The Gentrification of John Waters
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While conducting fieldwork in Baltimore, I was continually told by local interview subjects that “John Waters is Baltimore.” However, once the Baltimore riots began in 2015, suddenly Baltimore was everywhere in the media and John Waters was mysteriously absent. The riots and their news coverage revealed that John Waters is not Baltimore, as no personality could ever encompass the complexity of a city and its places. Instead, the placement of Waters’ name within the riot coverage made it clear he really has come to stand for the gentrified areas of Baltimore—used as another tool to sweep West Baltimore under a rug of gentrified displacement. Neighborhoods previously associated with Waters’ classic rebel image, from films like Pink Flamingos, have slowly become increasingly gentrified. For this article, I utilize personal interviews and archival research performed in the John Waters Papers at Wesleyan University.
It’s easy to see a connection between John Waters and Baltimore. The city has been setting and location to all his productions and, in interviews, he frequently refers to Baltimore as his life-long home. In fact, it’s difficult to find writing about Waters that doesn’t explicitly reference Baltimore, and it’s quite common for Baltimore-focused articles to mention Waters as a local icon, point of regional pride, and even marker of city identity. Even though Waters regularly portrayed Baltimore as full of deviants in his “shock value” films, the city eventually connected itself to his success. As a city often regionally overshadowed by the prominence of nearby Washington D.C. and New York City, Baltimore proudly adopted the carefree identity Waters was already promoting. As a result, for locals, Waters’ image and name have long stood for what is “right” with Baltimore. In performing site-based research in Baltimore on relationships between filmmakers and cities, I interviewed local business owners, people on-the-street, and cultural institution directors around Central, Eastern and suburban Baltimore who all emphatically stated that “John Waters is Baltimore.” However, once the 2015 Baltimore protests/riots began after the tragic death of Freddie Gray, suddenly Baltimore identity was everywhere in the media and the name of John Waters, widely professed city icon, was mysteriously absent. The protests and their coverage showed definitively that John Waters is not Baltimore—certainly not all of Baltimore—and, thus, begs the question of what Baltimore it is that Waters represents.
The riots/protests made it clear that the image of Baltimore is not just an image, nor is Baltimore simply one singularly defined place. Freddie Gray was a 25-year-old African American man who died after suffering a spinal cord injury and a crushed larynx while in police custody. In late April 2015, in response to Gray’s death, locals formed large protests. News coverage during this period worked to identify the specificities of Baltimore neighborhoods in order to note the geographical significance of the protests as well as the long social history behind them. Initially, the protests originated in West Baltimore where Freddie Gray had been arrested, where a majority African American population lives, and where Baltimore’s uneven development is most notable. In a New York Times story of one of the first major protests, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Stephen Babcock track the march’s path through the city while also noting the stark contrast in redevelopment: “A racially diverse and mostly calm crowd of hundreds . . . marched through the streets . . . from the Gilmor Homes—the squat brick public West Baltimore housing development where Mr. Gray was arrested on April 12—through the sparkling downtown harbor, a major tourist attraction here, before assembling on a plaza at City Hall.”  The very path of the march outlines at least two prominent identities for the city: the thin central sliver of gentrified, developed Baltimore and the comparatively ignored and underdeveloped non-central areas of the city.
Further protests, following Gray’s funeral, were more violent and contained looting, fires, destruction of property, and injury to both police officers and protesters. In getting a statement from a local, Robert Wilson, The New York Times reports, “Mr. Wilson said he had seen someone on television say, ‘This doesn’t feel like America” and in response he stated, ‘This is America! . . . They just don’t want you to know!’” In his exclamation, Wilson highlights the idea that places do not have single, uncomplicated identities, but instead complex, contradictory ones that reflect the experiences of locals. Wilson speaks of the undercurrent of the protests centering around not just Gray, but the marginalized citizens of the city fighting back. Arguably, they were fighting for what Pamela Robertson Wojcik terms, through Henri Lefebvre’s work, the right to the city: “Lefebvre arrives at a philosophy of the urban, a conception of its ideal form. Something of a utopian ideal, the urban figures in his writing, nonetheless, as a right and a possibility . . . . the urban as something to be imagined, accomplished, or won, rather than as something to be simply reflected.” She notes, and the Baltimore protests show, that space and place are not simply passive, given elements but instead dynamic, social, and present ones. The death of Freddie Gray clearly sparked this sense that West Baltimore had to fight to have their concerns, needs, and cultures recognized as a vital part of a changing Baltimore identity.
While Waters himself is not directly involved in these protests on either side, coverage of the city during this period showed that the way media invoked Waters’ image as a city figurehead falls away from his maverick past of representing fringe Baltimore, or ‘all’ of Baltimore, to acting instead as a symbol increasingly used to exclude non-gentrifying areas of the city. For instance, there is a highly problematic opening to Juliet Linderman’s AP News article on the riots: “Baltimore is crab cakes, the cobblestone walkways of Fells Point, a vintage baseball stadium, the retro weirdness of John Waters. Cherry blossoms line the streets of its affluent neighborhoods. They call it ‘Charm City.’ But there is another side of Baltimore that is far less charming. And on Monday, that side burned.” Linderman others this mysterious “side” of Baltimore in her statement and invokes Waters’ name as part of her othering. Linderman connects a long history of gentrification in Baltimore by using Waters to describe a Baltimore that excludes giant areas of the city, the majority of its African American population, and entirely ignores its uneven development. In other words, Waters has effectively become a cultural symbol used to both represent and further promote the culture of gentrified Baltimore.
