An Election About Baltimore Regionalism

November 07, 1994|By TIM BAKER

The silent spirit of Greater Baltimore will be looking over your shoulder tomorrow when you vote for governor. The unspoken issue of Central Maryland regionalism has lurked in the background ever since Ellen R. Sauerbrey and Parris N. Glendening won the Republican and Democratic primaries in September.

Their campaigns have focused on more emotional matters. TV ads have blared at us about crime, abortion, guns, jobs and taxes. The closest the candidates have come to an explicit discussion of Greater Baltimore regionalism is when they both repeatedly promise to boost economic development in the area -- as well as everywhere else in the state.

The tensions between the city and its surrounding counties, however, have generated the basic dynamic of this election and have driven the candidates in different directions.

Mrs. Sauerbrey's dramatic promise to reduce state income taxes by 24 percent electrifies her basic constituency -- Central Maryland suburbanites who want to escape the city and seal themselves off from its vexing adversities. They're afraid of crime, disgusted with all urban problems, and tired of seeing their tax dollars spent on failing city social programs.

Mr. Glendening, on the other hand, comes from Prince George's County -- the only Maryland county whose demographics and problems closely resemble Baltimore's. His strongest support comes from black voters. He wraps his arms around the city, argues his opponent will abandon it if she wins, and hopes for a big turnout in the black precincts.

Underneath all the election hubbub, this campaign has simply replayed the dismal history of our state's urban-suburban antagonism. The dynamics reveal again the sad truth that the Greater Baltimore region doesn't have any sense of regionalism at all.

What passes for regionalism in Maryland is continuing if inadequate state aid to Baltimore. The state simply gives the city money to help pay the cost of feeding, housing, educating, employing, and safeguarding its vastly disproportionate share of this region's poor people, most of whom are black.

The surrounding suburban counties, however, believe these poor people are basically Baltimore's responsibility, instead of the region's and the state's. The suburbs think, talk, and act as if the city somehow created poverty and poor people by itself.

The truth is largely the other way around. In the 1950s and 1960s, poor rural blacks came streaming into Baltimore, and most other northern cities, looking for urban manufacturing jobs. But then America's urban manufacturing base fell into decline as the country transformed itself into a suburban service economy. Middle-class whites followed the jobs out of the city. Lower-class blacks couldn't.

Poor blacks have remained trapped in our decaying urban cores, primarily because of suburban housing discrimination. Not one of Baltimore's surrounding suburban counties provides affordable housing for poor people, especially poor black people.

The resulting political fissure created Rule No. 1 of Greater Baltimore Regionalism: Keep poor black people locked inside Baltimore. The suburbs don't want them. County residents moved to the suburbs to escape them. Even middle-class black people have moved out of Baltimore to escape them.

If you doubt the power of this dynamic, look at the political explosions set off every time anybody suggests building affordable housing for poor people in the counties. Look at what happened when the federal Moving to Opportunity Program tried to move just a few public-housing families out of Baltimore into Baltimore County.

Here's Rule No. 2 of Greater Baltimore Regionalism: County-City cooperation is fine as long as it produces no suburban pain. That means no regional educational policy. No common housing programs. No regional land-use planning. No overall waste-disposal systems. No integrated economic-development strategies. No revenue sharing. No increased taxes.

Rules 1 and 2 together sharply limit regional cooperation because they essentially prohibit regional solutions to all the most important regional problems.

What the people in the suburbs don't see, don't sense, don't even imagine is a common destiny with the people in the city. They think arbitrary political boundaries can block the flow of economic forces. But there's no escape from regional realities. A city and its surrounding suburbs form one interdependent unit. Either they grow together or they decline together.

Like it or not, we are one region -- a contemporary economic city-state which is composed of Baltimore and its surrounding suburbs and which competes with other city-states from Frankfurt and Milan to Singapore and San Francisco. Greater Baltimore is one interrelated economic network with a common future based on shared strengths and weaknesses such as our regional labor force, our linked transportation system, and our institutions of higher education.

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