Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Baltimore was a magnet for urbanologists studying an aging East Coast smokestack city on the comeback road. Aside from the changing Inner Harbor, American and foreign experts were intrigued by the city's effort to revitalize neighborhoods through such innovative concepts as "dollar houses," awarded by the city to families pledging to speedily renovate and occupy them as their primary residences.
In recent years, some of that luster has faded. Whatever Baltimore's successes, they did not cure the debilitating malaise of crime, poverty and the middle-class moving out.
Against that background, it is interesting that Baltimore has now become a magnet for a second wave of urbanologists, planners and city administrators who missed the city's transformations of the 1970s and 1980s. They tend to come from the former Soviet Union and its erstwhile Eastern European satellites. They find Baltimore captivating because it is not a glittering utopian mirage but a mixed bag of successes and failures that offers ideas and models for redevelopment.
During the past few weeks, a number of key officials of St. Petersburg, Russia's second largest city, have studied the Baltimore experience as guests of the private Faberge Arts Foundation and a number of local companies.
The Russian officials have enviously eyed Harborplace, marveling what a tourist draw such a structure would be on the Neva banks. They have examined how Baltimore has given abandoned public buildings a new lease on life by recycling them to such uses as apartments.
They have studied problems of privatization and infrastructure financing at Alex. Brown, which is helping St. Petersburg with conversion to a free-market economy. They have met with Maryland entities using municipal bond financing. They have toured the headquarters in Columbia of Ryland Homes, which has a subsidiary in St. Petersburg.
Since the days of Peter the Great, St. Petersburg has been Russia's window on the west. In today's changing conditions its huge port and important industries again underscore that role. Any links and partnerships that are established now between the St. Petersburg region and Maryland promise ample long-term dividends.
St. Petersburg is hampered in its rebuilding efforts by the lack of almost everything -- money, materials, skilled labor. Baltimore is wealthy by comparison. What is often lacking here these days is a sense of urgency, innovation and a "can do" spirit. As the St. Petersburg visitors' envious glances prove, there is no excuse for any of this dispirited feeling in Baltimore.