Trash Collector: John Waters’ Authorial Agency
To suggest that John Waters’ name has such influence is, arguably, to refer to him as an auteur. When discussing John Waters’ auteur image, it is worth noting that it is certainly not fair to saddle him with the full responsibility of how his name is used, though we also cannot ignore the fact that Waters has a hand in building his own auteur image and continues to use it himself. As Timothy Corrigan notes in “The Commerce of Auteurism,” after New Hollywood directors began leaving film schools with the desire to be auteurs. Thus, the label of auteur quickly began to turn the director into a commodity rivalling the level of movie stars. Corrigan further argues that the auteur label’s function within the industry has always been mutable and the agency associated with the labeling has in part changed: “If, in conjunction with the so-called international art cinema of the sixties and seventies, the auteur had been absorbed as a phantom presence within a text, he or she has rematerialized in the eighties and nineties as a commercial performance of the business of being an auteur.”  As Corrigan notes, the shift from scholar-applied artistic label to industry commodity has resulted in a rise in self-nomination—many filmmakers begin constructing their own auteur identities even before the public has a chance to recognize and accept them.
Therefore, filmmakers are not completely passive in the ways their images form and sustain. In today’s media environment self-management proves necessary to retain a career in the public light. In his book on Steven Soderbergh Mark Gallagher writes, “Steven Soderbergh’s appraisal of his own career arc changes over time, with different artistic tendencies foregrounded depending on the discursive forum . . . and on his own creative and promotional agendas.” An auteur identity is not stable. It must change to remain relevant to any context over time, a task most often put onto the shoulders of the filmmaker seeking to retain their authorial or celebrity status. Waters’ image as hometown gentrified Baltimore hero, then, is not entirely of his own making, but he also does have a role in it, even if that role involves his passive refusal to reject it. In the Baltimore context, Waters’ image becomes aligned with a city identity that he has no control over, as in the Linderman article above. However, his statements about Baltimore and his films are areas where he has influence over his image, thus, it is constantly in flux.
Authorial agency is, of course, a quite loaded term. In “Authorship Approaches,” Janet Staiger notes that it does not need to be a bad term and in fact needs to be acknowledged when studying authorship. It is true that the author does not and should not completely control readings of their texts, yet their authorial agency continues to be recognized in various cultural spheres, interpreted by them, and carries with it certain effects. Agency is not the same thing as intention, and when looking at auteurism as an applied label, agency spreads significantly beyond the text. Staiger develops a method of understanding authorship that offers a useful model for recognizing agency in author-studies. She proposes film authorship should be thought of as performative statements: “The message is produced from circumstances in which the individual conceives a self as able to act. The individual believes in the author-function, and this works because the discursive structure (our culture) in which the individual acts also believes in it.” The auteur, then, results from the perceived repetition of certain recognized statements. The “performative statement” approach opens up the possibility of an author’s own adoption of the culturally recognized auteur category which must then be recognized in their work by the culture and accepted as auteurist. To take this even further, it is also worth looking more closely at which statements become recognized in different contexts. She states that the individual and the culture both believe in the author-function, though I would add that we must also understand how these beliefs can differ while still arriving at the same cultural label. Focusing on only general auteur-recognition does not properly specify the ways a filmmaker’s and a culture’s more nuanced understandings of the auteur-identity are necessarily different.
For instance, John Waters traditionally considered the apolitical nature of his films as part of his directorial style, whereas his fans recognized the political construction as part of his directorial style. In his book Shock Value, Waters says that at the Berlin Film Festival, “the buffs are unbelievably serious and went crazy when I told them my films aren’t political. ‘Yes they ARE!!’ they screamed, and I backed off a little; I guess you can read anything you want into a screenplay.” With the acceptance Waters’ films typically give socially taboo content, inherent political messages are not difficult to read into them. In certain instances, a very clear political message sits in dialogue, such as when Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) gives a speech to Gater (Michael Potter) in Female Trouble (1974) about how happy she would be if he were queer because heterosexuals live uneventful and boring lives. However, Waters has claimed that he presents these sexual idiosyncrasies because he finds them funny and not to argue for their larger acceptance in society. “I’ve always tried to please and satisfy an audience that thinks they’ve seen everything. I try to force them to laugh at their own ability to still be shocked by something. This reaction has always been the reason I make movies. I hate message movies and pride myself on the fact that my work has no socially redeeming value. I like to think I make American comedies.” Even relatively early in his film career, Waters was interested in reeling back the idea of his work being “politically” edgy, in favor of it being considered more harmless and “comedically” edgy. It is highly doubtful that Waters would think of his image as aligned with gentrification in Baltimore, but looking more closely at how city discourses tend to invoke his name, as well as the ways in which neighborhoods long associated with Waters tend to re-establish his image amongst gentrification, shows how easily the former independent bad boy label can be utilized to represent Baltimore’s distinct past while covering over the white-washing of its present.
Gentrified Cities, Gentrified Films
The context of place is also central to understanding how filmmakers’ images, and films, affect cities. Cultural geographer Doreen Massey productively distinguishes between place and space through their connection to social relationships. Massey conceives of space as, “the simultaneous coexistence of social interrelations at all geographical scales.” That is to say, for example, the complexity of spatial relationships surrounding Wendy’s more generally as a company and series of restaurants that use generally comparable spatial practices. Wendy’s arguably brings to mind a generic fast food experience. Though a focus on only space does not adequately define the particular Wendy’s on, for example, McCulloh Street in Baltimore, MD which, logically, would house different localized practices than the Wendy’s on Moreland Avenue in Atlanta, GA. To address these differences, a place, more specifically, “is formed out of the particular set of social relations which interact at a particular location. (The) singularity of any individual place is formed in part out of the specificity of the interactions which occur at that location . . . and in part out of the fact that the meeting of those social relations at that location . . . will in turn produce new social effects.” For Massey, a place also involves a multiplicity of changing and contradictory social relationships. In other words, even though many sociocultural contexts recognize Wendy’s, the understanding of what that label means and how it becomes used will vary even at a particular location.
