Baltimore is never far from navel gazing and feeling sorry for itself, from diagnosing that everything is falling apart and lamenting that nobody has a grip on anything. And how much better we would be off if we had better leadership. In fact, this seems to be pretty much the normal state of affairs ever since I set foot here 32 years ago and probably before. Once in a while a new Mayor or a few positive news set off a more optimistic tone and a sense of resolve, only to soon subside and make place for the usual sense of doom.
|Hand-wringing about Baltimore has become a national pastime|
The low self esteem of this city spreads as news. Currently a front page article in The Washington Post was titled "Baltimore's Open Season". Needless to say, the high murder rate and the low clearance rate on everybody's mind anyway being highlighted on the front page of a national paper didn't lift the spirit either.
State Senator Bill Ferguson placed a photo of the paper on his Facebook page from where it was shared on the Baltimore City Voters page. Ferguson lamented:
we wait months and months for a commissioner to be nominated and weeks and weeks for any actual transition. We lose our director of Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. We still haven't expanded Safe Streets after money was granted by the State. We flounder along in implementing the consent decree. And we continue to stagger without a coherent crime and safety plan for the City. It doesn't have to be this way, it simply doesn't. We are so much better than this, Baltimore, and we cannot accept such low expectations for our City. (Senator Ferguson)One can't argue with any of that. Dan Sparaco, once in the Mayor's office under Stephanie Rawlings Blake, used the Senator's post to put his own view online. It, too, takes the tone of "the end is near" (unless we do something drastic).
Sadly our challenges seem so complex and so intractable no one knows who to blame.This sense of foreboding, the sense that all is lost and that the City's fate is all but sealed is not even uncommon in academic circles. Already in 1995 David Rusk wrote a pamphlet titled "Baltimore unbound" which postulated that the City is "beyond the point of no return." Some ten years later nobody thought that this was the case any longer, the spirit had slowly lifted. But then Mayor Dixon was indicted, the financial crisis hit, followed by the second Baltimore uprising and since then gloom is in season again. The SUN published an op-ed at the end of 2018 which once again summarizes all of Baltimore's ailments and combines them with ridiculous ideas for a fix (Make the courthouse a state museum, locate a university on Howard Street). In short: overstated problems no real ideas for solutions.
Those of us who can't stand what's going on are going to have to figure out how to tell a different story about what's going on. It cannot just be about personalities, or who happens to be mayor.
For my part, I started something called BmoreNow.org. It's not just a political project. It is a historical project. We have to understand how we got here, and we cannot wait 20 years for the historians to tell us. We have to make our history into a political project.
That history leads us to the fundamental truth. Aside from all of our inherent strengths as a city, the fundamental truth about Baltimore that was hidden before 2015 and that came to light after 2015 is this: this is the worst place in the country to grow up Black.
Crime, police and leadership
Certainly, the fact that Baltimore City alone has 30% more murders than the the entire country of Canada can make even the most ardent optimist depressed. The almost daily slaughter is, indeed, terrible and unacceptable. But we need to keep things in perspective, nevertheless. In the international comparison, the entire US has a terrible murder rate per capita. There are even cities with higher murder rates than Baltimore (list). But those troublesome facts shouldn't
|Not a great selection process: DeSouza|
The Sparaco and Ferguson Facebook posts were followed by lots of online lament about how poor our leadership is, even though Sparaco had just pointed out that the Mayor still enjoys an over 50% approval rating according to a poll he didn't name. Between an unpublished poll and the unreliable gauging obtained from social media posts it is hard to tell, how many people really blame the Mayor for the poor performance of the City when it comes to crime, policing and finding the perpetrators.
Sparaco says that we need to get beyond looking at the persona of our leaders and approach the problems more comprehensively, but the spite that is spewing on the Facebook pages when it come to the Mayor, is palpable. The same was true for Stephanie Rawlings Blake and before her Sheila Dixon. Can it be true that all these mayors are losers or could it be that the critics are especially harsh when it comes black women? And wouldn't it be fair to argue that a city gets the mayor it deserves? After all, Baltimore's mayors got all elected, no matter how low the turnout may have been.
|Washington Post front page|
Could it be, that being the Mayor of Baltimore is an impossible job? Or better, that pleasing the residents is an impossibility in a city which is myopic, parochial and consists to a large degree of people who either don't know any other place or don't care making an actual viable comparison?
