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Tinytown, Revisited
After a wild ride in the New York media world, City Paper founder— and perennial provocateur— Russ Smith returns to live out a second act in Baltimore.
by Michael Anft

It’s all familiar: The wiry walker’s frame, the side-parted and longish brown hair, the complexion just this side of a beet, the large glasses that give way to a high forehead, the flinch of a facial tic— all the same. The calm, measured tones that ground the stories he tells— until his voice breaks into the inevitable crescendo of irritation and contrarian fervor- are also the same now as they were 16 years ago when Russ Smith fled Baltimore with a pile of money, only to be heard from occasionally via a high perch in New York.

There, in the column he named “Mugger,” in the free weekly paper he started in 1988, The New York Press, he’d write things that echoed Mencken in style but perhaps not substance, things like: “Riding down on the Metroliner last Wednesday, with only about 10 other people— who knows how long Amtrak can stay in business?— after wolfing down a chilly Nathan’s hot dog with a stale bun at Penn Station [in New York], undrinkable coffee, and frigid bleu cheese on the train, we walked into the Bangkok-like humidity of Baltimore, without a question, that Mayberry-like city’s prime attribute.”

Smith crafted that homage in 1997 after a trip to the city he long ago had dubbed “Tinytown” to attend an awkward, boozy 20-year anniversary party for the first publication he’d ever created, City Paper.

The awkwardness came from the dozens of writers, photographers and artists from the paper’s past, and their ambivalent feelings toward it— and, often, toward Smith. The consensus: His ex-minions appreciated what he tried to produce and sometimes pulled off— a fresh, alternative paper that placed a premium on writing and telling stories. And many were grateful for being given a chance to work in a town where, as they saw it, the one daily newspaper equates native status to being a SARS carrier, at least in terms of hiring.

But, at the same time, they wondered why they should approach the abrasive guy who often berated them as he did the city. And why, given his large salary ($100,000 per year during his last years here), did he have to be so cheap? For those who toiled for him during the decade he edited City Paper (1977-87)— as I did during an unremarkable, oft-interrupted stint as staff writer— working for Smith was a loaded proposition, one that meant working on stories you chose— the ultimate journalist’s luxury- for wages that barely scraped five figures annually.

The paper and the scene surrounding it were a surreal mix of glitz and grit back then. Smith and his City Paper co-founder, Alan Hirsch, threw great parties twice a year, usually at the paper’s long-suffering office in Charles Village, where you might see Jim Palmer and John Waters chatting near the sandwich platter, or where an irate Hirsch once found a junkie’s works in a bathroom, not far from where then-city state’s attorney Kurt L. Schmoke was holding court.

Outside the office, Smith led employees, sycophants and hangers-on on happy-hour crawls, sometimes several days a week. When he was done drinking, he’d get up and leave without saying a word to anyone.

Yes, Smith could be rude, boorish and difficult— and not just to those he worked with. RUMP, the unsigned City Paper column that ran during the ‘80s and to which Smith made the largest contribution, earned more than its share of ire with its regular (and usually very clever) skewering of local politicos, Sun columnists, band members and hash houses. Smith has said himself— you could look it up— that if you wanted to find a list of his enemies, all you had to do was pick up the Baltimore white pages.

Then-mayor (and governor and comptroller-to-be) William Donald Schaefer came to be a regular reader. A perennial target of the City Paper (and RUMP specifically, where he earned monikers like “Tyrannadon” and “Bisonhead”), he says it was “very, very irritating to me. The paper generally— it was a pain in the neck. They busted up everybody. But after a while— after I figured out what exactly it was— it became fun to read. People liked to read the gossip they had about politicians. You’d get a laugh out of it.”

But after getting bored with Baltimore and the paper, Smith wanted out.

“I wanted to make the paper a major player here, but it wasn’t happening,” he recalls. He and Hirsch sold City Paper to Times-Shamrock, a group of media-owning brothers from Scranton, Pa., and also pawned off their few remaining shares in Washington’s City Paper, which they had started in 1981, for a total of $4 million in 1987.

“Once he sold the paper, he couldn’t get out of town fast enough,” says Craig Hankin, a Johns Hopkins University professor whose history with Smith dates back to their undergraduate days at the school.

