Making a Magnet: Baltimore’s Fledgling High-Tech Community May Be the Key to Rebuilding the City and Slowing Sprawl

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 1, 1999

Vice president Al Gore calls it “Building Livable Communities.” Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening calls its “Smart Growth.” But the two Democrats are talking about the same thing: Public policies that emphasize new investment in existing communities rather than in the fast-expanding fringe of metropolitan areas. Opponents say this idea is a Trojan horse for bigger government, but the goal is something many voters support strongly — slowing the spread of what both Gore and Glendening call a “monster”: suburban sprawl.

The vice president and the governor share another prescription for promoting a healthy, balanced economy. Gore’s slogan is “building American prosperity in the Information Age”; Glendening calls it “Maryland’s technology revolution.” Both want to encourage continued expansion of an industry that has spurred an unprecedented creation of wealth in America during the 1990s: high technology, that broad area of economic activity that seeks to harness the fruits of the scientific frontier for commercial use. High-tech is the potent heart of what many have come to call “the new economy.”

What neither leader explicitly acknowledges is that sprawl and the new economy are closely linked — a point first made by Fred Siegel, a history professor and urbanologist at the New York college Cooper Union. (The author of this article worked for Siegel as a researcher earlier this year.) The phenomenal expansion of the suburbs in recent years has been fueled first and foremost by the technology boom. The challenge, if the state and the nation are going to beat back sprawl and encourage the technology revolution, is to induce the new economy to choose cities and older suburbs over the green, cheap fields of exurbia.

That won’t be easy, but there are hints that it may already be happening — albeit in a limited fashion — in Baltimore. Some boosters are touting the city as a budding magnet for the fast-growing, fast-moving high-tech sector, particularly for that corner known as “new media,” which focuses on advertising, selling, and communicating through computers.

Available data about high-tech jobs and businesses show that Baltimore City’s participation in the new economy is lagging significantly behind that of the surrounding counties, where sprawl has become a critical issue. Despite the presence of big medical-research institutions (Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland), which traditionally spin off biotechnology start-ups, the city’s high-tech numbers don’t measure up to those of its neighbors, according to data from state agencies.

But in the fast-moving world of the Information Age, data tends to lag behind reality. A look around the city quickly makes clear that Baltimore is home to a growing and largely unnoticed high-tech sector — not just biotechnology, which the city is already known for, but information and computer technology. The Can Company in Canton, the Bagby Building in Little Italy, and even the Inner Harbor’s Power Plant are home to new or expanding high-tech ventures — evidence that tech types like working in funkily rehabbed industrial artifacts. And Baltimore has plenty of those.

Inner Harbor East and another planned development at a defunct Proctor & Gamble plant in Locust Point are expected to draw more technology tenants to the city. Some business leaders predict that the controversial west-side redevelopment project will also draw high-tech investment that could preserve some of the historic structures currently at risk of being demolished.

To lend techies a sense of community — considered to be of supreme importance in any technology-savvy economic-development strategy — the regional business group the Greater Baltimore Committee spun off a new organization earlier this year: the Greater Baltimore Technology Council, headed by Penny Lewandowski, an exuberant veteran of Washington, D.C.’s successful tech-promotion effort.

Before anyone gets too excited about Baltimore’s high-tech future and making sprawl a thing of the past, it’s important to examine the obstacles — and some unpredictable factors that come into play. Even if individuals and tech enterprises pondering Baltimore overlook the city’s crime statistics and social ills, they still face a labor force ill-prepared to meet the demands of technology jobs. Then there is the issue of regionalism: Baltimore will be competing with surrounding jurisdictions trying to attract companies, and the ‘burbs have more attractive tax structures and more available land to explore for locations. Finally, there are unforeseen circumstances — such as the current drought, which is already causing farmers to put their land on the market for development (and hence sprawl), and the possibility of a downturn in the business cycle, which would lead to economic contraction and less investment everywhere.

Such pitfalls notwithstanding, Smart Growth and high-tech are high priorities in Maryland and on the presidential-campaign trail, and voters and business leaders alike are going to be hearing more and more about them. For Baltimore City, which has failed to hitch its wagon to the economic gravy train that’s been rolling across the country and the region during the last several years, this strategy may be the last chance to rebound for a long time to come. “Shame on us,” developer William Struever says, “if we don’t all come together and recognize this opportunity.”
In June, the Home Builders of Maryland held a conference at the Columbia Hilton to discuss Smart Growth. The keynote speaker was Joel Kotkin, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in Southern California and an energetic student of what makes cities tick. Kotkin wholeheartedly embraces the idea that the market, not government, is the best arbiter of prickly issues such as suburban sprawl. The key, he suggests, is to bring cities such as Baltimore back to life, make them competitive in ways that will attract new people and businesses, and let market preferences take care of tempering runaway sprawl.

Home builders and other developers tend to quake at the mention of sprawl. The issue has them in a bind. They claim to be chasing the demand for more and more space farther and farther from urban centers, but the constituency the developers say they are trying to serve has grown resentful of the bulldozers clearing open land and replacing it with cookie-cutter tract housing, office parks, malls, and parking lots. Sprawl was created by suburban migration, but increasingly the migrants are saying enough is enough, as the traffic congestion, pollution, crowded schools, and social ills they left the city to escape have followed them outward. Environmentalists, with good reason, see sprawl’s effects in the poor health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Kotkin’s audience of developers smells the threat of land-use regulation in all the anti-sprawl talk, but they also sense a market-based demand for a fundamental change in the way development is done, and they know the writing is on the wall. “We have to look at the market,” Kotkin tells them. “We have to look at the competition between different kinds of areas as our best way of dealing with the sprawl issue and the growth-management issue.”

In the face of conventional wisdom that the suburbs and exurbs, with their plentiful land, are ground zero for development, Kotkin says cities such as Baltimore have some advantages that can help them compete.