Could it be, that it is much simpler to throw the baby out with the bathwater and declare that the city is going to hell in a hand basket than to do an actual detailed analysis which puts things in perspective and names actual doable steps towards improvement? The deplorable condition of the police department is a case in point. Three police commissioners in one year, federal investigations and a consent decree, crimes and cheating on all levels of the department, who wouldn't describe this as a morass? Yet, wouldn't it stand to reason that in a city with so much crime and dysfunction, police would be more likely a mirror of these conditions than some magical organization of competence and upstanding citizens? Especially, considering that the police finds itself pulled in two directions: Tougher and more effective on crime on the one hand, and bringing more equity and more civil rights on the other. Sure, it has been rightly pointed out, that real justice eliminates this false alternative between toughness or equity, but this is hard to explain to the average Joe. And the harder the job of being a cop in Baltimore is, the less likely it is to attract people that are much above average.
People complain about ineffective police but also that police absorbs more of the budget than education. But wasn't it Mayor Pugh who had publicly vowed to change that (and did for a while, at least on paper)? People rightly say that crime can't be fought on the level of catching criminals but it must start much more upstream with education, recreational and job opportunities. Isn't that exactly what the Mayor had suggested as well followed up with $20 million for pre-emptive crime prevention strategies and with free community college for Baltimore students?
The limits in the available personnel pool are true for teachers, department heads, police commissioners, and, well, mayors, especially when the usually concerned citizens clamor for hiring from within the community. A Mayor faces these contradictions and tugs in different directions every day. A Mayor who is there for all people will never please everybody. Pugh doesn't play well in a team, the critics say, she doesn't analyze problems well and then act. She decides too much alone on gut instinct, they say. But isn't she the Mayor who hauled her entire cabinet in a bus to Sandtown as one of her first deeds in office, asking everyone what they can do post-Freddy Grey? Isn't this the Mayor who demanded of her department heads to come in an hour early to discuss as a group how crime can be lowered? Time and again?
People always complain that the Mayor is in the pocket of developers and pays attention only to downtown and the "white L". But wasn't Pugh the Mayor to work with the Council to put together a community reinvestment fund with the express purpose of investing in the distressed and neglected neighborhoods? Wasn't it her planning director who appointed an Assistant Director for Equity, Engagement and Communications who analyzed the capital budgets and found blatant inequities that have since been corrected?
The actual statistics
How does it fit a city that is supposedly a step away from falling apart, that its fiscal health has been greatly increased lately? The baseline deficit through 2022 was reduced from $745M to $65M, an over 90% reduction? Or that the City has lost only 3,000 people in the last 8 years, way less than in any of the decades before, even though, this falls, of course, way short of the goal of growing the city by 10,000 households. The fact that only Baltimore and Detroit lost any population in a time of urban renaissance is certainly a cause of concern, but it is necessary to look beyond just one metric. More important than population numbers is fiscal health.
|Baltimore's tax base and fiscal health is rising|
Baltimore gained a lot of new young and educated people, many of them single. This explains how a city with decreasing population can still have an actual increase in the number of households. This isn't a sign of decline. Nor is it decline that the City gained about 30,000 jobs in the last ten years and that the number of poor households decreased. City unemployment decreased as well, in absolute numbers and relative to the State average as well. In 2010 it was over 4% higher than the State average, in 2017 it was only 1.8% higher. Assessed housing values continue to gain, even though these gains in the City are only a bit more than half of those on the State average, given the City's high number of houses with nearly no value at all, this value gain is still a remarkable fact.
In 2010, the total number of households in the City was 238,392, of which 141,892 or 59.5% was composed of households earning less than $50,000. Contrary to the population experience, the City actually gained more than 4,000 households, or 1.7% between 2010 and 2016, and reached a total of 242,416 resident families. Out of this total, 45.3% or 109,811 is composed by households earning more than $50,000, an increase of almost 13,311 or 13.8%, while those earning less than $50,000 decreased by 9,200 or 6.5%. (Summary of the Budget Fiscal 2019)In the year end stories compiled by national media, Baltimore's large number of vacant is always worth an article. In a story about Baltimore's "disappearing act", AP once again recites the numbers. But in it, Seema Iyer, head of the University of Baltimore based numbers team BNIA (Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance) expresses cautious optimism: "“The mayor’s put together a really strong team. All the pieces are there. Whether they can connect the dots remains to be seen.” The article quotes her.
The AP article also mentions what the City has been doing to combat vacant homes and bring re-investment to the distressed communities now widely known as the "black butterfly" (the large wings eat and wet of the "white L"):
But Michael Braverman, the energetic director of Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development since 2017, is confident the city is turning a corner. Braverman says city government is focused on stabilizing and revitalizing neighborhoods that can grow, and on building from areas of strength.The reality of vacant housing isn't particularly encouraging, because in spite of significant rehabilitation efforts (about 4800 units in four years, not counting demolitions), the number of vacants remains flat for the last ten years. The reason is ongoing population loss, especially from distressed neighborhoods. (17 neighborhoods in Baltimore showed population growth).
