Thursday, November 16, 2017

Normalcy and mayhem in Baltimore

Life in Baltimore hasn't been normal for a long time by any number of metrics, notably by comparison to other similar cities in the US. Baltimore is #2 in the nation with its murder rate of 55.37 murders per 100,000 residents, topped only by St. Louis. It was also declared the worst city for African American boys to grow up. The city is also one of only a few that fails to thrive in terms of population growth.

"Failure to thrive" is a serious diagnosis when it comes to your child. It is also serious when it comes to your city.
Lafayette Square normalcy Wednesday 3pm

No individual  can thrive with a sense of daily emergency. To live as normal a life as possible, humans seek out what is good and cling to it. Or they cling to a mode of living in which anything goes. This is a matter of survival and Baltimoreans are very good at both strategies and "normalcies", even if normalcy looks quite different in those two groups, whereby the second group is very small and the first easily large enough to span across the two cities that Baltimore has become.

I was thinking this when I had an appointment in Harlem Park Wednesday afternoon to scout out the rehab options for a boarded house on Lafayette Square. There was a hint of sunshine, when I turned into Lafayette Avenue and then crossed Bennett Place, traversing one of the hardest hit  inner city neighborhoods in America to get to Lafayette Square, a historic green space surrounded by churches and stately buildings. The remaining leaves had brilliant colors, a woman was sitting on a bench, a few people walked the streets, everything looked perfectly fine, no matter that even around this beautiful park many buildings were boarded up, missed roofs and clearly showed that they had been abandoned for decades.
Press conference after officer was shot at Lafayette and Bennett Place

A couple of hours later, I set off on my bike to attend a meeting at the Planning Department to discuss Baltimore's parking regulations and whether the new zoning code was sufficiently reflective of a transportation environment that would not give the personal car the highest priority at all times. But now the City didn't seem normal at all. Helicopters overhead, police cars and black SUVs with flashers and sirens were racing through city streets going west: A police officer, a homicide detective, had been shot in the head in an attempted execution by a suspect who is still on the loose. The crime happened on a spot I had traversed earlier the same afternoon. Biking among the racing emergency vehicles and the helicopters overhead, normalcy collapsed and the daily emergency intruded undeniably. Would it matter what parking regulations we have, when criminals can shoot a police officer in the head in broad daylight?

In the morning of the same day I had discussed how the 1000 Friends of Maryland can reinvigorate the concept of smart growth and suggested that we need to see how smart growth can address equity. No city, no state and no country can succeed if half or a third of the people are excluded from making progress at all. I had said this many times and I repeated it at the strategy meeting over a cup of cappuccino with the brandnew Park Avenue apartments in front of my eyes. It isn't a particular creative insight, more an obvious truth, but I felt more than ever that Baltimore has reached the point where this truth can no longer be suppressed, even if one has the privilege to spend most of the time on the side of the beautiful Baltimore that appears to thrive.  Alex Wroblewski was killed with the even more beautiful Anthem House apartments in front of his eyes when he died. If those who had just moved into the expensive apartments cared to look out their window at 1am, they could see him lying in the alley and the trio of perpetrators drive off with his wallet.
Make-shift memorial in Locust Point

Would another blog article about MICA spawning a job conduit on its campus matter when a woman walking down their own street gets clobbered with boards by teenagers so young that they could be the women's daughters? Does it matter to discuss the 21 years of health discrepancy between Baltimore neighborhoods when a group of three, including a mother, her boyfriend and her son would in cold blood kill someone who just bought a gallon of milk because they had seen his hard earned tip money in his billfold when he paid his food? Does it matter if another house on Lafayette Square will be creatively renovated funded by successful entrepreneurial African American women from the DC suburbs? To ask these type of questions is hugely dangerous. No good outcomes are derived from everybody giving up what they are doing.

But the capacity of pretending that everything is fine has its limits. Sun columnist Dan Rodricks expressed it in his column when he noted a strong sense of foreboding about what will happen next in Baltimore. Baltimore's Mayor decided last week that business as normal has to end for her department heads and that they have to convene every morning at 8am to come forth with ideas what they can contribute towards fighting crime. Those emergency sessions are a good idea; until they become the new normal and their effectiveness will be replaced by routine.
Park Avenue apartments at Park and Franklin 

Last Friday I wrote at length about the vicious and the virtuous feedback loops and how remediation and enforcement can play a role in both. Nature not only knows about those feedback cycles, it also knows tipping points. In my recent book about Baltimore I argued that David Rusk was wrong when he attested Baltimore in Baltimore Unbound in 1995 that it was "beyond the point of no return". This city has not gone over the cliff since then, to the contrary. Normalcy can still be lived. There have recently been six days without murder. The capital still flows in and one half of the two Baltimore's can still celebrate its food hubs and happy hours. Neighborhoods in the other half has its normalcy, too, in many ways a happy one as well. There is also tireless work on neighborhood turnaround and yes, there is investment there as well, workforce training, daycare, small enterprises all around.

In what Rodricks calls foreboding, the flags are yellow. It won't take much more and in what physicists call "phase transition" a fluid situation will become rigid and the flags will be red. Judgement will gel and the influx of people and money will freeze and lawlessness will become even more unhinged. While even that may not constitute the point of no return, it will move Baltimore in a much more difficult place from which to recover.
Anthem House apartments in Locust Point

Some may say that it is frivolous to worry about the influx of people and capital when people are dying either by guns or from drugs or by slow neglect, when, as a Baltimore born poet Koni Fidel called it yesterday at Baltimore Breakout, there is a "genocide by zip-code" going on. The Mayor was supposed to address the event but stood at Shock Trauma next to the police commissioner instead to address the media about the police officer clinging to life.

Some may even celebrate the departure of out of town investors whom many see as vultures advancing gentrification and preying on Baltimore's vulnerable.  Such a viewpoint is understandable because, indeed, the very system that is supposed to bring the tools for renewal and rebirth has also caused the city's current situation in the first place. But as I said in my article last week, there is no new system waiting around the corner. The ones suffering the most from a strategy that builds on deterioration in favor of momentum for system change are the ones a "revolution" would want to protect. It is far better to find a strand that can untie the knot and get Baltimore on the same course that so many comparable US cities  have successfully taken without a revolution and without suffering anyway near as much daily mayhem as Baltimore.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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