What helped give the suburbs an edge in the first place — what created “the economic conditions for sprawl,” in Kotkin’s words — was the shift to “a knowledge-based society. . . . Knowledge is the primary resource and the traditional factors of production are no longer tied to particular places” — places with a certain kind of infrastructure, or accessibility to a port or raw materials. This new reality created what Kotkin calls “nerdistans: places where nerds like to live. A nerdistan is generally in the outer fringes, and high-tech companies generally are going to go to the nerdistans.”

But high-tech isn’t exclusively attracted to nerdistans, Kotkin continues. “Cities do have a niche in the new economy, [attracting] the group where the single largest disadvantage of cities — the education system — doesn’t matter. Single people, gay, double-income-no-children, empty nesters, Generation Y, the yuppies — these are groups that are increasing in population. One-third of the baby-boomer generation is single, childless, or only has one child. That’s going to be a major factor as we start to see fewer and fewer people who have to live in the suburbs because of family reasons . . . and start to see resettlement of the downtowns. It’s the beginning of a new urban demographic.”

On top of that, Kotkin says, Baltimore has one of the characteristics the new urbanists are looking for: old urban settings. “Baltimore has the environment, it has the architecture, it has the kind of vistas, the kind of cultural institutions which are going to attract them.”

In this light, he says, the question becomes, “What part of this new economy makes sense for Baltimore to go after?” The answer, he suggests, is the so-called “new media” — people focused on harnessing computer technology and the Internet to expand and improve communication and the flow of information, such as Web-site designers and online publishers. The new-media industry is growing, Kotkin says, “and that growth tends toward the cities. It attracts younger people, freelancers, the creatives. They don’t like the very things that the nerds like. The chaos and excitement of the cities attracts the creatives.

“So this is really where I see the future of the cities going, and we might see a much more appropriate dispersion of growth as a result — that kind of strong headlocking of competition [between cities and suburbs] that will see the new economy allocate resources and will make growth take place quite differently than we’ve seen in the last 20 years.”
If any one company in Baltimore typifies the local potential of the high-tech media industry, it is Gr8. Headed by Craig Ziegler, an exuberant businessman whose excitement about the prospects of his industry in Baltimore borders on mania, Gr8 has grown from about 20 employees to close to 100 since its move to the Can Company building last year. He expects to need another 300 or more staffers in the next few years to meet the demand for his services, which include Web-page design, Internet advertising, and other creative computer consulting.

Ziegler is concerned that Baltimore is selling itself short, failing to maximize its potential. “As a combined unit, Baltimore and Washington is the fourth largest in regards to size in the advertising and new-media arena,” he says. “That’s huge. Do we capitalize on it? Not at all. Baltimore needs to start informing people that this market exists here. Go to any one of the outside areas in New York or L.A. or San Francisco, and people say, ‘Baltimore? What’s Baltimore doing in high-tech? They are institutional. They are the biotechs. But they are not creative media.’ We are not on anybody’s radar screen. This community has to come together to rewrite the moniker that we’ve all been stuck with: ‘What the hell’s in Baltimore?'”

The answer to that question may be: not much now, but more and more, sooner and sooner. William Struever — whose firm, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, increasingly specializes in adapting older buildings for high-tech uses — has perhaps the best sense of what’s here and what’s coming in terms of new media. He says he first noticed the new-media and computer- and info-tech trend in cities a few years ago as he traveled to different urban areas around the country.

“Computer-tech, info-tech is much faster growing than biotech,” Struever says, “and I think on a long-term basis it is much more likely to deliver the wealth and jobs and business development that we are looking for. . . .

“It’s all about having the right idea and making the right alliances and having the right funding to be able to go fast and take advantage of an opportunity,” he continues. “Baltimore’s going to be a central place for Web-page design and e-commerce and a whole bunch of tech stuff, not just with Gr8 but these other businesses.” He cites Sylvan Learning, Caliber, Eisner & Associates, e.magination — new or established businesses in Baltimore that are entering the Internet and electronic-commerce markets.

Ziegler says new-media companies bring with them a certain breed of entrepreneurs and employees who can transform city neighborhoods. “We have the ability to attract not blue-collar, but fairly well-educated white-collar young professionals that are city dwellers,” he says. “You look at the numbers that have been declining in regards to people moving outside the city into the suburbs — it is staggering. And you look at the neighborhoods that are starting to become rundown. And then you look at what happened in Canton. This was a very undesirable area for quite a while. [The Can Company] and some of the other projects up and down the strip here have revitalized this entire area in a very short period of time. I mean, that’s staggering. And there’s a lot of technology focus down here.”

Another boost new media can bring to the city is exposure, Ziegler says. “I can’t tell you how many CEOs and presidents from major companies have come through my office space, which means they come through Baltimore. They’ve never been to Baltimore. ‘What a lovely city,’ they say. I mean, I hear some comments I’m sure the mayor would just love to suck up. You can’t pay for that kind of exposure.”

Ziegler plans to grow Gr8 through acquisitions and other expansion, but he is also starting new ventures such as Guest Tech, which is obtaining contracts with hotel companies to install computer hook-ups in hotel rooms.

“According to the analysts,” he says with heated excitement, “we will be the number-five player in terms of size, worldwide, in the new-media space once we get through this next move. Number five. And we’re in Baltimore. If that’s not newsworthy I don’t know what the hell is. Have I talked to the mayor’s office yet? No. Have I ever gotten any tax incentives? No. Did I get any help? Not that I’m aware of. What we have is a major ability to attract world-class customers and world-class talent. And with the help of the city, I think we can build it — we are going to build it with or without them, by the way, but having their help would sure be nice — because the market is just so fertile.”
What Ziegler and Struever are up to dovetails perfectly with Al Gore’s and Parris Glendening’s agenda: combating sprawl by revitalizing cities through high technology. And it is in keeping with Kotkin’s philosophy of achieving economic outcomes through market decisions rather than government programs. But as the authority that still has ultimate say over how land can be used, government can and will have a significant role.

Ron Young, the deputy director of the state Office of Planning and a former mayor of Frederick, was appointed by the governor to chair the Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation Coordinating Subcommittee, which grew out of the Smart Growth legislation passed by the General Assembly in 1997. High-tech “certainly is an expanding area of the economy in Maryland,” Young says, and Smart Growth “is about bringing all of that into established areas. The market forces are there. But we need to have the right public policies to turn the incentives back into these established areas, just as we incentivized moving out [to the suburbs] with poor public policies for years.”