Disenfranchised areas are expected to see new investment via federal “opportunity zones” and a public-private Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund, created by Mayor Catherine Pugh earlier this year in part with $55 million from city-owned garages. Other grants and funds aim to boost affordable housing and foster what Pugh touts as an inclusive “new era of neighborhood investment.” (AP)
The Baltimore hand wringers usually just take it as a foregone conclusion that Baltimore's administration is bloated, inept and lacks innovation. A closer look at individual departments provides a quite different picture.
|investments in distressed communities were increased|
Take the Health Department: It had three extremely successful Commissioners over the last several mayors and has made big strides in reducing infant mortality, teen pregnancy and a few other indicators. In fact, the last commissioner, Lena Wen, had such a high national profile that she was appointed to be the national executive director of Planned Parenthood.
Housing was already mentioned, as an agency with a very broad portfolio (Mayor Pugh split it into two agencies that manage public housing and community development) it is responsible for everything from public housing and housing units that fall into the City's hands through delinquent owners, to code enforcement and permits. The Vacants to Value program aiming to recycle vacant units has gone through many years of refinement and is now a nationally recognized program with quite a few innovative tools. Housing is also a key recipient of RAD funds (Housing Assistance Demonstration), an innovative way using public private partnerships to rehab affordable housing.
Planning finished a new zoning code, a new Sustainability and Resilience Plan and a Green Network Plan, something that none of the surrounding counties has managed to achieve. Only a closer look at these documents reveals how closely they track the best practices from cities like Philadelphia or New York. Since Planning is the agency to lay out a vision for the future and also put together the annual capital budget for the entire city, it isn't just academic what happens in this department.
|Baltimore Parking Enterprise Fund|
Transportation: Most would agree that this department has been a hot mess for years. It isn't clear yet if the new director is able to swing things into an altogether better direction. But progress has been made. The department now collaborates closely with MTA to expedite buses on separate lanes and with signal priority, it has continued the "orange cone" street repaving program begun under previous mayors. In spite of the bad image of Baltimore's streets, many miles have been repaved downtown and in distressed neighborhoods, potholes get filled within 48 hours, but the process is flawed and performs way under the necessary targets. The Circulator bus is now under new management, so is Baltimore's Water Taxi and a very progressive Complete Streets bill was passed thanks to a new and invigorated City Council. The department has learned from other cities and after being late and failing twice, it put in place regulated and managed test periods for shared scooters and bikes and has finished a few additional protected bike lanes. The new speed and red light cameras seem to work without major problems.
Related to transportation is an unmitigated success story: Baltimore's Parking Authority, a body that has adopted best practices in everything they do. It is managing parking with meter kiosks, garages and dynamic pricing. The authority makes money and fuels the Circulator Bus. The revenues for the reinvestment fund also come from leased garages.
Schools: Baltimore City with the help of the State has set aside unparalleled funds for school construction. The program is midway and people point rightly to a still sinking student population and bad test scores to say that a focus on buildings isn't enough. There are a few very good schools, but there are also many in which education doesn't happen. However, even the most ardent critic will have to admit, that a school in the center of an area that has been distressed for many decades, has a student population that it alone can't turn around.
The purpose of this article isn't an apology for the many things that go wrong in Baltimore. I am one of the first to confess to losing patience at times about the snails pace of progress and the many missteps taken. Following what is actually done here and elsewhere quite closely, I once thought I knew the answers, but now came to realize that for each solution there are unintended consequences and disgruntled constituents and most importantly, larger national and regional forces that can nix local efforts. That whatever Mayor there is, a fragmented and splintered population is ready to throw its leaders under the bus. The wholesale condemnations do nothing to bring progress. Instead, a more differentiated view is needed.
|City Health care cost trajectory (bottom)|
Most of all, though, what is needed, is that the private sector, the large non-profits, the institutions and the bigger community associations with their community development corporations engage and look beyond the City's boundaries for comparison and best practices to agree on a few larger goals. This may sound like a trite solution, but compared to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati or Detroit the Baltimore private sector, the universities and the large non-profits have hardly engaged at all. There is nothing gained from calling all city leaders incompetent, corrupt and ill meaning. Those cities which are ahead of us, succeeded because they created a consensus agenda of where they wanted to go and created a sense of mission. In that, even Detroit is now ahead of us.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA