The shorthand way to describe what was...

REMEMBER WHEN

September 19, 1990|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

REMEMBER WHEN the shorthand way to describe what was happening to cities was the phrase "white flight"? That was long ago. The accelerated decline of cities then became epitomized by the phrase "black flight."

That's passe, too. Now you hear really ugly words and phrases. In Philadelphia, which is deteriorating to bankruptcy, they call population movement to suburbia "evacuation." In Detroit, which has lost nearly a million people in the post-war era, they refer to those who've stayed behind as "remnant population." In Newark the process has been called "sedimentation." As those words suggest, the characteristics of the loss are more frightening than the raw numbers. Taxpayers move out, tax-dependents don't.

A community that is disproportionately poor, very young, very old, out of work can't really manage a modern urban entity -- politically, economically or socially. A city has to have all classes of people to thrive -- especially the middle class.

In Baltimore, Census figures show the loss of the equivalent of a middle class or working class neighborhood or two every decade. Think of Roland Park moving to the county, then Hamilton, Highlandtown, Homeland . . . at some point you do not have a viable entity anymore.

Cities as we know them have not really been regarded as truly independent communities for years. In 1949 the old Bureau of the Budget began designating "metropolitan areas." To see how Baltimore has changed, consider these figures:

Then, in that first blush of post-war suburbanization, our metropolitan area included the city, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. The city's 975,000 people accounted for 77 percent of the metro population. It was largely a middle class entity. Now, the city's 720,000 people are 39 percent of the total for the same area. To maintain the 1949 ratio, the city should have 1,450,000 people -- about the combined total of city and Baltimore County.

It seems to me the only way Baltimore is going to avoid becoming a Philly or Detroit or worse in 10 or 20 years is to do something like merge with the county. (If they'll have us.) (But they won't.) (The rats.) We had our chance, but we blew it. In fact we blew two chances. In 1918 the city decided to expand by annexation. Some Baltimore Countians, including the president of the board of county commissioners, proposed annexing the whole county. But the city took only 46 square miles (plus 6 from Anne Arundel). That's the geographic city that exists today.

In 1948 the state constitution was amended so that annexation would never again be easy. The residents to be annexed were given a veto. The amendment was approved by only 36,000 votes statewide. Baltimore County voted for it by a margin of 5-1 or 42,000 votes. The city opposed it by only 7-5 or 23,000 votes. Had city voters been as united as county voters, the amendment would have failed -- and maybe Baltimore City would be healthy county seat today.

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