Who would have known that Mo’Nique, at one point, had an interest in modeling without seeing something like this?

Jada Pinkett Smith learning new roller-skating tricks

Staying on the topic of Baltimoreans who would go on to be internationally known, here is a video that I found on an Instagram page solely dedicated to Baltimore’s roller-skating culture during the ’80s and ’90s. Going through this page’s profile, I came across a real gem: actress (and constant source of Twitter relationship debates) Jada Pinkett Smith, before she got the appended last name, being schooled on a new skating trick. In the video, the young Jada sports a short blonde haircut, baggy jeans and a single gold door knocker earring. It’s funny to hear the local accents from the person filming when they pronounce names like Larry and Derrick as “Lurry” and “Durrick.” According to the video’s caption, this was filmed at a skating rink in Owings Mills.

Pigtown, a century ago

Nothing I’ve found has presented more questions than this depiction of Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood in what appears to be in 1920s or ‘30s. Even the uploading of this video to YouTube seems to have been guided by some supernatural force. It’s from a man named George Fold’s channel, and even though it’s the only video he ever uploaded it has over 130,000 views and over 400 comments. In the description, Fold notes: “Found this commercial quality 35mm film in my great grandparents’ basement back in 1995. I don’t know how they came into possession of it, but I just recently had it processed … The street shots were filmed at 1223 Washington Boulevard, and the school recess shots are at Charles Carroll Barrister Elementary (School 34).” It’s like flipping through a history book, except with less context.

The video starts with two women chilling on a stoop and it then transitions into shots of people walking down Washington Boulevard with their friends and family — cars in some of their earliest stages putt-putt down the road. Some people peer straight into the camera and the intimacy is a bit intense, considering that there’s quite possibly no one from this video still alive. Where things really get interesting is towards the end when schoolchildren are watching a show at recess. There’s an extremely tall clown doing tricks with a little dog and, later, an older Black man and his young helper trying to tame kids pretending to be a horse. Extremely eerie and interesting piece.

The Soul of Baltimore

This WMAR-TV news special from 1968 is essential watching for all Baltimoreans, but especially those in the Black community. Titled “The Soul of Baltimore,” this special follows the late civil rights activist Walter P. Carter along West Baltimore’s historic Pennsylvania Avenue. In the wake of riots sparked by Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination that same year, Carter talks about a new, more radical consciousness being formed in Baltimore and throughout the country. He takes trips to the Black-owned businesses in the neighborhood, like butchery shops, record stores and a placed called Soul School that advocated for Pan-Africanism. The special is crucial in understanding the transition that inner city Baltimore underwent after the 1968 riots that inform many of the issues still prevalent today.

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A word from Tim Trees

The “Baltimore Real Talk DVD” series documented the local rap scene in the early-to-mid 2000s, and if it hadn’t been for YouTube, I probably would have forgotten these existed during my adolescent years. Volume 2 of that series sticks out to me thanks to a long talking point towards the end of the doc. Local rapper Tim Trees — whose “Bank Rolls” song was probably the most locally adored non-club-music track for most of the 2000s — shares his opinion on where Baltimore stood in the national hip-hop conversation. When asked if he thought the city was the next hot spot in the country for talent, Trees was reluctant.

By his estimation, Baltimore artists were suffering from an identity crisis: either trying to sound like they were from the Deep South, West Coast or New York tri-state area despite the homegrown sonics of Baltimore club being readily available to them — especially considering that “Bank Rolls” was produced by Baltimore club titan Rod Lee and many of his other early songs were produced by another club music creator, Dukeyman. According to Tim Trees, until Baltimore artists engage with what is distinctly theirs, there probably won’t be any rap stars from here.

Sadly, his words still mostly ring true. Although the local rap scene has been in a better place than ever over the past five years, there still hasn’t been a big splash moment. And maybe there doesn’t have to be for multiple people to find success at the same time.

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