For generations now, as Glendening said when he rolled out his Smart Growth proposal in 1996, “sprawl has been supported by an avalanche of federal, state, and county policies.” School-funding formulas, road-focused transportation spending, and other policies sped the spread to the suburbs. Gore, speaking last fall before the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington, D.C., cited “federal subsidies [that] actually gave handsome financial rewards to communities to extend sewage lines far out into undeveloped areas . . . [and] gave employers big subsidies to offer parking spaces to their employees, but much less help if they wanted to help cover their employees’ mass-transit costs.”

As a key implementer of Maryland’s program to reverse these kinds of sprawl-inducing incentives, it’s part of Young’s job to be bullish on Baltimore’s high-tech potential. But he can cite the specific conditions behind the optimism. For start-up companies, he says, “there is a realization that there’s an availability of reasonable space, reasonable price, and a good standard of living there, and quite often these companies are young people who have discovered cities.” Approximately 60 percent of Maryland adults, he adds, are “empty nesters,” people with no children or none living with them. “So when you look at what the city has to offer, everything is there if a few issues are addressed to bring people back in. The state needs to show people those opportunities, and give them incentives to do it. So, yes, I could very easily see a major boom in Baltimore.”

The Smart Growth program is essentially an attempt to use government funds and policies to change investment behavior and direct development to cities and older suburbs. It has three main components. First, it establishes seven “Priority Funding Areas” — already developed areas (including Baltimore City and the suburbs inside the Baltimore Beltway) — outside of which state investment in growth-related projects is, to quote the statute, “generally prohibited.” Thus, Baltimore will get preferential treatment in state funding for roads, sewers, housing, and other investments in economic growth. Second, the “Rural Legacy” program is designed to fund state acquisition of farms, forests, or natural-resource lands to protect them from future development — sending the market elsewhere for future investment. Finally, there is the “Brownfields” program, which uses incentives to encourage cleanup and reuse of abandoned industrial lands that may be contaminated, many of which are found in the city.

Barriers to the program’s success remain, including circumstances not foreseen when the state legislature debated it last year. The drought has exacerbated financial problems already plaguing Maryland farmers, prompting some to sell off their land, most likely to developers who want to put up homes, malls, or office parks.

Another recent and unforeseen wrinkle for Smart Growth was a transportation-planning fiasco uncovered by The Sun. Tens of millions of dollars of federal funds for building new roads in Maryland may be held up because the political leaders in the Baltimore region failed to accurately report the amount of emissions from cars. There is a “silver lining” in this snafu, Young says: Developers might decide that unfunded road projects nix their plans for rural areas and choose to look at established areas that don’t need new transportation infrastructure.

There is also general uncertainty about the economy. The current boom has been going on for about seven years now, fueled in recent years by what Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan calls “irrational exuberance” in the marketplace, particularly over Internet companies. The Federal Reserve has been bumping interest rates slowly upward to try to cool down the hot times, but at some point, many predict, an economic downturn will hit. This would slow down not only sprawl, but new investment in Baltimore’s nascent high-tech sector.

“I sweat bullets,” Struever says. “We are all dependent on interest rates and the overall momentum in the economy. Things could go wrong, short term or long term. I think very much the ball game is establishing that the opportunity is here today, and to get us as far along as we possibly can while things are good and interests rates are low.”

Struever’s worries are echoed by M.J. “Jay” Brodie, the head of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s quasipublic economic-development arm. “Those of us who have lived through recessions . . . tend to believe that this wonderful economy will not go on forever, not at the present rate. It doesn’t mean there will be a depression, but interest rates will probably creep up a bit, investment may cut back a bit. So while interest rates are low, we want to keep pushing for economic-development investment in Baltimore.”

Finally, licking sprawl in the suburbs and powering a high-tech magnet in the city depends in large part on the success or failure of regional approaches to economic development. The Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) zealously advocates cooperation across city and county lines, and the idea that a strong urban core is key to the health of the region. But Baltimore’s weaker economic condition makes it difficult for city leaders to establish a strong presence at the regional table.

Donald Hutchinson, the former Baltimore County executive who heads GBC, says that despite its weakened condition, the city is still very much the heart and soul of the region. The city, he says, has to use this psychological advantage to extract agreements from its surrounding counties to share prospects for growth.

“You have to understand that 70 percent of all new growth comes from already existing businesses,” he says. “Only 30 percent is start-ups or pulling some other company from outside into the region. So if 70 percent of the movement is internal within the city and the five surrounding counties, they gotta compete for what’s already here, and that’s where the city gets hurt. And that’s why the city has to establish understandings and relationships.

“If I’m the new mayor,” Hutchinson continues, “the first thing I do is say [to the surrounding counties], ‘It is to your advantage for the city core to be strong. If a corporation is looking to move from the city to the county, you’ve got to give me the courtesy of having the first run. Don’t try to take them from me. Don’t try to compete with me for that business. Now, if they decide that they are going to leave and I’m absolutely convinced that they are going to leave, I, the mayor, will do whatever I need to do to make sure they stay in the region, and I’ll work with you to help create the environment to make sure they stay in the region.’ That’s the leadership that you are going to need. Otherwise, the city will fail if it puts itself into a competitive posture with the counties.”

Ultimately, though, the city’s position as a regional player is only as strong as its economic competitiveness, and the high-tech sector may well be key to securing that strength. The first step to attracting high-tech is recognizing its potential and taking steps to capitalize. That’s where Penny Lewandowski, the head of GBC’s newly formed Greater Baltimore Technology Council, comes in.

“Nobody has a clue that this community is growing and thriving right here in the city,” Lewandowski says. “The feeling is that the city is ignoring the tech community and the tech community really could be a very important part of the city’s economy. We have to find these companies, build a community, figure out how we are going to promote this, push their success stories. But then there’s got to be quid pro quo on the other side. There has to be good office space. Bill Struever is doing his part, but what else is going to happen in the city that makes this happen?”

