Friday, April 6, 2018

A city fighting for its soul

Thursday this week two people asked me how I felt about Baltimore’s future. One was a young man who had lived and worked here as one station in a multifaceted career  who decided to enroll in planning school in LA and asked me about Baltimore, real estate and social impact development. The other was Robert Tennenbaum on occasion of a reception about his new book about Columbia turning 50, a town he helped Jim Rouse to design.

I responded to both that I was optimistic that Baltimore located in a growing region, close to the nation's capital, with a thriving port, magnificent institutions and located near mountains and an ocean would have to do everything wrong to not thrive in the long run. The usual answer of Baltimore promoters. I added that Baltimore's enormous equity discrepancies offered a special opportunity of being an innovator in overcoming those injustices.
Touting Baltimore at ribbon cuttings: Mayor Pugh and
Developer Valery (Photo: Philipsen)

Thursday the President of the University of Maryland, Jay Perman, Plank's Marcus Stephens, Mayor Catherine Pugh and Downtown Partnership CEO Kirby Fowler promoted Baltimore at the Downtown Partnership's annual "State of Downtown" meeting. "The external brand of Baltimore right now does not reflect the reality. We still have a long way to go and we must evolve the brand of Baltimore to illuminate the truth," Perman said. Which, of course, raises the question what "the truth" is.

This is the week of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King on the balcony of the Memphis Motel Lorraine in front of room 306, a room that reportedly hasn't been touched ever since. Similarly, there are some buildings on North Avenue vacated after the ensuing 1968 unrest which remain unchanged. Baltimore's poverty rate among blacks is also unchanged from the time the Kerner report was issued also 50 years ago. That is part of the truth as well.

Thursday morning at 11:45 a mother and daughter were executed by gunmen in their own home on Gorman Avenue in West Baltimore. The police spokesman would later say on TV that police deals with a "small circle of people which appear sometimes as perpetrators and sometimes as victims", presumably alluding to the fact that the son and brother of the victims was in prison for gang activity. That, too is part of the truth.

This week London, England reached 53 murders. The city of some 8 million is inconsolable that it surpassed New York's murder rate for the first time in memory.  Baltimore's  Mayor told the business leaders at the DPoB Annual Meeting that Baltimore's murder rate for the year is down 23%. The tally for 2018 is 63.

Tywonda Petty, 32,  an East Baltimore resident witnessing police cordoning off an entire block of Aiken Street after a shoot-out on Tuesday told the SUN:  “It makes you want to go somewhere else. The city is dead.” Another aspect of the truth.

Friday the Mayor cut the ribbon of a project far from Baltimore's waterfront in a neighborhood we have now come to call Station North. She mentions the New York Times list of 52 olaces to see in 2018. The list includes Baltimore. The project is developed by the African American developer Ernst Valery who does housing in Baltimore, Buffalo and Oakland. His mantra is "development without displacement". The actor Wendell Pierce who played a detective in The Wire and invested in the project says that “The social justice movement of the 21st century is economic development”. He mentions the development apprentice program that Valery had launched with six graduates to date, people trained to create wealth, one poised to work in West Baltimore. Counter to public perception there are  many development dollars flowing into neighborhoods, in Greenmount West, in East Baltimore and also in West Baltimore. That, too is part of the truth.

Affordable housing on Greenmount Avenue
(Photo: Philipsen)
Hearing Valery and Pierce speak, an inner voice intones the inevitable Baltimore chorus of sirens denouncing the development as gentrification and the conversion of young people of color into entrepreneurs as a neo-liberal charade. Baltimore has such an unfortunate way of taking down its own progress, achievements and leaders tat those cynical voices become internalized. Baltimore suffers from a perennial inferiority complex, if one can use such a psychological term for a city at all. The preference of dismantling leaders is like self fulfilling prophecy. It has been going since, at least, Mayor Kurt Schmokethat there is nothing good being said about any of them, whether it is Schmoke, O'Malley, Dixon, Rawlings Blake or Pugh; as if these leaders were not of this city and not elected here but dropped in by some secret power.

Issues are routinely seen through binary lenses and constructed in false alternatives such as: development downtown or in neighborhoods (instead of both),  politicians working with developers or communities (instead of both), projects that help either the rich or the poor or those who are new in Baltimore versus those who are already here. All, for the most part, false choices.