Well, the 48-year-old Smith is back now, back since June, writing— often controversially— for City Paper, The New York Press and the Wall Street Journal, among others, while living with his wife and two sons on a placid Guilford street.

He’s changed, he says, from a bar-hopping, truth attack-delivering provocateur into a family man with conservative values and a genuine appreciation for the sleepy safety of Baltimore and the fact that it has become “a little— and I mean ‘a little’— more cosmopolitan” in the interregnum.

Changed or not, the question is: Does Tinytown want him back?

Smith’s gleeful escape from Baltimore (who wouldn’t be giddy with a million or so?) in 1987 led him on a trip around the world, then to London, where he looked into— and eventually dashed— the prospect of starting a newspaper.

By 1988, he had settled on New York City as a place to live and to start a weekly newspaper— to no one’s surprise.

“Russ had always wanted to take on The Village Voice,” recalls Granville Greene, a City Paper staffer in the mid-1980s. Now a free-lance travel writer in Santa Fe, N.M., Greene briefly helped The New York Press get started, as did Michael Gentile, Smith’s art director at City Paper and, for its first 11 years, at The New York Press. “Our mission was to eclipse The Village Voice,” says Gentile, who has worked at a New York real estate magazine since Smith fired him in 1999. “Russ didn’t like them.”

Smith’s disdain for the Voice, the standard-bearer of the alternative-weekly industry, started as an infatuation. As an already-writerly 10-year-old living in Huntington- a town on Long Island that “was ‘Leave it to Beaver’-land,” Smith says— he vaguely recognized the paper’s emphasis on delivering a wildly divergent group of voices, free of both the taint of style-stultifying editors and a follower’s fetish for doing what other papers were doing.

“I loved reading the Voice when I was a kid,” Smith recalls. “I started in 1965, two years before Rolling Stone came out.”

Aside from his prodigal reading habits, Smith says his early life was “normal,” and “working class.” But several signs indicate he came from a line of risk-takers and people of exceptional, sometimes oddball, gumption. His father, Harold, was a chemist who worried he wouldn’t make enough money to send his five sons to college. So, he ditched his career and started a car wash, where he worked seven long days per week alongside several of his sons.

Most of Harold’s boys ended up getting scholarships, anyway, although Russ, the baby of the family, and his mom paid his way at Hopkins after Harold died suddenly in 1972.

Kathryn Duncan Smith was known— and not just at home— as The Contest Queen. Before the advent of the Publishers’ Clearinghouse Sweepstakes and other populist giveaways, Mrs. Smith saw the meritocracy of the contest craze as her proving ground, as well as a creative way to supplement the family income. By writing jingles, slogans and essays for companies looking for cheap marketing help, she won more than 1,000 prizes, including a 1960 Plymouth Valiant, five trips to Europe and countless TVs and cameras. When Smith’s brother, Jeff, was getting married, Mrs. Smith entered a contest given by a brides magazine.

Jeff and his new bride-to-be were sent on the Caribbean vacation she won as a honeymoon gift. “She was a frustrated pre-feminist, a true eccentric,” Smith says. Then, with even more admiration, he adds: “She was a writer.”

Smith’s love of writers led him to voraciously chew up magazines and books, and followed him to Hopkins, where he once downed drinks at a podium with outlaw journalist/writer/substances expert Hunter S. Thompson after brazenly asking from the audience whether Thompson was ingesting real hooch while he spoke.

Smith’s escape to New York, then, was a return of sorts to memories of his hometown, to his writer’s roots and his recollections of the Voice as lively, liberal and literary. He paid his respects by planning the Voice’s funeral. By 1980, he says, the bustling, rowdy Voice of his youth had become stodgy and boring— traits that other alternative weeklies, many of them started by hippies and other counter-cultural refuseniks, would eventually emulate. (Village Voice editor-in-chief Don Forst and the paper’s media critic, Cynthia Cotts, refused to comment on Smith or The New York Press.) Smith saw the paper as vulnerable and ripe for the taking.

“Every alternative-weekly publisher in the country was scared of the Voice, but they didn’t know New York,” says Smith. “I was from there, plus I visited friends and relatives a lot. Even when I was in Baltimore, I read everything. I knew New York media.” Taking on the Voice would also be a good career move, Smith knew.

