Baltimore's Secret Metropolitanism

DANIEL BERGER

May 11, 1991|By DANIEL BERGER | DANIEL BERGER,Daniel Berger is an editorial writer for The Sun.

In the valuable special report in last Sunday's Sun,'Baltimore and Beyond,'' Neal Peirce and his colleagues challenged the Baltimore region to think and act regionally:

''If the city's free fall and the counties' withdrawal aren't stopped soon, economic prospects and the quality of life from Columbia to Bel Air, Glen Burnie to the Pennsylvania border, will be imperiled.''

This is not a surprising message. It is like being told that smoking is hazardous to your health. Everyone already knew that. Being reminded of it one more time does not guarantee reform.

Metropolitanism, as a truism of local politics also goes, is un-do-able because neither the black city nor white counties would stand for it. Politicians not only do not crusade for it. They do not whisper its name. But the hidden truth, the skeleton in the closet, is that metropolitanism is so vitally necessary that Baltimore and its suburbs have always practiced it, do now and always will. Half-way and on the sly. What's politically difficult is to admit it.

After the city went independent from Baltimore County, it became so wealthy that the first metropolitanism consisted of the bountiful city doing things for the poor cousins, a relationship that lasted well into this century.

Go out to the magnificent if crumbling dam at Prettyboy Reservoir way north in Baltimore County and the plaque tells you that the city built it in the 1920s. In theory, Baltimore County has always been desperately under-parked. In practice, the city reservoirs and their woodland margins served.

Baltimore County sewage flows through Baltimore city sewers on the way to a treatment plant in Baltimore County operated by Baltimore city. You can't get more metropolitan than that. City sewer limitations have delayed county growth. The county stake in the city infrastructure is vivid.

This early metropolitanism lives on, though the principle was reversed for newer needs. With metropolitan government unmentionable, the state government sufficed. When the private bus company serving Baltimore had to be taken over, it became a branch of state government. When the port had to become a government authority, it soon became part of state government. The city built the airport at Friendship in Anne Arundel County, then sold it to the state. The state is taking over the city jail.

The best example of the change is the baseball stadium. No facility is more metropolitan in spirit and service. But Baltimore city built Memorial Stadium, and the state of Maryland is building its successor.

The city's Walters Art Gallery just opened a house donated by a citizen to the city and by the city to the museum. The $7 million to convert it into a wing of the museum came mostly from private sources, substantially from the state, significantly from federal agencies, and notably from Baltimore County, without one additional municipal dollar. The Walters is in fact as metropolitan as the sewers.

So what Baltimore has is metropolitanism by stealth, sublimated, furtive, unadmitted.

There is a third wave of metropolitanism coming along. It is being created like the British empire, ad hoc, one pragmatic decision at a time, without a master plan.

There is no metropolitan government, but there is a Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority with participation by Anne Arundel County, Baltimore city, Baltimore County, Harford County and Montgomery County. Baltimore city and Baltimore County councils jointly passed a container tax (which was too good to be true, and soon wasn't). There is talk of creating a metropolitan arts authority, to institutionalize county subsidies to major cultural institutions that the city established and cannot sustain.

Probably, ad hoc metropolitanism is too frail for the most urgent problems, such as schooling. State government is still the metropolitanism of choice for the big ones. But it is not always politically attractive. What happens when Governor Schaefer, whose passion for Baltimore is well known, is replaced by one whose passion is for Prince George's County, when the General Assembly has been redistricted and the city's delegation shrunk?

There is so much racial talk that one of the real services in the Peirce report is to denounce as half-truth the notion that a black city is surrounded by white counties. The census shows black growth halted in the city and spurting in Baltimore County, where the white population is shrinking.

Down the road, Washington is growing whiter. Washington is recovering from a riot, reminiscent of 1968, except that this time the wielders of authority were black and the initial rioters were white as well as Hispanic. There was much talk of community powerlessness, lack of opportunity and police insensitivity, as in 1968, but the racial tags had changed.

Mr. Peirce and his colleagues may not have gotten everything right in this study, sponsored by the Abell Foundation. They started a valuable discussion.

''Baltimore and Beyond,'' they say. There are people around here who think that Beyond means the Patuxent River and then Florida. But Baltimore's city and suburban people are locked into one region, breathing the same air, drinking the same water and working (or not) in the same economy. Like East Germans and West Germans, they are not required to like unity. They do have to live with it.

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