Twenty of the most pivotal events in Baltimore this year, in chronological order.
By Ron Cassie, Christianna McCausland, Lauren Cohen, Janelle Erlichman Diamond, Grace Hebron, Jane Marion, Ethan McLeod, Amy Scattergood, Max Weiss, and Lydia Woolever
In some ways, thanks to COVID-19, the year 2021 just felt like one long extension of 2020. (Those days and months really do begin to blur together, don’t they?) But while we know it didn’t always feel that way, things actually did get better. For starters, we’re vaxxed now (right? right?) And—at least until Omicron reared its ugly head—we were continuing to emerge from our COVID cocoon. Museums and theater came back, restaurants reopened, and sporting events were once again filled with cheering fans.
Last year’s Year in Review had a fair amount of doom and gloom—how could it not? But this year, there’s room for silliness (McCormick’s Director of Taco Relations, anyone?) We love doing these lists because they remind us of all we’ve been through in a single year—the good, the bad, the swarm of bugs that emerged from hibernation and just wouldn’t shut up. But the best part is, we all got through it together.
Local Artist Gives Baltimore Salt Boxes a Makeover
We had no idea how much we needed salt box art, until December 2020 when visionary Juliet Ames—best known for her broken plate jewelry—transformed a sorry salt box at the corner of Roland and 36th Street. Snow was in the forecast and restaurants were facing their second shutdown in the wake of COVID-19. “Morale was low, and I thought the neighborhood would enjoy a little art,” she recalls. She wasn’t sure how the Baltimore City Department of Transportation would respond (they loved it) and if it would just be a one-and-done. Instead, she created a Salt Box revolution. Since then, 76 artists have left their mark on 200 yellow boxes around the city—you can find them all here—with each one more clever, more Baltimore, and more iconic than the next. (The project even inspired a Salt Box Snowday wintertime sour from Charm City Meadworks!)
Mayor Brandon Scott Goes Viral
When Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott paused, midway through a news conference about COVID-19 regulations in January 2020, to call out “Shorty, pull ya mask up, man,” his admonishment was as casual as his greeting. Duane “Shorty” Davis wasn’t just any heckler, but a local activist, well-known as much for feeding the homeless, raising awareness about mass incarceration, creating protest art—and running an estimable barbecue stand—as for interrupting politicians. The call-out circulated faster than a plate of ribs, moving from video clip to social media hashtag. Eventually, it became a Baltimore City Health Department PSA, slogan-bearing merch, and—maybe most fittingly—a Bmore Club-inspired remix.
Baltimore Safe Streets Leader Dante Barksdale Shot and Killed
The entire city grieved when the respected and well-known Baltimore Safe Streets leader Dante Barksdale was shot and killed on a Sunday morning at the start of the year. An arrest was made in May in the murder of the 46-year-old Barksdale, who’d put his own life on the line for the past dozen years in effort to reduce gun violence, but his death presaged another tragic year in our ongoing homicide epidemic. In 2021, for seventh straight year, the city witnessed more than 300 homicides.
Ekiben Owners Drive to Vermont to Cook for Customer With a Terminal Illness
There’s hospitality, and then there’s Ekiben owners Steve Chu and Ephrem Abebe—who took it to the next level when they drove six hours from Baltimore to Vermont to cater to the cravings of a dying customer. When they got to her home, the business partners set up a fryer out of the back of their truck to make her a batch of their beloved tempura broccoli (and some spicy tofu, too.) Talk about customer service.
FBI Investigates Marilyn and Nick Mosby
In March, two years after the FBI raided City Hall and the home of former Mayor Catherine Pugh, the FBI was once again inside City Hall—this time delivering a subpoena to City Council President Nick Mosby, who remains the subject of a federal tax investigation with his wife, City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. Neither of the Mosby’s have been charged with a crime to date—and they may never be—but the controversies surrounding the couple’s taxes and finances have had a chilling effect on civic problem solving.
Cicadas Make Once-Every-17-Year Appearance in Baltimore
A natural wonder made its debut across the state of Maryland this May when millions of cicadas crawled out of the ground as part of the Brood X life cycle that takes place every 17 years. “This is the Super Bowl for cicada researchers,” said University of Maryland professor emeritus of entomology Michael Raupp, who we interviewed about the insect invasion. In parts of Baltimore City and County, the air was filled with the ever-present hum of their love songs, and sometimes, the bugs themselves, as they haphazardly made way to treetops to find a mate. It caused a bit of a conundrum for restaurants, who had moved their operations outdoors in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. And then, just like that, they were gone, not to return again until 2038.
Orioles Are Most Entertaining Cellar Dwellers Ever
The Orioles finished the 2021 campaign with a 52-110 record, tied for the worst in the league. (Pour one out for our fellow sufferers, the Arizona Diamondbacks.) By every objective metric, they stank. And they should’ve been unwatchable. And yet, they weren’t. It starts, of course, with Comeback Player of the Year Trey Mancini, who beat cancer to start at first base for the Orioles. When Trey first set foot on the grass at Camden Yards, after taking a year off for his treatment, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. To cap it off, he absolutely shined in this year’s Homerun Derby, coming in second, and making sure all of America fell in love with him, just like we do.
