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Waters paying visit to Baltipeg, Marytoba

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What a thrill to read earlier this week that the great Baltimore filmmaker John Waters is coming to Winnipeg in November to speak.

He's being brought here as a guest of the Cultural Capital of Canada program to participate in a symposium called My City's Still Breathing.

My fascination with Waters has less to do with his directorial output -- which is nothing to sniff at -- than with his city of origin.

I confess I have never actually been to the Eastern seaboard centre, though I have visited it many times in art. And this has convinced me that Winnipeg and it are sister cities of the soul.

Most recently, I suppose, I spent 60 hours immersed in the mean streets of inner-city Baltimore via David Simon's brilliant HBO TV series The Wire.

You'd have to be thick indeed not to notice the similarities in that drama between Baltimore's entrenched poverty and the problems of our own core area.

Both Winnipeg and Baltimore are once-prominent centres that fell on hard times in the mid-20th century. But both maintain a strong sense of pride in their long histories and their self-identities as unique and quirky places.

Watch the opening set piece of the 2007 movie musical remake of Hairspray, which started life as a Waters comedy.

Nikki Blonsky skips down an urban avenue belting out Good Morning, Baltimore: "The rats on the street/all dance round my feet!" And this:

There's the flasher who lives next door

There's the bum on his bar room stool

They wish me luck on my way to school.

This is the same loving irony that the wonderful Weakerthans use in their Winnipeg tributes, such as Left and Leaving:

My city's still breathing (but barely it's true)/through buildings gone missing like teeth.

Baltimore may have Waters, but we have our own eccentric filmmaker, Guy Maddin ("Winnipeg, I must leave it! I must leave it now!")

And that's just the beginning of the similarities. We had journalist John W. Dafoe, the great editor of the Winnipeg Free Press in the first half of the 20th century. During those same years, the Baltimore Sun boasted the incomparable H.L. Mencken, an equally influential newspaperman.

More recently in the world of letters, Winnipeg played home to the novelist Carol Shields. Baltimore has Anne Tyler, who mines similar "domestic" themes.

Baltimore has a trendy tourist area, a revived train and shipyard, called the Inner Harbor. We have The Forks.

They have a new ballpark with a retro feel called Camden Yards. We have Canwest Park. In the Blue Bombers' glory years of the '60s, we had quarterback Kenny Ploen. The Baltimore Colts had Johnny Unitas. Baltimore lost their NFL team; we lost our NHL team.

Today both cities have a metropolitan population of about 650,000 and struggle with their identities as have-not places. Baltimore's largest employers are Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins University. Ours are the University of Manitoba and the WRHA.

They've got Chesapeake Bay. We've got the Red and the Assiniboine rivers. Amid their ethnic polyglot, they have a prosperous Jewish community in the northwest. Our was in the northwest, though it has relocated south.

In the mid-'90s, when Baltimore briefly belonged to the CFL, the Stallions and the Bombers had a flicker of a rivalry. A Baltimore Sun reporter, sent up here at the time, noticed some of the similarities, but also some differences.

"Traffic jams don't exist," Sandra McKee observed about Winnipeg on May 29, 1994. "Crime is also rare."

We also lack their heat and humidity problems, though Baltimoreans would flinch at our 30-below Januaries.

Long ago, an astute city father here recognized the parallels between the homes of Waters and Maddin. In Riverview, off Osborne Street south, we have Baltimore Road.

Does Baltimore have a Winnipeg Lane? If it doesn't, an inspired John Waters will no doubt have that remedied when he returns home in November.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2010 c7

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