Gr8’s Craig Ziegler thinks he has the answer. “Baltimore has the ability to become a major player in this market,” he says. “We have to help the local government understand the opportunities of what this emerging market could do, what it means to the economy. And it’s huge. Across the board it is a major topic.

“You got to capitalize on it now, because who knows where it’s going to be a year from now. We got to work on Internet time.”

The Diary of Doc Watkins

By Van Smith

Published in New York Press, Oct. 28, 1998

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Until recently, New York City wasn’t on my life’s itinerary. So far as I expected, I would stay in Baltimore, where my mother’s father’s family had settled in the early part of the century and where I had lived (other than a few short forays and travels) since I was a four-year-old in 1970. I was quite comfortable with the idea of riding a lifelong learning curve as an obscure observer and chronicler of a waning, eccentric city. But, alas, 1998 has so far proven a pivotal year for me, and suddenly I’m living in Queens.

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The first 10 months of this year took a lot out of me. I started out by purchasing a charming Civil War-era house in a forsaken Baltimore neighborhood, then flew to Amarillo, TX, to testify as the lead defense witness in Oprah Winfrey’s libel trial over disparaging statements made on her show about the poor eating habits of cows. What landed me in Amarillo was a piece I wrote about what goes on inside a rendering plant, where animal tissues are boiled into their constituent parts of fats and proteins and some of the proteins were (until the feds stepped in with new regulations in 1997) used in cattle feed. I was the only reporter Oprah’s attorneys could find who had actually observed the workings of a rendering plant, and my firsthand observations, it turns out, substantially supported alleged false statements made on Oprah’s show.

This was followed in May by my own libel trial, in which a consultant for Baltimore city tried unsuccessfully to convince a jury that I had written false facts about him in my investigative coverage of a contracting scandal at the city landfill. Over the summer, between filing stories (at City Paper, Baltimore’s weekly) about the state elections, I helped my parents move from Baltimore to an island in Maine. Then I succumbed to the lure of a job at NYPress, abandoned my newly purchased home to a fellow Baltimore writer and shacked up with my girlfriend in Sunnyside.

The breakneck pace of these events proved quite stressful – so, after unloading and unpacking our vanload of belongings, my girlfriend and I were ripe for an extended fall-foliage trip through New England in my 1981 piss-yellow Dodge Diplomat.

Properly stocked with food, music and vices, the Diplomat made for a comfortable ride. While hopelessly passe, especially when chugging up 95 in Connecticut and Rhode Island amid the Volvos and the Land Rovers, the vehicle to me remains esthetically pleasing, particularly when outfitted as it was on this trip with two bikes and a large plastic trunk attached to the roof rack. Being in no hurry, and acutely aware that our gypsy boat was a powerful cop magnet, we went the speed limit and conscientiously avoided road Cokes in an effort to prevent legal trouble – or a dose of wood shampoo from New England’s finest.

The first leg of the trip ended in Manomet, MA, between Plymouth and Cape Cod on the south shore of the Massachusetts Bay. The town is a few coves east of the Pilgrim Station nuclear power plant and, due to its existence, the entire region is ominously served by an antiquated emergency-warning system consisting of huge air-raid sirens.

In Manomet, my great-aunt, the late Agnes Watkins, a classics teacher at Windsor School in Boston who never married and whose exceptional frugality allowed her to travel the world, had owned a small cottage – perfect size for one or two people – near some bluffs leading down to the ocean. On her death some years ago, the cottage came into the possession of my father and his sister and it is now enjoyed by family and friends throughout the summer season as a quiet, phoneless getaway. We spent our first night of vacation there and were off for the Maine coast in the morning.

After staying a few days with my parents and observing their somewhat hyperactive efforts to get their waterfront home in a proper state of readiness before the coming winter storms, we headed inland to Andover, ME, for some outdoor recreation and backwoods relaxation at my girlfriend’s family’s ancestral camp in the woods of the White Mountains. This was the shank of the trip, and it effectively assuaged our nerves and restored our shrunken bellies to fullness.

It was back at Manomet, however, on the last few days of our 12-day New England junket, that we were treated unexpectedly to the most noteworthy discovery of the trip: the memoirs of my great-great-uncle, Robert Lincoln Watkins, as typed, single-space, by his niece Agnes in 1972. The document, found in a bookcase containing numerous family archives, was in a green three-ring binder and was titled: A Story of His Life, by a man who has never gotten anywhere. The cover page indicates it was written in 1927 in New York City.

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As we learned on reading the memoirs, Robert Watkins, a medical doctor and inventor who died in 1934 at the age of 71, was a curious, stubborn man who was inexorably attracted to charismatic characters and con men and who tragically coveted elusive fame and fortune, for which he strove with opportunistic abandon, but to no avail. In the process, he racked up a riotous collection of anecdotes, a large number of which ended in a description of the deaths of those involved. The glimpses of his life were made all the more interesting by the fact that, though I had heard mention of him in family dinner conversations, I had no idea such an engrossing, romantic figure inhabited my family’s history or that his involvement in turn-of-the-century New York life was so fascinating.

We found ourselves completely absorbed in Watkins’ memoirs, belly-laughing at his fantastic misadventures and touched by his loneliness late in life. Born in 1863 in Proctorsville, VT, of an inventor/capitalist who was financially ruined by a Black River flood that washed out his factory and a school teacher from the Berkshires, he was raised, he wrote, in “a puritanical environment” in which regular prayer and strict observance of the sabbath were practiced. A terrible book-learner, he turned instead to experimentation, building a boyhood chemistry lab in the basement where he blew up a jug of hydrogen, constructed a photophone (“to talk over distances without a wire by means of a ray of light”) and tried to make diamonds by heating in a sealed tube iron filings, carbon and nickel.

