REBRANDING IS A pushy endeavor. My sister, having been branded “Becky” when born, entirely rebranded herself as “Tremain” after high school. A few months of campaigning with calm, polite, and relentless insistence yielded the desired outcome: “Becky” is the barest of memories, turning up only in old diaries and during retellings of childhood stories.
Such personal rebranding is a private affair. When done to something with a public identity, such as a piece of geography, rebranding puts much more at stake: the legacy of the name that’s being shed and replaced, and the sensibilities and legacies of the communities that inhabit or interact with the place. It takes a lot of chutzpah to undo a fixed, shared identity, which is perhaps why a real-estate developer, having plowed under “Maple Grove Farm” to create a new rolling vista of pre-ordered ranchettes, might choose a referential new name like “Maple Grove Mews.”
No such nod of respect could be found in today’s announcement in Baltimore, in which a consortium of developers announced it would be removing the name of the Port Covington neighborhood from the cityscape, to be replaced by “Baltimore Peninsula.” The group is an agglomeration of big-named big interests, bound together by the dreams and aspirations of Kevin Plank, the founder of the UnderArmour athleticwear company, who has donned Baltimore as he might a letter sweater in his quest to appropriate authenticity from its gritty streets, immigrant bona fides, and maritime history while slaking his prolific appetite for public subsidies.
Port Covington took its name from Baltimore’s heroic repulsion of the British in the War of 1812. It’s named after the long-gone Fort Covington, which was named for the war hero General Leonard Covington. The new name obliterates not only the history but the geography—subsuming the existing South Baltimore Peninsula, of which Port Covington is but a small part. And it eliminates its history as a port: until the 1970s, when it fell into general abandonment, this was a gigantic railroad terminal feeding international shipping to the American inland.
Before Plank’s interests took root around 2010, contemporary Port Covington was known mostly as the home of the Baltimore Sun printing plant and the enormous Walmart/Sam’s Club parking lot next to Ferry Bar Park. It had a forlorn and hazardous beach that livened up once a year in May for the Intertribal Powwow, a freewheeling gathering of countercultural forces bound together by music, booze, and tanks of nitrous oxide.
Where Port Covington’s rattle-and-hum history transpired, the developers—Plank as the lead, teamed up with MAG Partners, MacFarlane Partners, and Goldman Sachs—are leveraging an accumulated package of nearly $1 billion in public risk packaged as special-obligation bonds and tax-increment financing [TIFs] to create, as described in today’s press release, “a purpose-driven, sustainable impact community powered by diversity and committed to creating opportunities for all.” It’s not clear what all that feel-good verbiage is going to yield in bricks, glass, and landscaping, but the rendering looks like a large waterfront office park with highrises, condos, and retail elements.
The blame for giving the Plank interests access to the community chest can be spread among various city leaders, but it centers on the consistent support of Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who ushered in public financing over the last decade. The identity hijacking, though, belongs to MAG/MacFarlane alone.
The spoonful of sugar to make this medicine go down came this past summer, when the developers announced $2.5 million in community grants directed to neighbors, including those on the South Baltimore Peninsula. This came on top of another $19 million doled out under an earlier “community benefits agreement.” In exchange, they get money in the high nine figures, to make the waterfront over as they desire.
The presumptuousness at play is galling, but it’s simply part of the rebranding dance—which itself is just a small movement of the larger ballet that is Baltimore development. In some places, where norms are more rational, the risks of waterfront development are borne by developers and banks. Here in Baltimore, where impoverishment and severe lack of basic government services are manifest at every turn, leaders bring taxpayers in to share the burden. A few bucks divvied to relevant neighborhood groups, and developers are good to go—even to the point, in this case, of seizing control of the identity of the entire South Baltimore Peninsula.
With calm, polite, and relentless insistence, Port Covington’s owners seem sure to successfully put the name through. Soon enough, “Baltimore Peninsula” will be all anybody remembers anymore, and Port Covington will turn up only on old maps and in the dusty archives of dead newspapers. In the end—and remember, this is mid-Atlantic waterfront property with low elevations—the newly dubbed Baltimore Peninsula might be an island, or even underwater, before its bonds and TIFs mature.
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