Thursday, January 25, 2018

Baltimore at the cross-roads

Traveling for three weeks in India gave me so much distance that, for once I didn't even regularly followed the daily local news. But when I did, I saw a city doubting and seeing itself at the crossroads once again. The cold snap, the unrelenting murders, the firing of the police commissioner all in the first days of 2018 did it. Again.
Rowhouse City (Midtown)

For all the 32 years I have lived here, Baltimore City has been at the crossroads and most of the time it followed Yogi Berra's advice: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it".  This way the City barreled down one way and then another. Every time it looked like things would come together the right way, it all came apart again.

Baltimore is a proud place but with a bruised ego. Vulnerable, and like every narcissist, focused on the own belly button.  Which can make a city provincial, no matter the international port. The supposedly high number of people born here and never having moved away limits the view. A statistic, I once read but can't find anymore, had New Orleans as #1 in the category of "homeboys", but then came Katrina and now many of those folks live in Houston. Baltimore then was #2, it may be #1 now.

Baltimore's Katrina is yet to come, a sense of foreboding is palpable, but then, that was so in all the years here. As a newcomer I adopted this city as my home and I have taken on many of the local attitudes, including the schizophrenic oscillation between euphoria and depression, the pride one day and the self loathing the other, the tendency to attribute some type of exceptionalism to this place. Which is, of course, also a provincial way of thinking.

Embedded in state politics, the national economy and and global trends, Baltimore is not this island on her own as the prevailing thinking has it. Those guns and drugs come up or down I-95, for example, the port thrives because of the widened Panama canal gets choked the restrictive Howard Street tunnel. Hardly Mayor Pugh's fault.
Rowhouse City: Sandtown

I had barely set foot here, when the first national recession hit and downtown got the blues as residents fled the burg in droves. Mayor Schmoke became nationally known for his stands on legalizing drugs and Ivy League credentials, but the City languished anyway. When O'Malley became Mayor it looked for a moment as if a version of the beloved William Don had returned, combined with the charisma of a young technology wonk. CitiStat became famous enough to yield an invitation from the Mayor of London. For a bit it appeared that the Irish dude could align the magnets until it turned out that a white Mayor in a majority black city is going to be a problem; especially when in tandem with an aggressive but corrupt police commissioner, such as Ed Norris who became a convicted felon and then morphed to being a darling of Fox News.

Plenty of home-made  debacles, such as Sheila Dixon's obsession with shoes from New York brought another conviction. Ever since the Schaefer days stability is elusive. Mayors, police commissioners and school super superintendents come and go, each departure burying another dream, each arrival stirring new unjustified hope.

This cold winter things look especially grim again. The murder rate at a national record, the earnest police commissioner fired as a scapegoat, a lady expelled from a flagship emergency room clad in only a thin hospital gown, students huddling in schools with burst pipes, more burst pipes flooding the streets which are sagging above the failing infrastructure. Presiding over all this a Mayor who works her dream job from pre-dawn to long after dusk but in spite of her best efforts doesn't seem to get a handle on the mess. The online forums are drowning in spite.
Local anger, suburban police

So what crossroad this time?

The longest economic recovery in recent US history must be the time when Baltimore breaks out of its doldrums and participates in the benefits of a growing prosperous region. Squandering this chance may well result in the doomsday scenario which the urbanist David Rusk once termed "beyond the point of no return". The nation's A cities have reached overheated saturation, foreign investors are now scouting out B-cities. Baltimore's opportunity. But the investors are gun-shy now. Literally. It isn't that foreign investors are our salvation anyway but we do need the capital.

As always when fear and timidity reigns, the notion of solving every problem from within becomes popular; another parochial tendency that inadvertently mirrors national isolationism. Yes, it is necessary to unlock Baltimore's native talents but it can't happen without the outside world. Starting with population growth which is absolutely needed to shore up the tax base and reduce the current burden. The city sighs in relief that Amazon isn't coming here (as if anybody ever thought it would). True, salvation isn't coming from a shiny warrior riding into town. It does have to come from getting the house in order within. A sound, healthy and resilient city can't be standing on one leg as Detroit as amply demonstrated. Neither can Baltimore simply flourish from the crumbs that fall off the table in DC. Baltimore needs to define itself  as modern, desirable and open city with many underpinnings, from medicine to the arts and from making to inventing.
The largest employer: from steel to health care

What makes Baltimore so exciting is that almost all the right things are happening here. Innovation from giants like Hopkins to innovation from small start-ups. The arts have high caliber venues and also a fertile underground existence. Local schools carry forth all kinds of experiments and some are excellent. Creative adaptive reuse architecture dots the urban landscape, Camden Yards became  an international model.

What is missing is that the stew of the many initiatives begins to add up to a bigger picture the way it did in Pittsburgh, Chattanooga or Nashville. It is always problematic to transpose human psychology to an ultimately artificial political entity such as Baltimore which in its essence is really an abstractum.  Yet, O'Malley's Believe campaign, silly as it was, had a correct aim: If the citizenry doesn't believe that their home city can make progress, if they don't trust their leaders and if snide and cynicism prevail over a can-do attitude, the artificial boundaries can become prison walls and strangleholds on the spirit. Those artificial boundaries invisible in real life still mean a lot: They are the limits of Baltimore's laws, zoning and school districts and confine the reach of Mayor, Council and police. No tax dollars can be collected beyond. For those boundaries to become less limiting, the city must engage with its region and make every effort to blend in and become part of a bigger family. Naturally, that would be a lot easier if the State would elect a Governor who would understand cities better and doesn't yank the most promising projects out of pure spite.
Planning the future of Baltimore

On a sunny wintery morning hundreds of thousands of employees fulfill their duties right here in Baltimore, over 700 buses ply the streets (not nevessarily on time, but still!), trains and subways run, cranes erect new buildings, bridges get repaired, police helicopters circle, the local radio comes on and soup kitchens will hand out food. This city won't collapse, not today, not tomorrow and probably never. But the chances that another resident will be killed today, the risk that another young man doesn't go to school, that another mother overdoses, that another dream goes unfulfilled are unacceptably high. There can be no rest and no peace until Baltimore can figure out why this city is so  exceptional on all those negatives.  I wished after 32 years I knew the answer.

The road to be taken is not to become like everybody else but to become exceptional in desirable things.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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