Rather than become a chemist (“my father said, and induced me to believe, that there was only $900 a year in it”), Watkins graduated from New York University’s medical college. He interned in Newark Hospital, where he and his inexperienced colleagues treated a passed-out saloon keeper “by pouring hot and cold water alternately on him, and by flagellation.” The drunkard died in the process and when the newspapers ran with the story, they all found themselves “arrested for killing, or for assisting a man into the next world,” but after several months were absolved of the alleged crime.

Apparently unsated by this small taste of fame, Watkins found another angle to get his name in the papers: self-inoculation. Fancying himself a player in the day’s scientific debate over the causes of disease, Watkins opposed the view that germs themselves are infectious agents, believing instead that they are the “result of degenerated tissue” in the course of disease progression. So he set out to prove his point by injecting himself with “the pure cultured tubercle bacillus,” believed to be the disease agent in tuberculosis. He was proven wrong, but didn’t die, though his reputation suffered. The experiment got “into the papers [and] caused a furor and much worry and innumerable letters.”

But Watkins’ determination to serve as an experimental subject didn’t stop there. While in Paris with his uncle during a cholera outbreak, he read in the papers that a “Dr. Hafkin at the Pasteur Institute had discovered a serum for the cure of cholera, had tried it out successfully on rats and guinea pigs, and wanted to try it on humans beings, I decided to lend myself for the purpose immediately.” After being injected with live cholera germs, Watkins fell unconscious in a doctor’s office and was already being called a martyr for science when he came to.

He quickly recovered from the self-inflicted cholera and proceeded to urge his uncle, who was suffering jittery nerves, to take a substance called “Testicular Juice, good for nervous diseases and especially Locomotor Ataxia; the name implies the source of the remedy,” which was bull testicles. I can only presume the “juice” was sperm. For $20 an injection, Watkins’ uncle took the juice and “used it till he got the chills and could not see that it was doing any good. He remarked that he was sick of having that stuff stuck in his backside.”

A few years after his hijinks in Paris with his uncle, Watkins returned there with a ¬†Southerner named Brodnax, an NYU classmate whose medical career was floundering but whose social charms Watkins believed would help scare up Parisian interest in Watkins’ inventions and theories for studying blood. It turned out Brodnax was a complete fraud, and the six-week Paris trip a $600 loss. Later Brodnax, who had contracted syphilis, looked Watkins up in New York. “The last time I saw him was on the corner of Broadway and 34th St. He was crossing with a fine looking woman who he introduced to me as his wife … I never saw him again, but understand he gave the disease to his wife and both died in the insane asylum.”

When typhoid fever raged through New York, Watkins went to live on North Brother Island, next to Rikers Island, to study and treat victims of the disease. “I did not learn much of practical value, but the fact that I saw the dead being carried away in cart-loads, and learned to identify the peculiar sweetness of the smell of all who had the disease.”

Considering himself a social klutz, Watkins sought to ¬†improve matters with dance lessons. He found an instructor named McGregor on 55th St. near 5th Ave., who “gave me a cane which he told me to put across my back, hooking my arms over it at the elbow to hold it, standing perfectly erect and by myself. With a circus whip in his hand he went to the other end of the hall, giving me orders how to step with the snap of his whip. I got it in about three lessons.”

He also tried makeshift experiments in his office, using animals, like when he tried “to make Siamese twins with guinea pigs by cutting out the flesh on the sides of two and sewing them together to see if they would grow. They never stayed bandaged together for more than ten days at the most, and then on taking off the bandage I found that the wound had sloughed … I experimented with that considerably and concluded it was not for me.”

As an inventor, he found a measure of success, but nothing at all in the way of financial returns. He obtained patents for a storage battery, a bullet probe (to help locate metal missiles lodged inside the body), a type of rheostat (for regulating electrical currents), a “micromotoscope” (which he called his “little moving picture camera, the first small one ever constructed up to that time, I think, 4X5X6 inches”) and a device he called a migraf – his greatest invention, into which he sank much of his savings to produce, but of which he only managed to sell four. The migraf was “a machine to photograph microscopic objects” that he eventually sold to “the Brewer’s Academy at 23rd and 9th Ave.,” to “the Norwegian Hospital” and to “the Mayo Brothers in Rochester, Minn.” He also donated a goldplated migraf to “the Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie.”

To help manage Watkins’ affairs as an inventor, he formed a partnership with a man named Heinson, who Watkins believed to be “a natural-born executive.” Heinson did nothing once the contracts were signed, but demanded a share of the money nevertheless. Heinson, Watkins points out, later “died of tuberculosis in Philadelphia.”

In publishing, Watkins also tried hard, but without much success. His motives were good (“My mind was always on the idea of driving my views [on medicine] down the throats of the profession whether they wanted them or not”), but his methods faulty. After Harper & Brothers (among others) rejected his manuscript, he self-published 1000 copies and claimed to have gotten rid of the whole batch, some of them sent as far as China and Malta.

Watkins’ delusions of grandeur in medical research once led him to the door of the Carnegie household on 54th St. near 5th Ave. A reporter friend named St. Clair, of the New York Herald, was off to interview the rich man, and Watkins asked St. Clair to ask Carnegie if he would meet with him; “perhaps I can get him to build me an institution.” When St. Clair failed at the request, Watkins knocked on the door himself, and persisted when his petition was declined until it appeared he would have to be forcibly removed.

His private practice consistently failed to bring him much business, especially later in life, but some of his patients were fascinating folks. He treated an old sot, a prominent (or once so) lawyer from DC who claimed to have been a confidential messenger for top military brass during the Civil War and, afterward, an assistant U.S. treasurer under President Grant. A binge drinker and sometimes chloroform addict, the fellow, named A.A. Brooke, was an impeccable dresser, drunk or sober, and slowly deteriorated over the years until dying in Bellevue at the age of 75, which he said he dreaded because they treated him with morphine. “Never give a drunken man morphine, it makes him crazy,” Watkins remembers Brooke telling him.

One of Watkins’ friends was Joe Norcross, an aging vaudeville actor and singer who performed with his wife and who had started out in minstrel shows. Norcross had Watkins (whose obsession with music was insatiable) onstage to sing with him at the Bushwick Theater in Brooklyn. The performer’s wife “came from a nervous, erratic family, and while he watched her closely … she managed to cut her throat one day and died before his eyes in their home in Springfield, Mass. That broke the old man all up. He acted one year alone, and then passed away with the asthma which he had been fighting all his life.”