“If I wanted to succeed at the top level of the profession I chose, which was alternative newspapers, then this was the way to do it.”

When the Press— fueled by start-up money from the sale of City Paper and the generosity of some of Smith’s brothers— began publishing in April 1988 from an office building in Soho, it soft-pedaled the Voice-envy.

“The plan in my head was to let the paper evolve, pick up readers, develop writers who wouldn’t even be considered at the Voice, and then, if things went well, go for the jugular in the mid-‘90s,” Smith remembers. “The pitch was simple: ‘In New York City, there’s room for two quality weeklies, and our prices for advertising are cheaper.’”

In the beginning, much of the paper was written by Smith— or actually by Mugger, as he named his column, in homage to The Big Apple’s real-life bete noire.

He would sometimes rant on for 10,000 venomous words, attacking restaurateurs, journalists and writers. Soon, a new batch of fodder for Smith’s cannon came to be: liberals. Those who had known Smith from his earlier libertarian/liberal hippie-hybrid days wondered if his new money had gone straight to his politics.

“I clearly remember Russ walking into the City Paper editorial office and going on about how Al Gore would make a great president,” Greene says.

Post-City Paper sale— and especially after Gore joined Bill Clinton in the White House in 1992— Gore was a regular Mugger victim.

In his college days, when he ran the Hopkins newspaper, Smith was a Hunter Thompson disciple, what Hankin calls a “big Jerry Brown fan,” and a self-styled leftist, some old acquaintances recall. And yet Smith himself says he’s always been “socially libertarian, economically conservative.”

“Hogwash,” says Frank DeFilippo, a longtime observer of Maryland politics, and two times a hire of Smith’s, the first time as a City Paper columnist in 1986. “When Russ was out covering local politics, City Paper almost always took the urban liberal position. So, when I picked up Mugger and read it, I was amazed how far in the other direction he’d gone.”

But unlike at City Paper, where Smith had a small staff with whom to attend junkets and to turn then-Mayor Schaefer’s face red, he was mostly on his own early on in New York. Before the likes of Christopher Caldwell, Alexander Cockburn, David Corn, Jim Knipfel, Amy Sohn and others signed on (Smith helped get David Sedaris started on his writing career, as well), much of The New York Press was Mugger and the dozens of letters— many of them angry— that Smith “inspired” with his column, which could read like a bratty kid’s what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation essay one week, and a cogent, if provocative, polemic the next. Mugger hated self-reverential media cliques, liberal navel gazers, dry paté.

“He’d piss people off with politics, or when he said a certain restaurant sucked,” says Gentile. “We loved to do that.”

Smith now admits that, while he had truly become a conservative, he would pump up the rhetoric. “We were a 24-page paper, a very small one at the time that was viewed as conservative because of my column,” Smith says. “I wrote about things I believed in, but exaggerated them beyond what I believed in. I pushed the envelope to give the paper an identity.”

Not that everyone was buying the bellowing of Mugger. “The guy was showoff-y,” says Ken Auletta, media writer at The New Yorker and a political columnist at the Voice in the ‘70s. “I wasn’t always sure whether I was reading a person with convictions, or one who was an exhibitionist. He seemed like an empty shouter to me.”

Under Smith, The New York Press was an opinion paper, one that eschewed journalistic standards of objectivity for feisty analysis and fresh writing voices. It boasted within the industry that it was “a true alternative,” meaning that it didn’t attempt to beat well-staffed local daily newspapers to investigative or feature stories— as most alternative weeklies do— or serve as a public relations arm of major studios and record labels. “I remember that when ‘Pulp Fiction’ came out,” Smith says, “it was on the cover of 50 weeklies. That’s lazy journalism. We didn’t do that shit.”

What they did was exactly what Smith wanted to do. “That’s the beauty of a free paper. You can print just a logo and people will still pick it up for the listings, dirty ads, classifieds and service features,” Smith says. “That allows an enterprising editor to print whatever he wants, allows him to experiment with covers, experiment with writers, take all the rules and throw them down the toilet and start from scratch.”

