All in It Together

March 27, 1993|By ANDREW RATNER

Baltimore, this is the league we're in: Buffalo; Dayton, Ohio; Gary, Indiana; Milwaukee, and New Haven, Connecticut. That's according to a recent report by the National League of Cities on cities and their suburbs.

Meaning no disrespect to the above industrial towns, but when you think of them, you think old, gritty. You think factories belching out steel, tires and beer. You don't think ''Destination Capital: U.S.A.'' You don't think, ''Boy, that'd be a nice spot for a long weekend.'' You're not immediately smitten to book your next convention there.

Hold on, Baltimore. Before you fret, that same report also puts us on a par, in other respects, with: Charlotte, Kansas City, Minneapolis, San Diego and Tampa. Ah, yes, that's the group Baltimore wants to be in, places that conjure images of urban renaissance, of nightlife and gleaming new skylines, of hot convention and tourist trades. It's certainly the club to which Charm City thought it earned initiation, following the acclaimed openings of Harborplace, the National Aquarium and, most recently, Oriole Park. Are we one of those up-and-comers or still among the proud, but downtrodden?

According to the league, we're in the odd position of being both. Baltimore seems to have enough going for it to help counter deep structural and cultural problems, but for how long? And as the city goes, this report states, so go the suburbs.

The purpose of the League of Cities' report, ''All In It Together,'' was to help quantify the bond between cities and suburbs. Admittedly, the league hopes to pry money out of a new administration in Washington, so any conclusion binding the health of suburbs to cities is to its benefit. But the study nevertheless presents some intriguing numbers.

''We were surprised the pattern came as clear as it did,'' said William R. Barnes, league research director. ''As my academic friends say, the R-Squareds were high.''

The ''R-Squareds'' joke clearly plays better in the halls of academia, but his point was that the patterns of urban and suburban wealth in 78 metropolitan areas tracked very closely in 82 percent of the cases. For every dollar increase in central-city incomes, suburban incomes rose by $1.12.

In a measure of disparity between city and suburban incomes, Baltimore is among the worst. The average income in the city is 64 percent of what it is in the suburbs. Other cities at that level include Buffalo, Dayton, Gary, Milwaukee and New Haven. Cities whose residents earn as much or more than their suburban neighbors are found more often in boom communities of the Sunbelt and West Coast. Typically, the areas with the greatest disparity between city and suburb have the weakest economies, the study concluded.

In terms of job growth, though, Baltimore outdid most of the older, industrial cities (except for New Haven), in the study period of 1988-1991. Baltimore's modest 1.6 percent of employment growth was more in a league with such cities as Charlotte, Kansas City, Minneapolis, San Diego and Tampa. That level of job creation is nothing to brag about, but it wasn't as bleak as the severe job losses of 5 percent or more recorded in Detroit, Boston and several smaller Massachusetts cities.

The Baltimore region shouldn't be lulled into false security, though. The league's study is yet another wake-up call that the Baltimore area cannot thrive in the direction it's moving. The central city continues to wither, with a one-a-day murder rate and a school system constantly fighting political wars. The oldest inner suburb, Baltimore County, is increasingly a seamless extension of the city. And the outer suburbs are often reminded in harsh terms -- by carjackings or drug killings -- that they aren't islands either.

Yet, many suburbanites persist in the belief that the health of the city has no impact on them. Just witness the coolness of suburban legislators to expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center to make it more competitive. Their parochialism wasn't even melted by the fresh, warm memories of Oriole Park's inaugural summer and the millions of dollars it spun into the economy inside and outside the Beltway.

Make no mistake: As Baltimore slips, the whole region will become less attractive for business relocations and tourism. The change will not manifest itself in months or between sessions in Annapolis. If state and local politicians continue to see Baltimore as a tumor and not as the region's heart, their misdiagnosis will enfeeble not just the patient, but her close relatives too.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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