Watkins’ interest in studying blood brought him in contact with other such researchers including one Ephraim Cutter. “The Cutter family were erratic geniuses and good musicians: the doctor played the bass viol, his wife the piano. They had a son who was a musician to the court of the Emperor of Japan; another son, a boy of 21 with bright red hair, was an expert electrician. One day he stood before his mother, exclaimed ‘I’m no good and father’s a crank,’ took a drop of Prussic acid on his tongue, and dropped dead at his mother’s feet.”

Watkins’ tales are populated by a magician, an idiot-savant cripple and Charles Ottman, the Fulton Market butcher. While in his 50s, he tried to “get in the game” of World War I and went to Washington, where he met Charles Scrivener, the chief of that city’s detectives who, in 1926, was mysteriously murdered along with his fiancee on the eve of their nuptials. He went to work for the DuPont Powder Works, where he “was dumped into a camp of 4000 workmen of all nationalities making black powder and nitro-glycerine.” He then, under government orders, went to another powdermaking plant in Penniman, VA, where, on his second day on the job, there was an explosion. “We found only pieces of clothing and flesh parts. 25 men had been blown to nothing … It was kept out of print.”

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While reading Watkins’ unpolished prose, so rich with facts and innuendo, I happened upon a short anecdote that jerked me quickly back to the present day. “I had been treating for three or four years,” Watkins wrote, “a man named Clinton, for syphilis … He acquired the disease in the usual manner when on a political spree, had given it to the girl he loved …” Somehow, it sounded hauntingly like an item on the Drudge Report.

My girlfriend and I read aloud to each other much of the memoirs, then made a copy of it at the Manomet library and brought it home to Sunnyside, where we continued reading it late into the night. Watkins’ profound loneliness, excruciatingly communicated in a short essay entitled “The Man with the Bulldog Jaw” by one “Wayne Sniktaw” (Watkins spelled backwards), perplexes me. Given his remarkable experiences and acquaintances, I find it acutely ironic that he felt oppressive solitude amid the New York bustle. Watkins solution to his affliction? “Stick to your job,” he wrote.

And that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Harm City

By Van Smith

Published as a “Postmark: Baltimore” column in New York Press, 1998

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Back in August 1996, when I moved into the house I recently purchased, my next-door neighbors appeared to be a problem. A bullethole still marred a windowframe of their rented house, left there after a Sunday afternoon shootout on the street a few months earlier. They kept seven chows in the basement; you could hear the inbred curs barking in the dark, day and night. About a dozen people used the house as a temporary crash pad on a rotating basis – younger guys, mostly, with shiny Acuras and eye-fucking attitudes. The landlord lived in New York City and apparently was waiting for the bank to foreclose on the property so he wouldn’t have to be responsible for the shady scene going down on his property.

Within weeks of moving in, I noted a connection between my next-door neighbors and the barbershop around the corner. Fresh Cuttz, it was called. Open all night, its barber chairs were always full and lots of traffic moved through its doors. Late at night, flashy cars with out-of-state license plates were often double-parked before its entrance. Directly in front of the shop was a payphone, a well-placed utility for the high-volume retail drug trade spreading a half block in either direction. I regularly saw many of the guys who lived next door to me hanging in or around Fresh Cuttz.

I was curious, so I asked around. Although many neighborhood people said they had complained to the police about drug dealing they believed was originating from Fresh Cuttz, no one had any information about cops ever having busted the joint. The police, for their part, said three separate investigations had reached the same conclusions: Fresh Cuttz was a place where drug dealers went to get their haircuts, end of story. This made the neighborhood people laugh cynically. Some were of the honest opinion that police were connected to the drug dealing there.

Around this time, an FBI agent who works the press in Baltimore started warming up to me. He would call regularly, friendly as can be, probably in an attempt to get information about the things I look into as an investigative reporter. I never gave him anything that hadn’t already been printed, but he would call me anyway to chat about local politics. When he started offering personal information about himself – where he lives, where he went to high school – I figured he was extending a measure of trust. Not wanting to be needlessly paranoid in dealing with a federal agent, I returned this gesture by telling him the location of my new abode.

“That would be right around the corner from Fresh Cuttz, right?” the FBI guy asked. I was amazed that he would be aware of the place. After plugging him for more information, I learned that Fresh Cuttz caused a blip on the radar screen of a federal investigation of convicted money-launderer Gregory Scroggins. Court records show that Scroggins drove an undercover FBI agent posing a DC drug dealer looking to hide money in Baltimore real estate straight from the Downtown Athletic Club to Fresh Cuttz. Just as he was pulling up to the barbershop, ostensibly to meet with a potential co-investor, Scroggins noticed the suited white men tailing him in an unmarked car, so he took off. The operation failed, but my FBI guy, who was in charge of the investigation, was convinced Fresh Cuttz was somehow connected to the potential co-investor, who name was Kenneth Antonio “Bird” Jackson.

I got quite a rush from this information. Earlier that year, I had written about Jackson. I reported that he was a strip-club manager who, along with his mother, was trying to get a liquor license for a major new downtown nightclub apparently by using a surrogate applicant and the interventions of controversial state Sen. Larry Young. Jackson himself, an ex-con who says his violent days as a leading figure in Baltimore’s west-side drug trade are over, was not legally permitted to hold a liquor license, so he was attempting the next best thing: using a high school guidance counselor with a clean record as the licensee. The scandal exposed not only Jackson’s past crimes and current shenanigans with the liquor board, but also his shoulder-rubbing with some of Baltimore’s most powerful political leaders. If the folks living next to me were associated with Jackson – as it now seemed they were – I had good reason to be paranoid.