Smith’s toilet-flushing didn’t always take what many writers and reporters would call the high road. The Press brazenly ran ads on the front page— “in the European style,” Smith says. The paper didn’t hire a film critic for two years, ran first-person, tawdry, confessional stuff off the cover— “sort of a cool Oprah in print,” Smith says— and published Smith’s 6,000-word essay on his trip to South Africa in 1989 in which Smith asserted that Johannesburg shanties made better homes than most dwellings in the Bronx.

But for all the fun of it, running a paper in New York wasn’t as dollar-friendly as it was in Tinytown. The Press’ rent was $15,000 per month— about $14,000 more than it was on North Charles Street. The previously penurious Smith began to pony up decent cash to get writers to add to the paper’s charter scribes. The prospect of making the whole deal work was daunting, Smith recalls. Yet, a blessed confluence of economic trends in the alternative-weekly industry, coupled with the reception accorded the Press’ loud New Yawk style, got it going.

By 1990, upstart weeklies had become the porcine, capitalist enemies of their youth. They were profitable, desirable properties, owing largely to the advent of adult ads and audiotext taping systems that accompanied personals come-ons in many papers. Smith and the Press jumped aboard the lonely-hearts train in 1989, investing $30,000 in audiotext technology, which typically yielded a plethora of $1-per-minute phone charges billed to love seekers who answered personal ads. Smith and company paid back the start-up costs in three months, then proceeded to pocket $1 million a year from it. The financial importance of ads that touted 1-900 numbers for sex chat, which popped up around the turn of the ‘90s, shouldn’t be underestimated, either, and the Press didn’t. As a “social libertarian,” Smith had no problem reconciling his conservatism with his conscience.

With the help of the sex money, Gentile remembers, The New York Press enjoyed a period of steady growth early on, although challenging the Voice was certainly quixotic. “They’d been around so long,” he says. “But as things went on, we started getting better writers and better artists.” Even though Smith had taken a political right turn, he made sure that opinions from the entire spectrum were included. “One of our accountants would walk into the office and say, ‘I love coming into The New York Press and seeing the circus of humanity’— and it was completely true,” says Smith.

As the Press laid down roots, Smith hired a large research staff to verify facts and let his writers rip. “It was truly a writers’ paper,” says Michael Wolff, a columnist and media reporter at New York magazine who was frequently stalked by Mugger. “Under Smith, The New York Press was often terrific.”

Others, such as Hankin, Smith’s former schoolmate and one of City Paper’s original writers, weren’t as impressed. “It was terrible,” he says, citing the political writings of Smith and other right-wingers. Local writer Tom Chalkley, who credits Smith with giving him his first newspaper column (and a liberal one at that) in 1987 at City Paper, adds that Smith practiced what many alternatives had done for years, only with a starboard tilt. “They all shoot off their mouths to the point of provocation,” Chalkley says. “It’s what I do at parties after I’ve had too many beers.”

When he wasn’t assembling a staff or tearing apart the likes of Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, or Tina Brown, editor at The New Yorker, Smith would unwind in his time-honored way. He and Gentile would frequent the Riverrun, a bar in Tribeca near Smith’s loft. Gentile’s then-wife worked there. So did the future Mrs. Smith, Melissa Marloth, an artist whom Smith met in 1989 as she waited tables. Three years later, the two were married. Friends began to notice that while Smith’s newspaper-producing energy was still going strong, his night-owl tendencies were on the wane— particularly after Melissa gave birth to a son, Nicky, later in 1992. “Russ made the family his priority,” says Gentile, Nicky’s godfather. “He started hiring more people to run things.”

After five years, the paper had hijacked a seat at the New York media table— even though Smith made it a point to avoid the scribes whom he skewered like so much freshly slaughtered lamb. Instead, he insisted on surrounding himself with his own sheep, say some old staffers. “The corporate culture at The New York Press inspired a Mafia-like loyalty that kept people from saying anything negative about Russ,” says Van Smith (no relation), a former staff writer at the Press, and now a senior writer at City Paper. “That, and people are scared he’ll try to get even with them in print if they’re perceived as disloyal.”

As unlikely as a right-leaning alternative paper in the most media-choked, liberal city in the world seemed, the Press blipped brightly on the radar, says Wolff. “The paper had an enormous effect here,” he says. “It entirely changed the alternative weekly industry, and Russ became one of the more significant media critics in town. He was both aggravating and entertaining. He said horrible things about people- including me- but scored some fairly precise hits.”