Then, there was rookie Ryan Mountcastle, who came in sixth in the Rookie of the Year vote (he should’ve been way higher) and whose majestic swing is going to be a pleasure to watch at Camden Yards for years to come. There was the heart-in-your-mouth thrill of lefty John Means’ no hitter on May 7, just the tenth in Orioles history. That guy is an absolute stud. And finally, there was the thrill of watching a new star emerge out of nowhere—Cedric Mullins, our speedy center fielder, who steals bases, hits for average and power, and is coveted by every other team in the league. But he’s ours! The future is bright, Birdland. (No, really this time.)
The Sun Smolders and The Banner Ignites
Baltimore’s newspaper of record has suffered for years from layoffs, buyouts, and pay cuts as corporate owners have relentlessly trimmed costs. Sadly, 2021 was no exception. A renewed push to bring The Sun under local control for the first time since 1986 gained steam early on, as Maryland hotel magnate Stewart Bainum sought to acquire the paper and local affiliates via a nonprofit entity. But his plan fell through, and in May, hedge fund Alden Global Capital swallowed up what’s left of The Sun in a $633 million takeover of Tribune Publishing. More buyouts ensued after the deal closed.
Bainum’s admirable effort wasn’t fruitless, however. Per an October announcement, he’s putting $50 million behind The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit digital news startup with plans to hire some 50 reporters and sell 100,000 subscriptions in its first five years. The outlet has already tapped leadership from The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal and plans to launch in 2022.
Demolition Begins on Perkins Homes
The demolition of the historic Perkins Homes housing project in Southeast Baltimore started this summer, making way for the city’s plan to redevelop the site’s 244 acres. The demolition of the 1940s-build homes, and relocation of some 600 families, is part of the city’s and Beatty Development’s $1 billion, mixed-use initiative known as the Perkins, Somerset, Oldtown Transformation Plan. Ultimately, more than 900 market-rate apartments and more than 550 affordable units are projected to be in place when the project is complete.
Domino Sugars Gets a Facelift
This March, an outcry could be heard across Baltimore when the beloved Domino Sugars sign was removed from its perch along the Inner Harbor, where it had presided over the city skyline for the last 70 years. Luckily, by early July, those massive letters returned to Locust Point, albeit a little changed, with the old 4,440 feet of neon lighting replaced by more sustainable, state-of-the-art LEDs, thanks to the Baltimore-based Gable Company. First illuminated in 1951, the original beacon had been crafted by the Artkraft Strauss Co., which made many famous signs in New York, from Times Square to Radio City Music Hall. Some pieces made their way to Second Chance, the nonprofit reclaim store and job training center, while the dot in the “i” now lives on at the nearby Baltimore Museum of Industry.
AVAM Founder Rebecca Hoffberger Announces Retirement
The hard-hit local arts scene turned a bittersweet corner on July 19, when AVAM’s founder and lead curator Rebecca Alban Hoffberger announced that she would step down in 2022 after nearly 30 years spent as director of the idolized Key Highway museum. The institute—which has earned the 69-year-old widespread status as “the P. T. Barnum of the outsider art world”—was derived in the mid ‘80s, when Hoffberger, who had spent time everywhere from Mexico to Paris before circling back to Baltimore, was working as development director of Sinai Hospital’s “People Encouraging People” program. The AVAM opened to the public back in 1995, and has since housed 26 of the trailblazer’s thematic exhibitions. Hoffberger’s final showcase, “Healing and the Art of Compassion (and the Lack Thereof!),” which focuses on fostering a positive society, runs through September 2022.
The Milton Inn is Saved
It’s always sad to see a restaurant close, but when The Milton Inn became a casualty of the pandemic, it was particularly sad to think that this legendary Sparks spot inside a circa 1741 historic fieldstone building was gone for good. Enter Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group, which purchased the place, giving it new life in the form of a French hunting lodge. The stunning renovation is replete with European paintings, taxidermy, and velvet and leather upholstery. We love a happy ending.
The PGA Spotlight Shines on Caves Valley
The Baltimore area’s first PGA Tour event in 59 years did not disappoint. Just ask any of the more than 100,000 people who flocked to Owings Mills’ Caves Valley Golf Club over a steamy five-day stretch in August. The BMW Championship’s last day stole the show with a thrilling six-hole overtime showdown between winner Patrick Cantlay and runner-up Bryson DeChambeau—though the week also featured four intense rounds of golf with the world’s 70 top golfers, plus a star-studded pro-am tournament with Olympian Michael Phelps, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, and others competing.
Overall it was a boon for the region, generating $23 million in local spending and drawing an international sports spotlight after a year of large events being thwarted by COVID-19. “When you do the retrospective on it,” Caves Valley club chairman Steve Fader said in August, “I think we’re going to say, ‘All the things we hoped for, we got.’”