After the article ran, my publisher got a letter from New York attorney Robert Simels, who not only counsels jailed New York gangster Henry Hyde, but also my new-found nemesis, Kenny Jackson. On Jackson’s behalf, Simels was threatening to sue me and my employer, Baltimore’s City Paper, for libel. He never followed through, but I was very impressed that Jackson would have such an expensive attorney pen such a piss-poor letter to my publisher. I would have expected the threat to come from Jackson’s esteemed local attorney, Piper & Marbury’s George Russell, a former judge, city solicitor and president of the Maryland Bar Association. Jackson seemed to be saying, “See, I can afford the costliest – just like Henry Hyde.”

Jackson can afford more than expensive attorneys. He has given thousands to the campaign coffers of the city’s three top political leaders: Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, City Council President Lawrence Bell (who got $3500 from Jackson, his largest contributor) and Comptroller Joan Pratt. He bankrolled a political action committee, called A Piece of J.U.I.C.E. (Justice, Unity, Integrity, Choice, Equality), which was formed to give people on the streets of Baltimore – many of whom can’t vote because they, like Jackson, have felony convictions – a voice in the political process. J.U.I.C.E. spends thousands among the city and state politicians.

Perhaps the contributions explain Jackson’s extraordinary access. At a birthday party for a politician’s mother last fall, Jackson was the only person there – other than the mother – who wasn’t either an elected official or an elected official’s employee or spouse, according to a person who was at the celebration. A plaque from former U.S. representative and now NAACP President Kweisi Mfume hangs over Jackson’s desk in his backroom office at his strip club, the Eldorado Gentlemen’s Club.

The existence of Kenny Jackson explains a lot about Baltimore’s political culture. He has everyone who knows him convinced that he’s just a businessman, an ex-con trying to redeem himself by making legal money in the entertainment business. And maybe that’s all he is. But then there’s the matter of Scroggins (who, by the way, is widely said to be the father of Mayor Schmoke’s adopted son), caught on a wiretap calling Jackson “the nicest guy in the world, but he’s a killer and he has killed.” (Jackson was once convicted of manslaughter, and later beat a murder charge in New York.) Meanwhile, Jackson is making cash overtures to the city’s political elite. And the elite is not shying away from him by any means.

“Mr. Jackson is a businessman, that’s all I have to say,” City Council President Bell told me after the scandal erupted.

The lingering question after hearing such a statement is, Which business is he in, entertainment or drugs? Even if Jackson no longer controls a sizeable chunk of the Baltimore drug trade, as law-enforcement officials speaking background insist he does, he has this very sinister history involving large sums of cash, guns and white powder. It seems that in Baltimore it is okay for politicians to be associated with people like Kenny Jackson. No one gets outraged about it; rather, folks generally seem fascinated by the details without having any sense that something is fundamentally amiss. Perhaps this numbness has been learned after living with generations of corrupt leaders. After all, this is the state that produced such stalwarts of integrity as Spiro Agnew and still displays his bust in the state Capitol.

If you run the numbers on the size of the local drug trade, you begin to understand why Baltimoreans might tend to write off their leaders as corrupt. The city health department says there are 50,000 daily users of heroin or cocaine in Baltimore city – a conservative estimate, I’d say. Let’s assume each of them spends $50 per day to support his habit – also a conservative estimate. And this goes on 365 days a year. That’s 50,000 times 50 times 365, or $912.5 million a year. Money is power, politicians love power, so people tend to presume some of this money must somehow be getting into some politicians’ pockets. The easiest way for average citizens to deal with this possibility is to accept it and go on with their lives. Who’s going to shut down a $912 million-a-year industry? An outraged citizenry? No way, especially since so much of the citizenry creates the demand that fuels that industry.

On Jan. 3, 1997, Fresh Cuttz made the news. James Smith, III, a three-year-old sitting in a barber chair to get his birthday haircut, was killed in the crossfire of a shootout inside the barbershop. The police investigation concluded that the violence was over stolen shirts. Smith’s death caused a widespread spasm of hand-wringing in a city that consistently rates in the top 10, per capita, for murders. Media coverage of the murder stressed the tragedy not only of Smith’s death, but of the barbershop owner’s victimization; these were legitimate businesspeople, the media reported, who had the misfortune of having senseless violence visit their innocent premises. Following the murder, Fresh Cuttz shut down, and so did the drug market in my neighborhood.

The guys next door with the chows, they moved out a few months before the Smith murder; the house is now owned by a bank and is vacant. Kenny Jackson is laying low at the Eldorado, where his butt-slapping variety show is shot on video for the city’s public-access cable channel. His buddy Larry Young – the state senator who tried to help Jackson negotiate the liquor board – was just expelled from the state Senate in early January for breaking ethics laws by using his public office for fun and profit. Schmoke, Bell and Pratt are all still in power, trying their level best – but to no good effect – to turn “Harm City” back into “Charm City.”

For my part, I own a fully functional, three-story, historic storefront row house with an oversized backyard located within 10 blocks of the city center for $34,500. I don’t think that kind of money would buy a parking space in Manhattan.

 

 

Rendering Unto Oprah: How Dead Pets, Bad Brains, and Free Speech Landed Me in Amarillo

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 11, 1998

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Bored and listless in the morning heat of Labor Day 1994, I jumped on an opportunity to catch a Hagerstown Suns minor-league baseball game with a friend. Oddly enough, this spur-of-the-moment foray into Western Maryland marked the beginning of a saga that eventually led me, 3 1/2 years later, to Amarillo, Texas, where I testified last month in the U.S. District Court case of Texas Beef Group vs. Oprah Winfrey.

Sitting next to us that Labor Day afternoon in Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium were two guys who said they were truck drivers for the local rendering plant, where, they explained, ingredients for dry pet food are made partly from dead pets they pick up from the local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

We were at once aghast, amused, and skeptical. “No, really, it’s true,” they said blandly, sensing our doubts. “We pick up dead pets from the SPCA and take them to the plant. The plant cooks up the carcasses and other things to make stuff that goes into pet food. Honest.”

I was deeply affected by this information. During the drive back to Baltimore I couldn’t stop talking about the horrid, poetic perversion of it all. “It’s soylent green for pets,” I exclaimed. Remorsefully I recalled that as a kid I was known to eat dry dog food–strictly on an experimental basis, of course. If I had known I might have been eating refried Rover, I’d have tamed my curiosity.

