News & Community
Are We Still Charm City?
We wrestle with the complicated legacy of our town’s most enduring nickname.
Baltimore has been a city of many nicknames: the moth-eaten “Monumental City,” the wishful “City That Reads,” the disparaging “Mobtown,” and the truly disheartening “Bodymore.” And, of course, to this day, there is still “Charm City.”
William Donald Schaefer at the National Aquarium.
Over the years, “Charm City” has become so much a part of this town’s branding that it’s hard to remember a time when it didn’t exist. Although the word “charm” was applied to Baltimore in some of H.L. Mencken’s early-20th-century writings, the moniker is only 44 years young.
As many millennials and transplants won’t recall, it was born out of a marketing campaign under the resourceful Mayor William Donald Schaefer. In the late 1960s, toward the end of his first term, in the face of both suburban exodus and the death of our industrial backbone, Baltimore was dubbed by Sports Illustrated as “A Loser’s Town,” “Yesterday Town,” and “The Last Frontier.” (Talk about nicknames we didn’t want to stick.) Schaefer knew he had to do something about the city’s image—and fast.
And so with his can-do attitude, and fresh off the success of the City Fair, “Charm City, U.S.A.” was born during a heat wave in the summer of 1974, with advertisements gloating about the city’s hidden treasures gracing the pages of The Sun and The New York Times. “Baltimore has more history and unspoiled charm tucked away in quiet corners than most American cities put in the spotlight,” the ads read alongside a photo collage of crabs, marble steps, historic landmarks, and the fiery Blaze Starr.
The image of “charm city,” centered around the pleasing waterfront and blue-collar pluck, has been a notably limited narrative.
“The cynical may laugh,” acknowledged one local ad exec involved in the campaign at the time, “but it’s a city of charms, and we have to believe that.” Others were less charitable, suggesting that Baltimore, having lost its credentials as a working-class town, was trying to will a new identity into existence. One city promotional rep even cracked that the nickname was created “in absence of anything better.”
To add insult to injury, the campaign’s roll-out was largely seen as a total flop, with the city pushing back its release because of concurrent police and sanitation strikes, while also nixing the proposed free charm bracelets after it was determined they couldn’t afford the swag.
Baltimore magazine, among others, got in on the rebranding bashing: “Spare us!” we scoffed about the nickname in 1980, considering it nothing more than “anxious boosterism.” But little did we know then, the nickname would stick, surpassing the hyperbolic “Greatest City in America” and our personal favorite, “Come to Baltimore and Be Shocked,” courtesy of Mr. John Waters, over the course of the next four decades.
Admittedly, there always was and is still a lot to love about “Charm City”—including the desire to defend our underdog status and celebrate our undiscovered treasures. The nickname arrived at the same time, after all, that conservationists had just won a battle to save Fells Point and designate the neighborhood as our state’s first national historic district. There were plenty more rowhomes, hallowed monuments, and bold characters who could be on the verge of extinction if we didn’t give them their due.