Smith says that, just as the Voice time-encapsulated the ‘60s, the Press did the ‘90s. “There were a lot of culture wars going on,” he says. “We were a collection of the clashing voices and ideas of the time.”

Although some remained unimpressed— “I would need a microscope to measure the paper’s impact,” yawns Auletta— The New York Press’ apotheosis came in 1996, when the Voice, which had been sold on newsstands for $1.25, was forced to become a free paper, like its upstart competitor. At its height, The New York Press was more than 100 pages each week and had a circulation of 116,000. “Back then [from 1993 to 1998], every six months there was a circulation increase in the thousands,” Gentile recalls.

Smith reveled in other signs that the paper was making it. “You talk about heady. In nearly every Woody Allen movie made in the ‘90s, you’ll see New York Press boxes,” Smith says. At home, things were increasing, too: Smith and wife had a second son, Booker, in 1994.

Investors and alternative-weekly newspaper chains began sniffing around the paper’s profit margins. Smith’s column was a mainstay of Web sites read by journalists. And a handful of the paper’s writers— Knipfel, Sohn, among others— began to ink book deals.

Then, as with a lot of speculative ventures, the fortuitous events that helped The New York Press succeed gave way to chancier times. By 1999, audiotext had been erased by Internet sex and dating services, while the alcohol and tobacco industries, which once spent $20,000 in ads per issue, snuffed out most of their print campaigns. Smith made a bad, destructive hire on the paper’s business side.

He was sometimes distracted, especially after his brother Doug died. A year later, the economy started to fall into a funk. Although Smith says he began to turn things back around by the end of 2000, the paper never fully recovered.

After Sept.11, 2001, the resilience of both the Press and its founder were severely tested. Smith witnessed the attacks from the roof of his building, just blocks from the twin towers, as he sucked on a Merit Ultra Light in search of undelivered satisfaction. He snapped pictures. He saw people jump from windows. He and his family became “casualties of 9/11,” he says. Two of his brothers picked up his sons Nicky and Booker from school on the Tuesday of the attacks. The children asked, “Are Mommy and Daddy dead?”

Smoke and dust invaded the Smiths’ apartment, making it an environmental and emotional danger zone, so the family fled to the home of one of Smith’s brother’s. Even when the Smiths returned home two weeks later, it didn’t feel much like it. “The fire burned for three months,” says Smith. “It wasn’t a pleasant smell. It was a crematorium.”

The threat of terrorism was everywhere, Smith says. Blocks from his building, a suitcase left on the sidewalk was found to contain explosives. A powder keg of a van was stopped by authorities before it drove onto the Brooklyn Bridge. At The New York Press, men in white suits came to investigate white powder found in envelopes. Even though none of it was anthrax, Smith felt no less spooked.

“People who don’t live in New York or D.C. don’t realize what people went through,” Smith says. “I think about 9/11 every day.”

He and Melissa began to think of making a home somewhere else. And Smith made it known that he’d entertain offers for the Press, even if its value had pancaked along with the World Trade Center towers. Along with the specter of 9/11, Smith says he was tired of personnel changes and “25-year-olds who came to work hung over.”

In December 2002, media company Avalon Equity Partners in New York bought the Press for $5 million. By the end of the run, Russ and his brothers had lost “a couple of million bucks,” he says.

Still, Smith sheds no tears over the loss of money or of his creation. “When we told the kids, Nicky kept a stiff upper lip, choked back tears, and said, ‘But Dad, what about the paper? That’s your life,’” Smith says. “But I’m not particularly sentimental about objects or businesses. When I sell something, I don’t look back much.”

Even though Mugger recidivises on in the paper, Smith has nothing else to do with the Press.

At least one of his victims wishes he still did. “I’m kind of sorry he gave it up,” says Wolff. “The Press is a lot less Russ-like now.”

When Smith and family moved to Guilford in June, many of Smith’s old acquaintances wondered why the same guy who injected the city’s leaders and rank-and-file with equal doses of venom would see Tinytown as a place to hang his hat. Even after moving here, Mugger still complains about the place: “Down here in Baltimore, where finding even a mediocre newsstand is just not in the cards…”

Why here, then? The answer is pragmatism: Melissa thought New Orleans, Russ’ first choice for relocation, was too hot, while Russ recoiled at moving northward, as Melissa had suggested, into the Snow Belt. The middle ground— Baltimore— was a compromise.