Over the ensuing months I started to gather what little documentation I could find about rendering. I learned it is a necessary and little-known industry that cooks and processes huge quantities of waste fats and proteins–mostly animal tissues and used restaurant grease. From the fat, renderers make yellow grease and tallow; from the protein comes meat-and-bone meal, which is used primarily in dry animal feed.

I visited Earl Watson, then the director of the Baltimore City Animal Shelter, and discovered that the city pays Valley Proteins, a rendering company with a plant in Curtis Bay, to cart off its euthanized pets and road kill. Then I spoke with Valley Proteins plant manager Neil Gagnon in the first of several conversations about rendering that eventually led to an August 1995 guided tour of the plant with City Paper photographer Michelle Gienow. She and I also spent a day following Valley Proteins truck driver Milt McCroy from the animal shelter to Parks Sausage to Ruppersberger Meats on Pennsylvania Avenue.

These experiences became the backbone of a September 1995 City Paper cover story titled, “Meltdown: What Happens to Dead Animals at Baltimore’s Only Rendering Plant.” Among other things, the story established that dead pets and road kill are part of the raw-materials mix at Valley Proteins’ Curtis Bay plant for meat-and-bone meal, some of which is sold to pet-food manufacturers.

I’ve had little peace on the rendering front since.

First, there were the horrified readers. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote in, concerned that sodium pentobarbital–the poison used to euthanize unwanted pets at the animal shelter–is getting into pet food. A fan of Gienow’s work was upset that the paper ran her photos of barrels full of dead pets waiting to be rendered. A critic even argued that I shouldn’t have written about pets going into pet food because Valley Proteins President J.J. Smith, interviewed for the article, said he doesn’t like to talk about it. One woman called me in tears, fearful that her dead pooch had ended up in dog food.

The initial aftermath was followed by a steady flow of interest from faraway places. Canadian journalists started contacting me after Anne Martin, a pet-food activist from Nova Scotia, used an excerpt of my article in her book Food Pets Die For. Local television news shows in Texas, Connecticut, and Kansas used the CP piece and Gienow’s photos to do their own stories. 20/20, the ABC newsmagazine, chewed up hours of my time trying to arrange a lengthy expos√© of the pets-in-pet-food phenomenon, then quietly abandoned the effort.

Amid all of this, in March 1996, another wrinkle was added to what I knew about the rendering biz. The British government announced 10 people had died from new-variant Cruetzfeld-Jacobs disease (nvCJD), a human form of mad-cow disease. I soon learned that I had missed a very important point about rendering in “Meltdown”: infected meat-and-bone meal caused the spread of mad-cow disease in Great Britain. And now the disease appeared to be crossing the species line into humans. Suddenly rendering seemed to be an inadvertently insidious industry tied to a mysterious medical threat, not a sensible and profitable recycling measure, as I had previously reported. (In July of last year I made up for this oversight with another article, “Bad Brains: Maryland’s Role in the Mystery of Cannibal Brains, Mad Cows, and an Emerging Food Scare.”)

Enter Oprah. On the April 16, 1996, broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the Humane Society’s Howard Lyman, a former rancher turned food-safety advocate, declared that U.S. rendering practices are just like Britain’s, so one mad cow unwittingly rendered into feed for other cattle could cause an outbreak here just as it did there. Voluntary precautions the U.S. rendering industry had taken to prevent an outbreak in this country weren’t working, he said. And he pointed out that pets and road kill enter the cattle-feed mix. Winfrey swore off hamburgers after Lyman said a U.S. mad-cow epidemic would “make AIDS look like the common cold.”

Texas cattlemen were outraged. Four of them, led by Paul Engler of Cactus Feeders, sued under an untested law, the Texas False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act of 1995, that makes it easier for perishable-food producers to win libel suits over statements that criticize their products. (During the trial the judge dismissed that basis for the suit, leaving Engler to pursue the suit as a case of common-law business disparagement, which is very hard to prove.) Labeling Lyman’s statements “exaggerations, untruths, and innuendo,” Engler claimed to have lost $6.7 million as a result of lagging sales after Winfrey’s show aired.

Late last winter, I got a call from Leslie Ashby, one of Oprah’s lawyers. She said she had a copy of “Meltdown,” which seemed to corroborate some of Lyman’s statements about rendering. She flew up to Baltimore to meet with me and Michelle Gienow and obtain the negatives of Michelle’s numerous, gory photographs. She asked us if we would be willing to testify about what we saw of the rendering industry. “Sure,” we said.

Having been unsuccessfully sued for defamation myself, I felt it was important for my information and Michelle’s photos to be available to a jury–especially since the case involved a law that places new restrictions on speech. Besides, based on what I knew about rendering, Lyman’s statements appeared substantially accurate, if scant in some important details.

So I flew down to Amarillo to testify on Feb. 18 as the opening witness in Oprah Winfrey’s defense. Michelle unfortunately couldn’t make it, but her photographs were the main exhibit–about 50 of them, displayed one at a time on a big screen with my play-by-play commentary corroborating statements Lyman made on the show.

Cross-examining me, the cattlemen’s lawyers asked questions about Dykes to Watch Out For, a comic City Paper runs, perhaps believing the jury would think poorly of a journalist who works for a newspaper that carries a lesbian comic strip. Then they trotted out a copy of a satirical, self-deprecating sketch I wrote about myself that is tucked away somewhere on CP‘s Web site (“no respectable, buttoned-down company” would hire me “to do anything of significance,” it says). The jury thought it was funny.

But never did the attorneys try to discredit “Meltdown” or “Bad Brains.” In fact, Engler came up to me after my testimony, shook my hand, and said he thought I did a fine job on the stand and that my articles were topnotch. This from a guy whose lawsuit I’d just punched several holes in (and who went on to lose; the jury returned a verdict in Winfrey’s favor on Feb. 26).

Never say they aren’t good sports down in Texas.