As a Baltimore filmmaker who is both from the city and has always made his films in the city, Waters’ work is a prominent example of image-making which crosses both space and place. In From Tinseltown to Bordertown, Celestino Deleyto states “Film spaces are never real places and there is always a process of transformation, but the film text features abundant traces of the places it transforms and recontextualizes them within its fictional parameters.” By filming in Baltimore, Waters films Baltimore and puts his image of the city on the screen along with, by necessity, stark realities of the places he captures. He also materially enhances the Baltimore film production infrastructure by hiring locally and, in interviews, promotes the idea of Baltimore to the world. It is no wonder that, historically, Baltimore would look up to him as an image-maker for the city.
Place distinctions are important even when thinking at larger scales. The coverage of the riots revealed how segregated Baltimore still is. The gentrification occurring in the city has taken place very unevenly and to the benefit of a relatively thin sliver of central Baltimore, with the outlying East and West areas—where the population is predominantly African American—seeing little in the way of stable, consistent redevelopment. In contemporary race and ethnicity demographics on statisticalatlas.com, using data taken from the US Census Bureau, neighborhoods in the city of Baltimore show sharp racial demographic contrast with more central neighborhoods, like the Inner Harbor (68%) and Fell’s Point (72.8%), comprised of a predominantly White population. These include neighborhoods most publicly associated with Waters’ films such as Hampden, where Waters has set his fan headquarters (86.7% White). In looking at the African American demographics the map shifts to show that in all of the above-mentioned neighborhoods the African American population falls to less than 10% in each. Neighborhoods with predominantly African American populations fall noticeably outside that thin sliver up the middle of Baltimore, most notably to the West (90% and above for most neighborhoods) but also to the East wherein the African American population is consistently above 80% in most neighborhoods. In response to the more violent riots, where a CVS store was burned down in a predominantly African American neighborhood, The New York Times reports that:
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, surveyed the damage and spoke of how hard officials had worked to bring Target to the mall and CVS to the corner of West North and Pennsylvania Avenues . . . But for some residents, the developments the mayor cited as achievements only emphasized the paltry prospects for poor neighborhoods. ‘This is the land that time forgot,’ said Aisha Snead, who grew up in West Baltimore. ‘They want to act like the CVS is the Taj Mahal. They have dilapidated buildings everywhere. They have never invested in the people. In fact, it’s divested. They take every red cent they can from poor black people and put it in the Inner Harbor.’
Snead points out the intense disparity between the type of development happening around the Inner Harbor (covered in more detail below), wherein dozens of restaurants and commercial retailers have been coerced and brought in to a comparably small area that serves predominantly Central Baltimore, versus the Mayor attempting to similarly champion a CVS and Target store as panacea to the problems of the much larger East and West Baltimore neighborhoods. As Snead also argues, the gentrification of central Baltimore has not only resulted in displacement of past populations, but requires consistent financial attention from the city—and all of its residents—to maintain even though the benefits to West and East Baltimore are not easily observable.
Definitions of gentrification tend to be built around the concept of the white middle-class buying up and redeveloping property in low-income areas, ultimately displacing the local population through the rise of property taxes, rent, and general cost of living. My use of the term gentrification follows David Ley’s definition as, “the wider processes of economic, social, and political transformation in the downtown and inner city that have both triggered and followed upgrading and reinvestment.” My own interest here falls primarily on areas where such changes have resulted in displacement of local populations, a reclassing of the area, and a shift or loss of local cultural history. Scholars such as Kirsteen Paton, Neil Smith, and David Ley have argued how gentrification also displaces local community members through a loss of social and cultural presence. In Gentrification: A Working Class Perspective, Paton argues the loss of social inclusion of former neighborhood residents most often leads to a loss of neighborhood identity and a corresponding drive to retain that identity. It is in this sense of a perceived loss of local culture that the figure of John Waters as a celebrity author representing Baltimore becomes most relevant. By establishing and nurturing his close relationship to Baltimore, Waters also unevenly matches his auteur-image with the city because as the city changes and gentrifies, Waters’ image must change as well or risk being cast out of the new Baltimore character. Despite his earlier films’ more maverick representations of Baltimore and its citizens, Waters’ later films start to fit into a narrative about the city that strenuously demands the old qualities of Baltimore, which his early films helped to recognize and define, are not changing despite increasing contrary evidence. As Waters moves from defining the culture of the city to reverting to merely representing its disappearing qualities, Waters’ image has arguably shifted from outlaw shock-master to gentrified naughty boy.
When looking especially at his early career, John Waters seems like the last filmmaker whom a city would embrace. Waters rose to fame in the early 1970s with midnight movie mega-hit and infamous shock film Pink Flamingos (1972), which, along with his earlier films, cemented bad taste as a cornerstone of his auteur identity.  He consistently works with aberrant depictions of contemporary society. He was the filmmaker who would show you things you never realized existed. As perhaps the most famous example, Pink Flamingos ends with the main character and actor, Divine, eating actual dog feces. Waters does not have much content in his films that the average city would be proud to accept as reflective of its own image. The New York Intelligencer writes, “Now that Deep Throat and Last Tango have been milked of all possible shock value, there’s a new ‘cult’ movie in town that goes beyond pornography. Pink Flamingo (sic) is the midnight attraction . . . Some Elgin regulars have seen it several times; others have walked away in disgust.” Of course, the people of Baltimore have not literally en masse done the things that Waters depicts in his films. Yet it is a Baltimore characteristic to exhibit unapologetic, class-ignoring behavior and allow others to do the same. Through his exaggerated exploitation of unusual Baltimore personalities, Waters connects oddity with central qualities of Baltimore, and these are qualities that really connected with the city’s residents. Maryland Film Festival Director Jed Deitz describes the unique Baltimore character as, “We don’t care where we rank. We just like being here. We like the city, we’re proud of things . . . but it’s not like it has to be like anybody else. We’re glad it’s not like anybody else.” Most commonly, the Baltimore locals I talked to conveyed pride in exhibiting unconventional characteristics as part of their residential identity. Through their celebration of distinctly taboo practices, Waters’ characters represent the felt associations in the city of an unapologetic blue-collar society. At the time of his rising fame, Waters effectively provided an identity for a city right at a time when it was in desperate need of one.
