Monday, February 17, 2020

Antero Pietila: The corrosive overtime fraud has to end!

Washington's birthday is a good day to give this space to Antero Pietila, the man with the hard to remember Finnish name who in all his years never took on the US Citizenship but managed to write two seminal books which dissect Baltimore's history of exclusion like no other. Pietila practiced his detective skills and exact observations in 35 years as a journalist for the Baltimore SUN at a time when the paper could still afford foreign correspondents. A year ago Pietila told the Baltimore Magazine how he sees the functions of his two books:
Antero Pietila, author and Baltimore observer
We are at a very peculiar intersection of history in Baltimore. The names William Donald Schaefer and James Rouse mean less and less. Fewer people remember these individuals who had made a profound impact. These books are sort of designed as introductory assignments for those new to Baltimore. Like David Simon’s The Wire. (Pietila in Baltimore Magazine 01/19)
Pietila decided to spend his life in this city with his Baltimore native wife of 36 years, an accomplished African American quilt artist,who  passed away earlier this month. While Baltimore is mired in never ending leadership scandals, Pietila's native Finland his governed by a young woman who is fascinating the world. By most accounts, Finland excels in most everything, from the happiness of its residents, to education and efforts of creating a more sustainable future. 

The idea of these interviews is to widen the perspective of the pre-election debate through the voices of a number of prominent Baltimore stakeholders who express their views about the state of Baltimore, the candidates, their preferences, sentiments, recommendations and suggestions for what should be done.
A beautiful but divided city: Baltimo

The responses will be published in random order over the coming months of this election campaign. The interviews are not in any way intended to be representative.

Antero Pietila
  1. Are you overall optimistic about Baltimore or pessimistic? Why?
         I am a fan of Baltimore. But it is hard to be optimistic when the current political leadership denies it bears any responsibility for the city's abysmal violence and overall dysfunction. Just think about it. We are in the midst of a never-ending police scandal, the city was held hostage when the IT system was compromised under the reign of the highest paid city employee, water bills are out of whack. Yet the current Mayor claims no responsibility.  Baltimore now increasingly exists in the nation's capital's shadows, no longer the economic and commercial powerhouse it used to be. The explosive national debt, due to Trump's reckless borrowing, makes it impossible to expect that federal largess to cities will continue even at the current level. 

    2. What three issues do you suggest should be the top priority of the new Mayor? 

        (A) Radically overhaul the police department. The corrosive overtime fraud has to end; it is bankrupting the city.  Also needed is a total remaking of the criminal justice system that postpones cases so long that witnesses flake away and prosecutions die. It's a game that benefits only trial lawyers and criminals. These are tough issues because they also critically involve the state. But this chaos has to be rectified.
       (B) Rethink and reconfigure the public transit system. The transit system is the primary way of commuting for those who cannot afford a car, including ex-offenders hoping for a new life. What good is a job offer, if you cannot get there. The current system is unreliable and vehicles do not run at convenient intervals. When Amazon came to Baltimore, set up its own bus system to get employees to its Southeast Baltimore facilities. The Johns Hopkins institutions also operate shuttles, including a link from Amtrak's and MARC's Pennsylvania Station to the Broadway medical campus. Meanwhile, the next mayor must get started on the long-delayed widening of the antiquated and insufficient Howard Street railroad tunnel.

      (C) Address the lead paint crisis. The liabilities are such that they strangle the whole rental market sector and make many aging rowhouses impossible to sell.

      3.   If you you were to advise a candidate for Mayor what would be your best suggestion?

(A) Rethink the PILOT arrangement under which nonprofits like Hopkins and religious organizations may pay the city for services in lieu of taxes. Some 40 percent of the real-estate base belongs for such organizations. (B) End unwarranted subsides  to  private developers. Such subsidies have become to be regarded as automatic sweeteners regardless of whether they are needed or not.

      4.  What should the next US President should do for cities?

      As the astronomical national debt takes us to a fiscal crunch, be a leader, because various budget measures require the approval of Congress. The next POTUS should improve mass transit and increase immigration, which in many cases is key to spurring economic activity that revitalizes neighborhoods. 
MTA buses stuck in traffic: In effective transit

4             5.  What recent local fact has given you hope for Baltimore? 

The gradual revitalization along Greenmount Avenue is a confidence-builder, particularly when it establishes stronger links to the renewal going on around the Hopkins Broadway medical campus.  It is among several slow but hopeful signs of regeneration. 

     6. What recent local fact has depressed you the most?

 The lawlessness of the Gun Trace Task Force and what it reveals about the dysfunction of the police department. Vigilant law enforcement is a key reason we  tolerate the high property tax rate. 

      7. Do you support a particular candidate for Mayor and for City Council?

This should be the year of an outsider. As a registered alien I have no voting right. 

8       8.      What personal contribution to Baltimore are you most proud of?

My reporting during a 35-year career at The Sun and the two books I authored afterward: Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City and The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy that Shaped an American City. 

      9. Any final thought?

With print newspapers downsizing and dying, municipal activities are not covered the way they used to be. At the same time, the League of Women Voters no longer monitors meetings and hearings. As a result the public increasingly operates in darkness. We need new strategies to keep the citizenry informed.
Beauty and abandonment on Franklin Street

Antero Pietila spent thirty-five years as a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, most of it covering the city's neighborhoods, politics, and government. A native of Finland, he became a student of racial change during his first visit to the United States in 1964. He lives in Baltimore.
Pietila book title: Baltimore's history

He came to America’s shores in May 1964 from the deck of the M/S Finntrader as a twenty-year-old aspiring journalist from Finland wanting to spend a summer in the United States -- the summer of Lyndon B. Johnson’s re-election campaign, civil rights strife and of the New York World’s Fair . At that time  eye and hair color marked the chief differences among Finland's four and a half million people.

In 1969, after receiving a M.A. degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Pietlia found an urban observatory in Baltimore, a declining but still-great city trying to recover from the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The city and many of its residents were in a defeatist funk. Racial tensions flared, white flight to the suburbs continued; smokestack industries kept shutting down. Yet even among the gloom and doom there was a sense of excitement among those who saw the potential.

In 1980 the SUN chose Pietila to establish a bureau for The Sun in Johannesburg, South Africa. He arrived on a public holiday marking the defeat of Zulus by the Boers in the 1838 Battle of Blood River. His first report, printed on the front page, described how the ruling white supremacists felt that they had their covenant with God renewed for another year, when a ray of light from a slit in the ceiling fell at noon on a sacred monument declaring Ons vir Jou, Suid Afrika (“We are for thee, South Africa”). From South Africa Pietila was transferred to the Soviet Union.

Pietila retired from the SUN in 2004. Since then he wrote "Not in my Neighborhood", a seminal book about redlining, block busting and other methods of exclusion and "The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins": The Life and Legacy that Shaped an American City in which he examines the life and legacy of Johns Hopkins and his institutions on the racial patchwork of Baltimore City.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Here the previous interviews in this series:

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