NOW begins the final year of independent Baltimore.
Of Baltimore, that is, as a stand-alone, federal government-designated metropolitan area. Midway in 1992, the Office of Management and Budget will be announcing changes, pursuant to the 1990 census, in the shape and ranking of some of the nation's 300 or so metropolises.
Baltimore, in all likelihood, will be folded into the metro area next door, becoming a component in the Washington-Baltimore Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (CMSA). For parallels, see the existing Philadelphia-Wilmington-Trenton CMSA or the Boston-Lawrence-Salem CMSA.
This is the event behind the current spate of pleasantries about Baltington, Baltowash or, more logically, Washingmore. Demographers, to be sure, skip the jollities, pondering instead the consequences. This will be, so far, their largest integration of independent metro areas. Come 2000, Washington-Baltimore will then fight it out with San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose for fourth place behind only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago (plus their respective satrapies).
All this is not yet set in almanac concrete. Two conditions must be met: The areas to be merged must be contiguous. In 1980, a mile or so of open field still separated Us from Them. And there must be commuter crossover. Ten percent of the work force in contiguous Areas A and B must travel daily to jobs in B and A. The statisticians are still determining (from the 1990 returns) how many Columbians drive daily to D.C., how many Bowie types commute to Annapolis.
Sources say that the first indication of Washington-Baltimore CMSA-hood will come as soon as next spring, when OMB, having finished its measuring, notifies affected members of Congress.
In the past, citizen outcry has delayed a few consolidations. But Joe and Anna Baltimore have been silent, and the higher you go on this city's business ladder, the more applause you hear for Washington-Baltimore. Governor Schaefer has endorsed it, on official stationery. It is only an occasional person who has qualms. True, Baltimoreans are mindful of the recent corporate takeover mania, and they know that in a merger between bigger and smaller entities, equality seldom results. Would Greater Washington really bother to throw an occasional bone to its little brother?
And yet, if consolidation doesn't happen, if separate metro-area Baltimore has only its six surrounding counties to help it in the revision of metropolitan population standings that will follow the 2000 census, what awaits this city is further mournful descent. In 1990, independent Baltimore sank from 15th nationally to 18th. Already, several more Sunbelt configurations are racing to overtake it. (Washington was eighth in 1990.)
Either way -- annexed or overshadowed -- is this how a city lands additional major sports franchises, a larger share of national advertising budgets and little things like bigger type locating it on road maps?
Baltimore's need is for prominence. Author and unabashed Baltimore booster Gwinn Owens recalled on this page recently the municipal celebrity enjoyed half a century ago, based on snob appeal. But by now, Society is of interest only to itself. Off to the west and south, meanwhile, other cities keep growing, weedlike in their profusion. (A century ago, Baltimore was roughly twice the size of Washington.) Today Baltimore is no longer the first name of a major railroad -- or of a major-league baseball team, for that matter. (In retrospect, it was probably helpful that the marketers changed the collective name of the two daily newspapers published in Baltimore from the Sunpapers to The Baltimore Sun.)
As the present century closes, what can we use to give ourselves more of an identity? This is not just an assignment in promotion or public relations; prominence isn't something you order from a menu.
We need sights and sounds that say Baltimore -- real ones, good ones. It is important, of course, not to become known for bad noises -- or the silence of withdrawal into defeatism.
How did Gen. Sam Smith put it when some earlier government types were trying to incorporate us into Greater London?
Let us not go silently into that star-spangled night.
James H. Bready is a retired editorial writer and historian of the Washington-Baltimore Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area Orioles.