At the start of his success in the early 1970s, locals discovered, in Waters, a filmmaker who represented Baltimore as it never had been before. In Performance Barbara Castleman reasons, “There’s always been a certain indefinable something about this town that has eluded and disturbed me, but the other night when I saw Pink Flamingos . . . I at last could realize and appreciate the off-beat soul of our dingy mid-Atlantic metropolis. What once repulsed me I now celebrate. John Waters has affectionately created the definitive Baltimore movie.” The popularity of Waters’ films essentially gave Baltimore permission to not be intimidated by its geographical and cultural surroundings—suggesting Baltimore could delight in its difference from nearby city goliaths New York and Washington DC and revel in a culture prideful in working and lower-class lifestyles.
Waters’ growth as a filmmaker went beyond influencing local cultural pride, but also helped develop Baltimore’s filmmaking support services. In the beginning, the availability of Baltimore’s production resources to a local filmmaker like Waters was invaluable in making his films appear to have much more production value than they actually did.
[John Waters] realized Pink Flamingos’ bad sound had to be addressed in Female Trouble. UMBC [University of Maryland Baltimore County] had double-system equipment where the sound and picture were recorded and edited separately, which solved the sound problems. This double-system thing was beyond the abilities of the local TV station moonlighters . . . [UMBC] had been making deals with independent producers before, and he could probably get one too . . . . the UMBC deal gave John unlimited use of its production equipment . . . and supplied competent people to run it . . . Now that John is an international celebrity, he has more than paid back the people of Maryland, bringing millions of dollars in jobs and tourism to the State, not to mention his occasionally hefty charitable donations to Maryland non-profits.
Maier’s story provides an excellent example of how the Baltimore filmmaking community became involved in Waters’ films and, in turn, how his films began to promote and extend their resources. Working with University personnel allowed Waters to train his crew amongst professionals in the field. It also provided the University resources with some amount, even if small, of additional funding. Waters used his University connection for at least two films before bringing in more professional industry resources to his productions. Furthermore, after Waters became famous, his choice to remain even part-time in Baltimore resulted in both positive attention and further resources to the filmmaking support services already there. Waters, thus, began to write himself into the development of Baltimore by inadvertently, at least at first, building a larger local industry infrastructure through Baltimore-specific resources and training crew. Beyond mere lip service, Waters’ choice to continue working in Baltimore, once established as a bankable filmmaker, embedded him into the growing narrative of a changing city; a narrative which would require change from him as well.
After getting noticed with Pink Flamingos on an international scale, Waters connected himself further to Baltimore, while concurrently cementing his image as a master of shock content with a freedom to be lowbrow in his next films Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977). Waters’ films typically focus on the grotesque qualities of people. His characters embrace an extreme human characteristic such as fame, obsession, or religion that defines them. If his characters do change, it is most often to just as avidly adopt the opposite extreme, remaining happily flawed. An example would be Dawn Davenport (Divine), the protagonist in Female Trouble (1974), who is obsessed with crime chic. Her only real change involves degree: she begins with juvenile delinquency and progresses to public murder, ultimately dying in the electric chair as the largest expression of criminal celebrity fashion. Waters tapped into the culture of Baltimore by simply observing characters around him as he spent time in the failing downtown areas and began to create archetypes for his extreme characters. Looking back on these films also reveals a Baltimore that is now absent from the Inner Harbor and Fell’s Point locations seen in some of these early films. Semi-candid shots, tracking down consumer streets, show much more racially diverse and more local—less corporate—commercial areas in Central Baltimore.
Though, once Waters began making films with more studio backing, despite the fact that he continued to work on his own projects, Waters started to abandon the notorious content which made him famous; first noticeable in his films’ MPAA ratings which dropped below his previously standard X-rating. Many of his themes remained similar and his films still had some gross or shocking content, but to a much more limited degree. In 1972 Pink Flamingos, beyond the eating of dog feces, further contains foot licking, support of cannibalism, incest, and sexual acts involving chickens to name a few. Though, in contrast, arguably 1988’s PG-rated Hairspray’s most shocking and gross scene involves the popping of a pimple. According to Waters, his later films are not an example of him selling out. Instead, he insists that all of his films were made with the goal of allowing him to one day make a living as an independent filmmaker financed by studios. In interviews, Waters describes Pink Flamingos as the most commercial film ever made: “It had the showmanship, it was made to pack in an audience.” He argues he made Pink Flamingos as a commercial film in the sense that its purpose was to make money and get people into the theater by whatever means necessary. With a low budget, shock value was the quickest way he found to do that. In other words, the authorial identity he adopted was always a mutable one. If taking account of his career as a mode by which to make himself famous, Waters’ transition into less shocking content falls directly in line since it allowed him to broaden his cultural appeal. Further, going more mainstream also altered the breadth of his relationship with Baltimore, making him a more acceptable figurehead for the city instead of just its residents.
