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The Show Must Go On

Posted 3/27/2002

Charles Cohen's column regarding the McHenry theater project (Charmed Life, March 13) overlooks several significant points, not only about the project but also about historic preservation itself. The real impetus behind the hybrid design of the project, I suspect, is the state of Maryland's tax-credit program for historic-preservation projects, currently under fire in the General Assembly. The article presents the salvaging of the McHenry's architectural elements as an aesthetic choice. In reality, it probably reflects a purely economic goal: Save just enough of the theatrical elements to qualify for the credit, and otherwise let free enterprise ring.

This approach overlooks the fact that historic sites, including theaters, are historic for their physical features and for the events that took place on those sites. One could put a mall or a theme park (current "statements" of our time) in the middle of a Civil War battlefield. The development could then "relate and have a dialogue" with the surrounding grass and trees. But a battlefield is not grass and trees; it is the story of those who fought and died there. It is an indispensable part of our story as a people.

Historic theaters have a similar, albeit less tragic, role in that story. They are the palaces in which our nation's culture was built, one show at a time. Preserving these irreplaceable structures for theatrical use allows us to build a sense of continuity with our cultural past and a foundation for our cultural future. The state's tax-credit program would garner the support it deserves by being limited to projects that ensured access to history for the general public, not merely access to greater profits by private developers and their tenants.

Mr. Cohen writes from the perspective that views saving historical theaters for theatrical use as some sort of fool's errand, economically speaking. Nothing could be further from the truth. Historic theaters are being saved all over this country, often in communities with fewer and/or smaller resources than Baltimore. Their salvation often comes through a variety of means: nonprofit status, government support, corporate sponsorship, ticket-subscription sales, and multiuse programming. This latter approach combines theatrical uses with nontheatrical ones such as conference centers and nightclubs, giving the theaters almost a 24/7 pace. Compare this to the current fate of the McHenry: another Baltimore office building that will turn out the lights at 5 p.m. and go to bed.

Before Mr. Cohen writes another piece about the viability of historic theaters, I strongly suggest that he contact the League of Historic American Theatres, to learn about some of these success stories. It's easy enough to do: The League's headquarters is right here in Baltimore, and it has a Web site as well. And before architect Chris Pfaeffle issues any more "grand pronouncements," he would do well to reread architectural history. American theater designers and owners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries built in the style of classical architecture handed down from the Renaissance, and before that from the Greco-Roman world. Their approach could thus be viewed as a form of "mimicking." I prefer to think that the "statement of their time" was made in a visual language that was and is timeless.

In any case, it is not a "crime" to celebrate and preserve our history and our architecture at the same time. It is certainly no worse than comparing oneself to Michelangelo, rather than waiting for others to do it for you.

Stephen R. Rourke
Chairperson, Friends of the Biltmore Inc.
Baltimore

Whip CRACK
In his update on CRACK (Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity) program (Mobtown Beat, March 13), Brennen Jensen reports two drug-addicted women accepted $200 from CRACK in exchange for their use of one year's worth of Depo-Provera, a hormonal contraceptive injection given every three months. These women are depicted as satisfied clients taking advantage of a harmless quick-cash bonus that does not impede in their exercise of choice in matters of birth control. Yet it fails to acknowledge the social and political context in which CRACK operates.

As CRACK admits, chemically addicted people who are most likely to accept birth control for the $200 cash are people with little money. CRACK's limited outreach in Baltimore has produced "results" that speak less to the program's success or acceptability than to the fact that Baltimore has a large population of poor women, primarily women of color, with addictions. The monetary incentive is coercive because it offers immediate cash to those who, on account of poverty and addiction, have desperate economic need. The women CRACK targets are likely to also experience disproportionate rates of sexual and physical violence, HIV, mental illness, homelessness, instability, imprisonment, and lack of access to health care and treatment services.

The article does not examine how CRACK targets particular women for sterilization or long-acting contraception, which do not protect against STDs. CRACK provides no real solution to complex public-health and economic problems. Rather than addressing barriers to reproductive-health services and drug treatment, CRACK has characterized its own clients as women unworthy of reproducing, child abusers, "not acting any more responsible than a dog in heat" (Dateline NBC, Sept. 9, 1998), and performing "inhumane acts against their own newborns" (cashforbirthcontrol.com).

The article's title, "Leave No Child Behind," suggests that the program might actually have something to do with children. Yet far from offering any services for or involving children, CRACK stigmatizes the children born to women with addictions as severely damaged or doomed to wasted lives.

The article does not mention that CRACK is funded by a host of social conservatives, including Laura Schlessinger, Richard Mellon Scaife, and Jim Woodhill. Chris Brand, a public-policy consultant to the Woodhill Foundation, is a notorious eugenicist whose book The g Factor attempts to prove differences in white and black racial intelligence based on genes.

Many of Baltimore's community members and professionals who signed onto a statement of opposition to CRACK last year know that health care for all, including drug treatment on demand, is the obvious response to the poverty conditions that women face. As CRACK "makes quiet headway" into our city, our opposition will grow ever louder.

Rajani Bhatia
Coordinator, Committee on Women, Population and the Environment

Jacqueline Robarge
Facilitator, Power Inside
Baltimore

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