Shooting Dreamland: John Waters’ Baltimore and Urban Renewal

The Urban History Association held its bi-annual conference in Philadelphia earlier in October. It was a star studded affair–I saw Lizabeth Cohen and Jon Teaford from across crowded rooms, took dining recommendations from Bryant Simon, and met Suleiman Osman and Stephen Robertson, among many others. But I wasn’t just there to gawk. I had also organized a panel, “The Art of Politics, The Politics of Art: Urban Cultural Production in the 1970s,” with three great cultural historians, Whitney Strub, Rutgers-Newark, who chaired and commented, Hilary Iris Lowe, Temple University who presented a paper on how the Edgar Allan Poe house in Philadelphia changed along with its neighbohood, and Mark Krasovic, Rutgers-Newark, who discussed the radical filmmaking organization Third World Cinema. For the first time, I presented a paper on my current book project, which examines cultural representations of the city of Baltimore from the 1950s to the early 21st century. My piece, “Shooting Dreamland: John Waters’ Baltimore and Urban Renewal,” is drawn from two different chapters.

Since lots of people can’t afford to come to conferences, I wanted to make my presentation accessible. Easy enough, right? Just put up a link to my paper! But I didn’t read a paper. Instead, I spoke from an outline, culled from lots of disjointed notes with arrows and stars scribbled on them. While I think this is a much more effective presentation method (a point made hysterically by Larry Cebula), it does make it harder to circulate one afterwards.

What I do have is a Prezi! But, since it’s almost all images, here’s a gloss to go along with it.


In opening my talk, I juxtaposed two Baltimore figures of the 1960s and 1970s: James Rouse, the uber developer who invented the festival marketplace, and John Waters. In a speech, Rouse once said “By creating the image of a rational potential of a city, we generate the power to carry it forward.” In a later profile in Newsweek, he was a bit more to the point: “Profit is the thing that hauls dreams into focus.”

Interestingly, considering Rouse’s use of the word “dreams,” when John Waters created his film production company, he called it Dreamland Studios. The repetition of the idea of dreams in Rouse’s words and Waters’ name struck me, especially since they both occurred at a time of urban renewal in Baltimore and nationally. What I’d like to suggest is that both Waters’ guerrilla filmmaking (shooting on the streets of Baltimore without permits) and Rouse’s urban renewal were dreaming the city in this era and trying to turn the real city into the city of each man’s imagination. I argue that we need to see a relationship between urban renewal as policy and cultural production (a point that Eric Avila makes in his new book, Folklore of the Freeway). What my project does is to bring culture into the discussion of urban renewal, but also to bring policy into the analysis of culture, which is part of the larger book project.

My argument centers around Waters’ contradictory relationship with urban renewal. Both urban renewal leaders and Waters were obsessed with sleaze and filth (or blight in urban renewal terms), but with different outcomes. Waters wanted Baltimore to remain sleazy, while urban renewal leaders wanted to make the city clean and modern. But, interestingly, Waters profited from urban renewal because many such projects, like Charles Center in downtown Baltimore, created what I call “zones of desolation” around them, especially when there was citizen activism against those projects. The zones became areas where few people lived and where municipal services disappeared, making them perfect locations for Waters to film  without problems (for the most part). But Waters also deliberately ignored the parts of Baltimore that did not fit his vision of a sleazy city. Instead, he focused his camera lens on the parts of Baltimore that supported it. As he said in an interview with Kenneth Turan in 1975,  “Baltimore lends itself to the type of film I’m making. It’s a sleazy city with a lot of sleazy people around. It looks like Anywhere, USA. And since no one ever makes films there, if you ask people if you can use their locations, they don’t know how to say no.”

As Waters’ films became successes on the underground film circuit, it demonstrated that it was possible to make profitable, feature-length films in the city of Baltimore. This lesson was not lost on Mayor William Donald Schaefer, Baltimore’s inveterate booster and urban renewal leader. But Schaefer didn’t just want to keep building new buildings in the city–he wanted it to be animated. Film productions helped make that so. He brought culture into urban renewal, including the creation of what would become the Baltimore Film Commission.

Knowing this, it’s hard not to read some critique into this scene from Waters’ film Cecil B. Demented (2000):

Cecil B Demented Grenade

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