Changes occurring in Baltimore at the time reflect the desire to use the Waters image as representative of an outward “cleaning up” of Baltimore along with a more covert obfuscation of Baltimore’s perceived lower-class cultural history. It is clear that Baltimore has undergone gentrification and all of the related pros and cons. As cultural geographer David Harvey claims, municipal leaders in Baltimore made city promotion and community a focal point when the city was still reeling in the early 1970s from local uprisings following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination as well as an economic downturn. In his extensive work on Baltimore, Harvey notes that during this period, “The [municipal] leaders sought a symbol around which to build the idea of the city as a community . . . the [Baltimore City Fair] set out to celebrate the neighbourhood and ethnic diversity in the city.” Harvey goes on to argue that the increased popularity of the fair worked so well that it shifted to become an entirely commercial enterprise. The wave of attention the fair brought to the downtown area, he claims, led to the creation of the heavily gentrified, tourist-laden Inner Harbor development; once a hub for Baltimore industry, now a Disney-like symbol for the new service-industry-based city. However, in the early 2000s, Harvey pointed out that despite all the money spent there, the impact on lower-class areas of Baltimore had yet to be seen even two decades later: “The redevelopment has certainly brought money into the city through a rapid growth of the convention and tourist trades. But there is no guarantee that money stays in Baltimore. Much of it flows out again, either as profits to firms or payments for goods.” Further, despite the creation of downtown jobs, the average wage had gone down dramatically. And finally, “There are some 40,000 vacant and for the most part abandoned houses . . . within the city limits (there were 7,000 in 1970). The concentrations of homelessness . . . of unemployment, and, even more significant, of the employed poor . . . are everywhere in evidence.” Harvey presents a much bleaker view of the totality of Baltimore than the veneer of gentrified success Harbor Place puts forward and he points out one of its main functions is the glitz of Harbor Place, distracting from the neglect and uneven development of lower income and more racially-defined areas. Waters, whose early films have striking shots of Baltimore’s industrial past including the Harbor area, has claimed that locals never visit the Inner Harbor anymore, and no one I talked to admitted to doing so, beyond perhaps for a special event. Waters says, “I don’t think anyone is ever going to make movies about the new Baltimore. I mean this creeping Harbor Place that’s taken over everywhere makes me nervous. It’s very soulless. You could be in any city in the world. You feel like a travelling salesman.” Waters’ description of Harbor Place eerily mimics Marc Augé’s concept of the non-place: areas of transition which lack or overshadow specificity and identity. Thus, if Harbor Place was meant to be a beacon of success, it stands as primarily a repetition of uneven success with a result of diminishing social character.
Although the director is not a geographic or architectural feature of Baltimore, John Waters’ image has begun to inadvertently serve a comparable purpose as a figurehead for Baltimore. Waters’ relative cleaning up was key to his wider acceptance throughout the city. The municipal powers and upper class did not begin as fans of John Waters’ films. Understandably, Waters’ aberrant content was not the positive image municipal leaders wanted to promote in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Waters’ early films did little economically for Baltimore because he did not pay permit fees or spend an effectual amount of money. Only with the hindsight of a career that allowed him to get famous enough, combined with his choice not to leave, did Waters become an official hometown hero. Despite the widespread celebration of Waters, the city expressed significant resistance to his films until his productions and prominence started bringing real money into the city. Of course, his switch to more broadly acceptable content likely helped as well. Waters’ well-documented struggles with the state censor board clarify that when it came to Baltimore high society and government, his early films and their local success would cause a lot of flinching. Yet, after the huge success of the PG-rated and culturally celebratory Hairspray (1988), he could suddenly be held up as a local maker of quality cinema as well as spokesperson for the city. In Crackpot, Waters writes, “The Baltimore Museum of Art gave me a three-day retrospective of all my work with a black-tie opening . . . Somehow I was suddenly respectable. It was as if, magically, the film had changed content in the cans over the years. Here I was being honored for work I had feared being imprisoned for a decade before.” His success led to an acceptance of all his work, rewriting past history, and placed it into the upper echelons of Baltimore society where it had before been excluded.
Partially, in order to gain a more broadly acceptable relationship with the city, his image also had to become more wholesome. A New Line public relations statement for Hairspray (1988) reads,
His films have been shown everywhere from the local movie house to the Cinématheque Francaise to the Cannes Film Festival, but they all have their roots in Waters’ hometown, Baltimore, Maryland . . . Waters is so attached and loyal to the city that despite his success, he has chosen to remain a faithful fulltime resident. “I would never want to live anywhere but Baltimore,” he says. “You can look far and wide, but you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style. I’ve lived in the same apartment for fourteen years, and now I’m going to buy a house here. It’s about as close to reality as I can get.” . . . “Baltimore keeps me sane” he says. “It’s where I write and work, and it keeps me in touch with the real America. New York and Los Angeles are not the real America. And wouldn’t it be great,” he wonders, “if everyone creative stayed in their hometowns rather than moving to New York or L.A.”
With the PG-rated Hairspray, Waters reached out to the entirely new, for him, family audience demographic. The more wholesome image required by a PG rating came at least in part through heralding Baltimore as both hometown and current residence; injecting feelings of “home” into his image. His statements about buying a house, setting down roots, and not straying too far all point to a much more grounded filmmaker in touch with values related to those of the average American family. Furthermore, the statement stresses the normalcy and middle-American qualities of Baltimore, alongside his insistence that the people are unique.
As Waters continued in his career, he began to separate the people of Baltimore from the place of Baltimore fairly consistently. As he worked in the changing environments of Baltimore that once made the people so unique, he appears to gloss over the gentrification of these environments by suggesting that the unique people continue to exist there unaltered and unabated. “True, Baltimore is changing, but what I make movies about is still there, lurking on the backstreets, the unheralded neighborhoods, off the beaten track.” This tactic allows Baltimore locals to more clearly distance themselves from the characters he depicts. Whereas they can all see that some people might represent the types shown in his films, his rhetoric creates a space where Baltimore as a place is depicted positively. Highlighting the positive aspects of locations allows anyone who lives there to associate more with the place of his films than the people depicted. However, in continually feeding the nostalgia of what Baltimore means while also separating it from its contemporary changes, Waters effectively begins masking the processes of gentrification that threatens to overtake the Baltimore character he helped popularize and continues to champion in his writing.