Hoehn’s Bakery Closes After 94 Years
A bakery is often the soul of a neighborhood, as well as its anchor for those who love baked goods, so the September closing of Hoehn’s Bakery was a gut punch to Highlandtown—and Baltimore at large. Open since 1927 on the corner of Bank and South Conkling Streets, the bakery was still owned by the family who founded it to serve East Baltimore’s German immigrant families. Founder William Hoehn installed the massive brick hearth oven—in the back of a former dentist’s office—that was still in use when the bakery finally closed, nearly a century later. For much of the last 50 years, third-generation owner Sharon Hoehn Hooper, William’s granddaughter, was there in an apron to greet customers who came to buy the peach cake, crullers, apple doughnuts, and other items, many made from the same recipes that William brought with him from Germany.
McCormick Hires a Director of Taco Relations
Publicity stunt? Sure. Galaxy brain marketing strategy? No doubt. But you know what else the Director of Taco Relations position at McCormick was? A real job. On July 14, local spice behemoth McCormick put a job listing on their website for this coveted position. (Tasks included: “Keep tabs on taco trends” and “Unify all taco lovers.”) The job, while limited in scope (it’s a six-month gig), also included a real salary: 100 grand. That can buy a lot of tacos! The listing, needless to say, went viral. In the end, the coveted position went to El Paso, Texas “content creator” Jo Luna. As Baltimore boosters, we’re slightly insulted that the gig went to an out-of-towner. Now just wait until McCormick creates a Director of Crab Cake Relations. It will be game over, people!
President Biden Visits Baltimore
It was a full house—fully vaccinated and masked, that is—when President Joe Biden hosted a CNN Town Hall at downtown playhouse Center Stage on October 21. The 90-minute event was moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and marked Biden’s first visit to Baltimore, a city that voted overwhelmingly in his favor, since he became president. With the lingering pandemic as a backdrop, the president stumped for his Build Back Better plan, answering questions about the nearly $2 trillion spending package. Much in the Build Back Better plan, including affordable health and childcare and initiatives to fight climate change, is near and dear to Baltimoreans. It was a pivotal moment in Biden’s nascent presidency, as the final framework of Build Back Better was announced just days later.
John Waters Unveils Genderless Bathrooms at the BMA
We know hometown hero John Waters as the comptroller of all things cutting edge. And in a private ceremony on October 27, the “filth elder” and filmmaker was true to form when he unveiled the Baltimore Museum of Art’s first all-gender bathrooms. To help debut the icon’s self-titular addition to the Charles Village institute—which opened to the public on Dec. 12, along with the museum’s Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies—was Waters’ longtime friend and trans rights activist Elizabeth Coffey.
Redeveloped Rash Field Debuts at the Inner Harbor
What would Jake Owen think of Mayor Brandon Scott’s skateboarding moves? Sadly, we’ll never know. Owen passed away in a car accident in 2011 caused by a distracted driver. But his family found a fitting memorial for the five-year-old who loved to skate. Jake’s Skate Park opened in November as part of a larger, $16 million revitalization of Rash Field. Funds for the skatepark were raised this year through an online auction of painted skateboards, and the mayor was on hand to open the facility and try some moves. Now, boarders have legal space for 360s and rail slides—a fitting legacy for a boy who knew how to thrash. Plus, families can enjoy Rash Field’s new Adventure Park playground, updated walking paths, rain gardens, lines of planters filled with native plants and trees, and a soon-to-open cafe.
Jerrell Gibbs Paints Official Portrait of Elijah Cummings
In December, the Baltimore Museum of Art unveiled the official portrait of the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, which will be on view at the BMA through January 9, 2022 before being displayed at its permanent home in the U.S. Capitol. After a long process to find the right artist, Cummings’ widow Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, along with a committee of BMA and community leaders, chose West Baltimore native Jerrell Gibbs, best known for his work painting Black life and identity. In what Rockeymoore Cummings calls a “timeless masterpiece,” Gibbs captures the commanding spirit of the sorely missed Baltimore leader and civil rights advocate, who passed away due to ongoing health challenges in October 2019. “Working on a painting of such great importance meant so much to me,” Gibbs said in a statement. “I hope I made Elijah proud.”
COVID-19: And it Goes On and On and On
What a decade this past year has been. The early 2021 Hunger Games-esque hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment slowly gave way to a less frenetic but still emotional time slot for adults at mass vaccination sites like M&T Bank Stadium, Six Flags, and the Maryland State Fairgrounds. In May, those ages 12 and up were able to get their vaccinations, and just this past fall, kids aged 5 to 12 had their turn—this time with lots of balloon animals, stickers, and fanfare. Adults also got boosted. School started in-person in late August, with a Maryland state school board mask mandate in place and constant barrage of “COVID Community Notice” emails from principals coming anywhere from once a week to several times a day. Along the way, we’ve been cheered on by @BMore_Healthy, the Baltimore City Health Department’s Twitter account that is hella informative, brutally honest, and funny with a side of sass. As of press time, Omicron was sweeping the country, and Governor Hogan had tested positive with a breakthrough case.