His old friends- the few he has here- say that the Russ-as-Mobtown-masher stigma is undeserved- he just has a strange way of showing his affection. “The intelligent reader— the discerning reader— could tell that he had a soft spot for Baltimore,” says Hirsch, who parlayed some of his City Paper proceeds into the Donna’s coffee bar chain, along with Sun refugee Donna Crivello. Gentile, whose childlike paintings hug the walls of the Smith household along with Melissa Smith’s, adds that many of Mugger’s Baltimore references were kind. “Nine times out of 10, he went to bat for Baltimore,” he says.

Maybe he loved us after all, kind of like the stern uncle who insists on telling us what our problem is, especially when we don’t want to hear it.

But Smith’s bearing these days isn’t angry or avuncular. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him- not for just a moment, anyway— but Smith is, er, kinder and gentler these days. He walks his sons to school, shakes hands with the director there, and keeps the Merit Ultra Lights to a minimum.

His drinking days are over.

And although Smith’s alleged transgressions engender hard feelings for many of his old associates, he’s smoothed over some of them, including one with Gentile. A cup of coffee with him at the Charles Village Donna’s yields only informed conversation on his beloved Red Sox, our disappointing Orioles, and the joys and travails of child-rearing. Although he bitches about a certain paper’s free-lance pay (oh, irony!), there’s no finger-pointing, no hunched-over, wolverine-ready-to-pounce posture.

And yet: His “Right Field” columns in City Paper still pack a punch aimed at lefties and those he deems bad writers— such as Sun sports columnist Laura Vecsey, liberal Sun chronicler Susan Reimer and fellow City Paper scribe Brian Morton— and they occasionally ramble. Smith wasted no time reintroducing himself to Baltimoreans in July, blasting Mary Pat Clarke “for lack of curiosity” about New York’s dire financial straits after Clarke, a candidate for a City Council seat, accidentally stumbled into Smith’s hornet’s nest while stumping door to door.

On the other hand: Some columns approach poignancy, such as one about his Halloween excursion with his children, and his memories of his mother.

Smith can still provoke, but he can also reflect. He seems equally comfortable with both.

But some of those who encouraged his return to the scene of many publishing crimes wonder what he’s doing. “I was one of his big backers here,” says City Paper’s Van Smith, “but I’m disappointed so far. The column kind of puts me to sleep. I was interested in seeing Russ write here because he wasn’t a radio-style conservative. He had interesting and thought-out views. But he seems to have cloistered himself off as the rich guy.”

City Paper editor Lee Gardner, who rehired Smith, calls “Right Field” “an experiment of sorts. I think we’re still trying to figure out what exactly the column is.” Smith’s penchant for stirring things up didn’t dissuade Gardner. “I figured he’d generate mail,” he says. “Too often alternative weeklies preach to the choir and do little to challenge their readers’ assumptions.”

Others say that Smith’s fascination with challenging other media folks has fallen flat in Tinytown. “In New York, where there are a lot of papers, that stuff will fly,” says DeFilippo. “But it probably won’t go over here. He went after Susan Reimer the other week. Who cares?”

Certainly not Reimer, who says, “City Paper isn’t a publication that’s on my reading list.”

With much of a life behind him, Smith now wants to write a memoir about the “Leave It to Beaver” home in which he grew up with the carwash man, the contest lady and four older boys. Russell Baker’s “Growing Up,” about the author’s early years in Baltimore, wouldn’t be a bad example to follow, he says.

He wants to do this in a quiet place where the pace is slower, the threat of terror less, and where he can occasionally stoke the culture-war fires from the equivalent comfort of an overstuffed armchair in a cozy den. He wants to sleep in a city that never wakes up— at least in comparison to New York, New York.

Smith says that while he can still muster all the piss and vinegar he needs, he needs it a lot less. “I’m just as opinionated as I was,” he says, “but I’m older and I have different priorities.”

Then he launches into a tirade about the “embarrassment” that we call The Baltimore Sun.

People only change so much.

Michael Anft is a Baltimore-based journalist and critic.

 

JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2004

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