After shifting from a subversive local filmmaker to an internationally lauded filmmaker, he became another symbol for the city to promote. Early in his career he made himself an icon for Baltimore individuality and his sustained relationship to the city has made him a symbol that residents instinctually rally behind. My interviews, with locals at Baltimore institutions publicly connected with Waters in some way, revealed strong feelings that Waters represents the city. Of course, given that Waters either in name or in recommendation has been connected to these places makes them more likely to praise him, though I can say that their comments echo every more informal conversation I had while spending time in predominantly central Baltimore. An employee at a local bookstore Waters has professed as one of his favorites stated, “He makes such a point to make his films about Baltimore. They’re filmed here, they’re us.” A local restaurant owner who has worked on Waters’ films over the years agreed, “He’s an extraordinary spokesman for Baltimore. He likes to showcase Baltimore, the different parts of Baltimore, the Baltimore neighborhoods, albeit sometimes in his films they’re kind of quirky. He is a great spokesman for Baltimore.” A local video store clerk who frequently served Waters similarly stated, “He’s definitely an ambassador.” If Waters is accepted as image-maker of Baltimore, not only in terms of what he does but the way in which he represents the city, his work can then begin to represent the city “better” than the neighborhoods within the city represent themselves. Waters’ work helps create a myth that the old Baltimore character continues to thrive and that the gentrification has not been so culturally pervasive. Waters’ Pecker (1998) arguably stands as a much more widely understood representation of the legacy of Hampden than does the actual neighborhood today, which comparably fewer people have seen. In this way, Waters inadvertently aids that which threatens to rob his city of the very character he celebrates.
Given his key role in building Baltimore’s film industry and acting as cultural icon, it seems surprising that Waters has not been more vocal about gentrification in Baltimore. Waters appears to ignore the gentrification that threatens the Baltimore culture he promoted, as do many locals including small business owners who arguably benefit from the increased commercialization. Many central neighborhoods featured in Waters’ films such as Hampden and Fell’s Point have become gentrified to an extent that they seem visually and culturally unrecognizable. While Waters’ later films include the positive elements of Baltimore character typically credited to him, they also narratively lose much of the subversive, social boundary-crossing found in his earliest work, likely in part to his much more toned-down reliance on shock value. In his films’ presentation of Baltimore, Waters seems to support the idea that gentrification can come and somehow the local color will stay.
While many neighborhoods could serve as examples of this gentrification over Waters’ career, Hampden perhaps provides the best current example in that it is a neighborhood Waters has connected to his image in his writing, and it is the home of Atomic Books, where Waters has all of his fan mail sent, making it his official fan home-base. When asked about gentrification, a co-owner of Atomic books gave me a statement very similar to Waters’ statement about gentrification above, “There’s always a worry when we talk about the development . . . as more and more of this takes place the harder and harder it is to find these weird spots. I don’t think they’re ever going to be eradicated.” Yet much available evidence points to the contrary where the main streets of today’s Hampden hardly resemble those of even several years ago, and even though the owner told me a number of stories about the loss of defining Baltimore-esque character, such as a local woman who used to open up a secret after-hours bar in her basement which had just recently been shut down, the stories were followed by fervent denial that Baltimore’s working-class character might be waning in areas that once defined it.
In my interviews, I found that Baltimoreans are firmly aware of the gentrification surrounding them, but have different stories regarding what the effects of it might be culturally. For example, a Baltimore video store clerk explained, “The best and the worst of gentrification is that the property values go up. People who’ve owned their row houses in Hampen for generations, their property taxes have shot way up and there’s a lot of resentment in a lot of communities, Hampden being the main one—and Fell’s Point. That’s really the one beef I hear from people.” As suggested, at stake in ignoring increasingly gentrified areas such as Harbor Place, Fell’s Point and Hampden is the cultural specificity which retreats along with former residents. In Gentrification: A Working-Class Perspective, a study of the effects of the revitalization of Glasgow Harbour on the neighboring working-class neighborhood of Patrick, Kirsteen Paton claims that in a gentrifying neighborhood, most often the original, lower-class residents can no longer afford to remain an active social part of their own neighborhood once new businesses start to creep in. The loss of social inclusion and presence of former neighborhood residents, then, most often leads to a loss of neighborhood identity and a corresponding drive to retain that identity. As testament to her claims, the fact that neither locals nor Waters seem to frequent the Inner Harbor area suggests that it has lost any kernels of the Baltimore identity it once had. Yet many, including Waters, continually claim that Baltimore will inevitably always wholly be Baltimore regardless of gentrification.
Apart from financial and social issues, however, lay distressing cultural concerns. David Ley explains:
The argument for historic preservation conceals the fact that with gentrification almost nothing is preserved. The original households are replaced, and the meaning of the structure is redefined from a working-class use value to an aestheticized symbolic value . . . yet what is celebrated is the authenticity of the renovation, its fidelity to what has gone before . . . the transformation of buildings is declared to be an act of fealty to the past.
Neil Smith, who criticizes “new urban pioneers,” agrees that the victim in smaller neighborhood-oriented redevelopment projects tends to be the local color. The loss of place identity can be expressed architecturally through systematic renovation—such as the elimination of Baltimore form stone—or through the working-class population being forced out from the raised cost of living and property taxes.
