Urban analyst blames predators for what's wrong

May 24, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

A University of Maryland professor was getting a lot of publicity in 1980 by calling attention to the revitalization of many of Baltimore's neighborhoods.

At that time, Melvin R. Levin, today based at College Park's Institute for Urban Studies, documented the substantial increase in housing values in older city communities.

Middle-class people were attracted to the 19th century homes in neighborhoods like Union Square, Butchers Hill and Mount Vernon.

Now, 14 years later, Levin is not so optimistic about Baltimore and other U.S. cities he has studied. Some of his conclusions are found in his latest book, "Outside Looking In: Immigration and Development."

What has curbed Baltimore's residential urban renaissance?


"The predators have made life intolerable. The middle class in the cities react to the horror stories and the media barrage about the crime," Levin says.

"Today renovated, middle-income housing is harder to sell. There isn't the confidence in the older parts of the cities as there was in 1980."

"The crime rate," he says, "is highest in the poor neighborhoods, but it laps over and scares middle-class residents."

"Of course there was city crime in 1980. But people buying houses in old neighborhoods bought a strong lock and had a dog. They didn't really worry about it."

At the same time, he says, it is not only U.S. cities that are being affected by crime. "There's a wider urban crime picture. It affects London, Paris and Moscow, especially Moscow," he says.

Levin, a past president of the American Institute of Certified Planners, has studied population movements, often in distressed areas, since the 1950s.

He describes the first group of people to move away from cities as workers who still returned Monday through Friday by commuting to downtown jobs.

"The second wave increasingly limited its contact with downtowns by moving its workplace to the suburbs or worked by computer. Shopping and leisure activities were in the suburbs as well," he says.

A more recent trend he has observed is the "walled city," a community, "essentially seceding from a larger society," with gates where a homogenous resident group can count on "civil behavior of like people. It is a direction that people are moving toward," he says.

He praises Baltimore in a qualified manner by pointing out that this city's fortunes were improved by some of the steps it did not take: We did not enact rent control or a city payroll tax. We kept "broad in-town highways cutting through established neighborhoods" to a minimum and did not engage in "numerous, massive total-clearance urban renewal projects."

"To the observer familiar with New York and other large cities, Baltimore housing is built to a human scale, with far fewer endless blocks of four- and six-story -- or higher -- apartment buildings that not only proved so vulnerable to arson, vandalism or sheer neglect in other cities but were also far beyond the financial and human resources of individual owner-occupants to buy, renovate and preserve," Levin writes.

On the minus side, Baltimore failed to give the middle class confidence in the schools.

"After promises, promises and promises, the schools haven't turned around. I know there are parents in the cities who give public schools a chance until their children turn 12, but not after that," he says.

Levin believes the substance that cripples the urban poor is not heroin or cocaine, but alcohol. "No wonder the pastors and the community groups are fighting the billboard ads," he says.

In the years from 1980 to 1994, Levin notes, the city made some gains. He cites the Inner Harbor and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, "although it's questionable who pays for what there," he says.

He cites the fatherless welfare family. "Instead of a husband, you marry the welfare system. The government is being asked to take over as the husband and the tutor and everything else," he says.

"All the difficulties in 1980 have grown dire in 1994," he says.

"There's been a consensus between liberals and conservatives that the old system isn't working. Liberals might say government intervention might still be useful. The conservatives say government has had its chance," Levin says.

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