Even the destructive, anti intellectual and populist rhetoric of the current US President is imported to divide residents by heaping derision on "the creatives",  "the millenials" or "elitists" who take away from the working poor, or people of color. No doubt, such divisions exist, but there is no point in making them deeper.
Lazy armchair comments, easily launched via Twitter and Facebook, don't distinguish between council members, department heads, the Mayor and her staff, delegates or members of congress. To the cynics they are all the same. In the "throw the rascals out" view, anybody elected to anything is seen as a parasite.

Clearly, history shows that a people divided in fear and opposition  achieve nothing, but a people united for something can make a real difference.
Market rate housing Station North
(Photo: Philipsen)

Baltimore won't heal from forever amplifying the horror that unfolds in its "no-go" zones. Baltimore won't heal either from white-washing the presence, or the history, neither in the literal nor in the broader sense. "Baltimore's brand" is tarnished, but maybe more importantly, its soul is bleeding.

Healing can only come from uniting around common goals and from believing that a better future is possible. There is power in recognizing that this better future is within reach if people unite. It remains elusive where division and fear reign.

The choice of narrative is between hope and possibility and despair and fear. The former build, the latter kill.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


  1. Klaus you express yourself well. Sadly, you look amiss searching for " Baltimore's Soul." Our city sold it's soul years ago, when powers that be in this town decided by any means necessary, get rid of low income black folks living close to JHU, Old Town, Station N. "The infamous Highway to Nowhere."
    Let us not play intellectual games with unconscionable urban removal project marketed as making room for the new Baltimore? And, most unfortunately, leadership in this city, declared themselves atheist decades ago. When they decided to create the cradle to prison pipeline by dumbing down our BPCS. What me and my neighbors have been in search of is not Baltimore's "soul" but the timeline for Truth/Reconciliation to legitimize a
    healing process" for all the low income residents consciously victimized by American Greed.

    1. A reconciliation timeline would be great to create, indeed. But if truth is the criterion, one should not throw the miserably destructive "highway to nowhere", EBDI, Old Town and Station North all into the same pot of the displacement of low income black people.
      The forces behind each of these cases are vastly different and so were the methods and outcomes. At EBDI displaced residents collected relocation money allowing new homes in much better areas and also a return to the area where new affordable units were built. As far as I know most former residents were satisfied with being able to move to areas of more opportunity and building equity in a home instead of being stuck in a house with no market value. Still, I agree that EBDI was in many ways flawed but certainly not in the same way as the highway to nowhere in which displacement was the main purpose.

      Station North is not at all a displacement strategy and there is no significant displacement happening. Station North, the Central Baltimore Partnership and Barclay are examples of a collaborative effort with equity and inclusion in mind. Decrying each of these as equally unjust doesn't further an agenda of progressive inclusion., equity or reconciliation. Leaving everything as it is would be, by far, a worse option.

  2. Over 80 percent of 1st through 8th graders do not meet expectations in math, literary arts or English. Their are 914 totally certified teachers in the BPS for 83,800 students. Baltimore's children enter BPS not knowing numbers, colors, letters or shapes. They are not ready to learn, do not learn and tune out by the third grade. The act out of their frustration by bullying, swearing, and being disrespectful. They smoke weed at school. They are born to the previous generation of themselves. We blame them for what we have created. We pay them no attention until they become a public nuisance. Then we spent $125,000/year/person in criminal, juvenile, and drug programs which not only do not work; they make things worse. We release 10,000 people per year from these institutions at a cost of over one billion dollars per year. Parent with money know this and either move out of the city or send their kids to learning centers where the kids can go from the time they are 6 weeks old from 6 am to 6 pm. They enter Gilmore, McDonough school scoring above grade level. For $26,000 per kid per year we could get all children ready for school. There would be time to have totally certified teachers first in the first, then second grade and so on. In 15 years Baltimore would be producing children ready to partake of the wonders of the world, to be ready for the job market of the time, and to be active citizens in a democratic society if we still have one. The answer to teacher retention is to have students ready to learn, teachers ready to teach in well resourced learning environments. Jefferson said a society ignorant and free, never was, never will be.

    1. I am curious about the "Learning Centers" you mention. Could you name some and their locations?

  3. Could you name some of these "learning centers" and where they're located?

  4. My "The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy that Shaped an American City" examines Station North (among others) but focuses on ethnic successions in Old Town, a hard-to-define area that encompassed the Tenth Ward and once was the bastion of the Irish. The relics of the Gay Street commercial district is in that area and so is the Maryland Penitentiary. As the Old Town area slummified, a concentration of some 10,000 Bohemians (Czechs) kept blacks in check near Hopkins. The book will be released Nov. 15. So were are dealing with two concepts here. Old Town faces gentrification, the old Little Bohemia regentrification.