Beginning as a lumber industry ghetto, Hampden later became a neighborhood that exemplified the sensibilities expressed in Waters’ films and serves as an interesting example of this gentrification process at work in Baltimore. Around the time of Waters’ early films, working-class locals became known as a people who outwardly expressed their distinctive personalities. The video store clerk told me a story that encapsulated Hampden and its presentation of Baltimore character:
There was a guy playing trumpet out in the street and he was terrible, but he had a bucket out in the street for people to throw money into it. No one was throwing money into it. He was terrible by any standards and people even walked by yelling, “You suck! Shut up!” but he was unperturbed. He just kept on going. He kept on playing the trumpet badly, no one putting any money in, nobody paying attention to him. That guy, to me, is Baltimore because people do their own thing here without really caring what anybody else thinks. That incident to me encapsulates Baltimore. Both the people yelling at him to shut up because he sucks but him also continuing in the face of adversity. That goes back to Baltimore as a working-class town, as unpretentious.
His story serves as a site of convergence for both “typical Baltimore” and “John Waters’ Baltimore” because it is typical of things you can see in Baltimore and is likely something you would find in the background of a John Waters scene. It’s not so significant that people in the story act either rude or obnoxiously, but instead that they think only to be themselves. However, the Hampden celebrated in such stories does not particularly resemble the Hampden found today, which has become rampantly gentrified, washing away many of the formerly alternative identities. Across two visits to Hampden, spanning only three years (2010 and 2013), I saw the neighborhood shift from a fairly standard-looking blue-collar neighborhood to an intentionally kitschy gentrified commercial district complete with local art adorning public fixtures and crisp new shops attempting to commercialize Baltimore culture. Even in 2010 the locals I talked to at that time expressed a general unease at the onset of gentrification, bemoaning the loss of locals and the Baltimore character they bring. I saw a number of people akin to the trumpet playing man in Brown’s story, including a local shop owner who would take tourists on unauthorized tours of the “real” Baltimore. In 2013 such local shops were now commercialized to the extent that they sold magnets and bumper stickers with famed Baltimore sayings (e.g. “Bawlmer,” “Hon”). To be clear, the Hampden of 2013 was a very nice neighborhood and pleasant to walk around in, but it was a decidedly sanitized, commercialized, and intentionally campy version of what I had seen just a few years before.
Supposedly, the Hampden Village Merchant’s Association keeps an eye on the neighborhood’s historic local color. As part of its mandate, the association keeps chain stores and restaurants out of the neighborhood in order to help retain its distinctive identity. However, its introductory webpage ultimately paints the neighborhood as generically as possible:
Over the past several decades, Hampden has reinvented itself as a thriving community of independent and locally-owned businesses . . . the neighborhood continues to grow as an eclectic mix of working class folks, artists and young professionals. Located in the geographic center of Baltimore City, Hampden is a unique and popular neighborhood that is also noted for its numerous critically-acclaimed and award winning shops, eateries and businesses.
Despite the frequent use of the word “unique,” it does not give a sense of anything about Hampden that is particularly unique. Instead, it presents Hampden as a lively and generally welcoming shopping community, completely obscuring any sense of local color. Most strikingly, the website does have a John Waters page, though it primarily connects the neighborhood to his later film Pecker (1998) which filmed there. The page lists active Hampden businesses used in the film and a few businesses that Waters has recommended in press interviews, but again gives no sense of John Waters’ Baltimore or what it means to connect Waters to this neighborhood. The gentrified presentation of Waters and Hampden culminates in an antiseptic picture at the bottom of the web page featuring Waters sitting outdoors in a suit and ball cap enjoying a glass of white wine.
From a representational perspective, Waters addresses cultural changes due to gentrification most directly in Pecker, set in Hampden. In the film, local bar owner Jimmy (Mark Joy), spends much of the film ranting about another bar across from his, The Pelt Room, which allows strippers to appear completely naked. The offending bar mimics Waters’ own descriptions of past, beloved Baltimore from his book Crackpot: “My favorite ‘exotic dancer’ in town was Zorro, a very butch local girl who looked exactly like Victor Mature. She’d stomp around the stage naked after removing her cape and mask, sneer at the audience in pure contempt and snarl, ‘What are you lookin’ at?” Despite celebrating the figure of Zorro in his writing, however, Waters ends Pecker with the sanitization of the Pelt Room’s practices. During the denouement, Jimmy celebrates successfully stopping the practice of fully nude stripping, evidenced by the before-seen stripper happily dancing while still clothed. Paradoxically, Waters builds his narrative resolution around the elimination of activities and expression which for many, including himself, once defined Baltimore and Hampden more specifically.
Since his auteur-identity revolves around Baltimore, Waters is in a position to influence how the city is perceived. Waters presents Baltimore to the rest of the world, and perhaps just as importantly, back to Baltimore itself. By accepting Waters as a local image-maker, Baltimore tangentially promotes the vision of the city Waters puts forth in his films and writing, which continues to champion the blue-collar identity that is increasingly mythic, as the physical traces of the old Baltimore character slowly but surely get eradicated through gentrification. Neil Smith argues that one of the results of myth involves a loss of geographic specificity, “Myth is constituted by the loss of the geographical quality of things as well. Deterritorialization is equally central to mythmaking, and the more events are wrenched from their constitutive geographies, the more powerful the mythology. Geography too becomes cliché.” Smith refers to a loss of place dynamics which get overwritten by the mythologized culture of feeling.
Baltimore has gone through significant changes since the early 1970s and, to some extent, a career as closely tied to that city as Waters’ should show some evidence of these changes, but he does and does not. Waters, in both art and rhetoric, seems to now promote the idea that Baltimore somehow hasn’t really changed in any fundamental way despite rampant gentrification. His early films show a much more diverse and, yes, economically struggling Baltimore, but they show a place that represents the character he champions. As the protests surrounding Gray’s death showed, there are many Baltimore citizens who feel swept under the rug in this new vision of the city and, what’s worse, they clearly are not being listened to. People in Baltimore who live in gentrifying neighborhoods, like Hampden, hold onto Waters as a sign of what Baltimore is and what it always will be. Even if the city profoundly stops resembling that old world, the argument goes, Waters is still there and thus his characters must still be there too. But it has been quite some time since Waters really represented the Baltimore he used to shine a light on. The legacy of his films and career certainly do not directly move locals out of their homes as gentrifiers flood in, but they have provided further justification for looking the other way while it happens. In the end, Waters has unfortunately turned into not only a symbol of gentrification in Baltimore, but a tool for it as well.
