Baltimore's destiny: a 'regional poorhouse'?

THE ARGUMENT

October 15, 1995|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SUN STAFF

Relocation: Rusk's radical proposal to save the city and suburbs

Is ethnic cleansing the answer to dying cities' problems? If we "relocate" poor blacks, would that help the city get well and keep its suburbs from getting sick?

David Rusk says so in "Baltimore Unbound: Creating a Greater Baltimore Region for the Twenty-first Century." (The Abell Foundation, distributed by The Johns Hopkins University Press. 159 Pages. $14.95 paperback).

And when David Rusk speaks, people listen. He is the hottest urban expert in the nation today. He is constantly on the road, delivering speeches to troubled mayors and state and county officials. He does scholarly studies for private and governmental clients. Important studies, that people actually read and that have consequences. For example, his economic and social comparison of cities competing for a new National Football League franchise was a factor in the NFL's going with the cities he said were tops, Charlotte (his client) and Jacksonville.

Rusk is in great demand because he can dish the statistics with the best of the professors at universities and the pay-per-view think tanks. I think he's memorized the data for every census tract in every large metropolitan area. And he's smart. He knows what those numbers mean. And he's clever. He can take a lot of often seemingly contradictory and/or incoherent facts and trends and make a compelling and logical theory out of them.

He made his reputation that way with his 1993 book, "Cities Without Suburbs" (The Woodrow Wilson Center Press and The Johns Hopkins University Press. 147 Pages. $29.00; $13.95 paperback). He argued there that only "elastic" cities can survive, much less thrive. That is, cities that can s-t-r-e-t-c-h their boundaries to keep the suburban middle class (mostly white) on their voting and tax rolls. The little book struck a nerve, got a lot of press attention and for a book of its kind jumped off the bookstore shelves. It went through seven printings and has just come out in a second edition. He has risen above expert consultant class to guru-dom.

Why? Well, as I said, he knows his stuff; he is believed by politicians and businessmen the way scholars (and journalists) are not, because unlike them he has actually been elected something (mayor of Albuquerque) and dealt with real problems. Also, he writes well. A narrative moves his river of data and analysis along, and story and data always fit. I ran out of high-liter as I read along. That this is rare I noted for the umpteenth time, reading along with "Baltimore Unbound" a new Urban Institute book, "Housing Mobility: Promise or Illusion," which also looks at moving people out of slums and ghettos to suburbia.

Well, I've kept you waiting long enough. Does this guy really want to run poor blacks out of town? You bet. He writes that Baltimore, which is as inelastic as a city can get and will soon be "a second Detroit" the way things are going, has got to take "radical" action to shuck its role of being the metropolitan "poorhouse."

This is especially true for poor blacks who, because of discrimination and other factors, are compressed into ghettos where everybody is poor. That breeds crime, other anti-social behavior and hopelessness into a critical mass that scares increasing numbers of middle class and working whites and blacks out to the suburbs, to live, to work, to shop, to play. Pretty soon the city will have no resources to deal with the problems of these black poor. Poor whites can and do move to opportunity, even if they stay poor.

Mitigate ghetto life

Other cities with concentrated black slums have been able to obtain the resources and mitigate ghetto life by annexing or consolidating with suburbs. Baltimore probably can't do that. The state constitution and an unwilling General Assembly won't allow it. So, says Mr. Rusk, break up those black slums by requiring every suburban county in the Baltimore metro region to take its "fair share."

How? By having the General Assembly create a "Metropolitan Council" that could require counties and private developers to provide housing for the poorest of the poor and set relatively uniform property tax rates for the city and counties to raise the money to build the new public housing (and, in the process, make it less likely that tax rates would determine business and homeowning decision-making, to high-tax Baltimore City's detriment).

I am a fan of Mr. Rusk. I don't know a 10th as much as he knows. I don't understand urban and suburban social dynamics half as well as he does. I've never been elected dog-catcher. So I hesitate to argue with him.

Pause.

I say without equivocation that his proposal for Baltimore is too little, too much and too late.

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