The Art of Development

July 29, 1995|By GLENN McNATT

Periodically, the question comes up whether Baltimore eventually will go the way of Newark, the impoverished New Jersey city that since the 1960s has been emblematic of America's urban ills.

My colleague Antero Pietila observed recently that the comparison between Baltimore and Newark has a distinguished pedigree. He cited a 1991 study by urbanologist Neal Peirce, who warned that although Baltimore ''boasts a glittering chain of waterside projects, it also is becoming poorer and poorer, losing more middle-class residents every year. Without some real help, Baltimore is in danger of becoming America's next Detroit or Newark, N.J.''

Mr. Pietila also noted that David Rusk, another astute student of urban America, had listed Baltimore and Newark as being among the cities whose decline probably had reached a point of no return.

Yet despite these dire predictions, Baltimore somehow has managed to avoid ''going the way of Newark'' -- at least so far. Of course, futurology is an inexact science, and things may still turn out that way. But I gave up the comparison nearly a decade ago, when the publication of what I considered one of my most brilliant columns on the subject was not immediately followed by the city's precipitous collapse.

These days I'm more likely to ask why Baltimore, despite its well-advertised problems, hasn't ''gone the way of Newark.'' One possible answer -- though certainly not the only one -- occurred to me a few weeks ago when the Maryland Historical Society announced its plan to convert the old Art Moderne building that once housed the Greyhound Corp. bus garage at Park Avenue and Centre Street into a museum annex showcasing 300 years of Maryland history. The conversion is part of a $10 million to $20 million expansion of displays and services offered by the 151-year-old institution.

The historical society's ambitious effort in the midst of so much calamitous talk about urban crisis seemed to me as emblematic of Baltimore's survival as Newark's astronomical car theft rate is of that city's decline. To paraphrase Mark Twain's famous complaint, reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Put another way, one reason Baltimore hasn't ''gone the way of Newark'' is because it maintains a vibrant and diverse cultural life that is anchored by a multitude of arts institutions, large and small, that sustain our economy and nurture our spirits.

Newark, though it is the largest city in New Jersey, has no opera house, no symphony hall, no repertory theaters, no museums, no art school or music conservatory, no gallery row, no antique shops, no chamber music society and no movie house -- in short, none of the things that make cities attractive, interesting places to live. Is it any wonder the biggest economic development story there recently was the opening of a supermarket?

On the other hand, is it too much to suggest that in Baltimore the arts have played a great, albeit often unacknowledged role, in staving off the worst-case scenarios that have afflicted so many other cities?

Politicians and other boosters like to talk of sports arenas and tourist attractions as the only salvation for urban America. Certainly those things have helped.

But it seems to me that it is the mix of cultural and entertainment activities Baltimore offers -- a combination probably unique among American cities -- that more than anything accounts for its continued defiance of the odds.

The historical society is a good example. A couple of years ago, when it put on a show called "Mining the Museum," curated by New York installation artist Fred Wilson, the normally staid institution suddenly found itself with one the hottest exhibition venues in the country.

The show helped attract a record 53,759 visitors during its 11-month run and set another record for the number of people who took group tours of the exhibit. It also put the historical society on the map as one of the country's most forward-looking regional museums.

The society's coup was in keeping with a resurgence among Baltimore's cultural institutions that in recent years has seen the addition of the New Wing for Modern Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the renovation of the 1904 and 1974 buildings at the Walters Art Gallery and the opening of Hackerman House.

No one is suggesting that the arts by themselves can save our city. But arts institutions play a vital role in binding the ties of

community that make other kinds of development possible. As in olden days, a city's music, paintings and plays may be as important as bricks and mortar in making its renaissance last.

H:

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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