Nathan Koob is currently a Special Lecturer at Oakland University. He received his PhD from the University of Michigan in 2015. His dissertation Out-siders: Auteurs in Place examines filmmakers who define their authorial identity through production relationships to place. His primary areas of interest are: media authorship, cultural geography, industry studies, and intersections between independent/avant-garde/mainstream production contexts.
Juliet Linderman, “Riots in Baltimore the product of anger, deep frustration,” The Associated Press. Apr. 28, 2015, Accessed Jan 15, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/d3de4b574a8d4ad59bef5c9453d11148
Janet Staiger, “Authorship Approaches,” 50. Staiger borrows the notion of performative statements from: Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993).
“Race and Ethnicity, Baltimore, Maryland,” Statistical Atlas, Cedar Lake Ventures, Inc., last modified September 17, 2018, accessed January 26, 2019. https://statisticalatlas.com/place/Maryland/Baltimore/Race-and-Ethnicity
See: Kirsteen Paton, Gentrification: A Working-Class Perspective (Burlington, VT and Surrey: Ashgate, 2014); Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier (London and New York: Routledge, 1996); David Ley, The New Middle Class and the Remaking of the Central City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
For a good overview of early reception to Waters’ work see: Corinne F. Hammett, “Scout Around for Some Ketchup,” The News American April 19, 1970. 9E. Barbara Castleman, “Reflections of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos,” Performance September 21, 1972.; Dave Kehr, “Bad Taste is Not Enough,” Chicago Reader February 8, 1974, 4.; Michal Makarovich, “Flamingos and feces – A review of John Waters,” The Paper April 1972, 6-13.; Carl Schoettler, “Baltimore’s Junk Film King,” Baltimore Evening Sun March 16, 1972, D1.
Waters produced Pink Flamingos for around $12,000 and in its first year of midnight screenings it took in over $6 million. In some locations the film played weekly for decades and is still a classic midnight movie staple. For more on the production of Pink Flamingos and its history see: John Waters, Shock Value (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005).
“Waters has produced an oeuvre over the past twenty-five years based in the pleasures of mocking many of the most cherished institutions of contemporary life (marriage, domesticity, work, glamour) and celebrating the perverse, the marginal and the bizarre” Matthew Tinckom, Working Like a Homosexual (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), 156.
Of course Waters is not the sole Baltimore filmmaker to do this, though he is the only one to make all of his films in Baltimore. Both Barry Levinson and David Simon (not originally from Baltimore) have made high-profile films and, more substantial to developing local production infrastructure, multi-year television series in Baltimore.
I find Sherwood Anderson’s definition of “grotesque” applies quite well to Waters’ characters: “There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty . . . hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful . . . it was the truths that made the people grotesques . . . the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.” Sherwood Anderson. Winesburg, Ohio. (New York: Signet Classic, 1993). 6. Though, Waters characters do not face the same kind of exclusion from society as found in Anderson, thus distinguishing his particular Baltimore-oriented use.
“Dealing with the public on Female Trouble was always exciting. There was no such thing as a film permit in Baltimore. Except for John’s films, no one could remember when a film had shot in Baltimore. Everyone thought it was way too ugly for glamourous movies. Being on the guerilla film crew, watching the shocked, bewildered bystanders was a hoot. One memorable shot was Divine ‘modeling’ on a busy Baltimore street. He was in full drag wearing a shimmering blue sequined gown, with a big hairdo and Van’s Clarabelle make-up. We filmed him from the window of a slowly-moving car, so bystanders on the street were clueless.” Robert Maier, Low Budget Hell (Davidson, NC: Full Page Publishing, 2011), 28.
Waters’ battles with the State Censor board are legendary and for more information on them I highly recommend: John Waters, Shock Value (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005); John Waters, Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters (New York: Scribner, 2003); Divine Trash. Dir. Steve Yeager. Fox Lorber, 1998. DVD.
For journalistic accounts of Waters’ content-shift with Hairspray see: Bill Littman, “What’s Going On at the Movies,” The Times March 10, 1988, A8; Lynda Robinson, “Filmmaker John Waters Goes to the Principal’s Office,” The Baltimore Sun. June 19, 1987, B1; Paul Willistein, “Waters, Hairspray redefine ‘PG’,” The Miami Herald February 26, 1988, 5C.
Ley, 310. Also: “Such transformations are wrought through the ‘creative destruction’ of the landscapes that went before. The tensions and contradictions entailed in the continuous pressure to reorganize the city’s spaces make for complex and unpredictable interactions . . . When working class communities built up over many years are torn apart through property development, gentrification, and the like, we can hardly avoid seeing ourselves as victims of accumulation rather than as its avatars” David Harvey, The Urban Experience. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 250.
Formstone is a type of stucco used prominently in Baltimore’s past. To cover cheap, porous brick work in lower-income areas. Barry Levinson’s Tin Men (1987) which is about Baltimore aluminum siding salesmen was originally written to feature formstone salesmen. Also see: David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 78.
Ben Claassen III, “Hampden History,” Hampden Village Merchant’s Association Last modified 2018, Accessed Jan 14, 2019, http://hampdenmerchants.com/hampden-history/
Ben Claassen III, “John Waters’ Guide to Hampden,” Hampden Village Merchant’s Association Last modified 2018, Accessed Jan 14, 2019, http://hampdenmerchants.com/maps/