Is Baltimore past point of no return? Yes, But: an expert says we can be the first city to overcome that

October 16, 1995

THE ABELL Foundation publishes today a disturbing yet optimistic book about the Baltimore metropolitan area's future: "Baltimore Unbound," by urban scholar and former mayor of Albuquerque David Rusk. Mr. Rusk says Baltimore City is past "a critical point of no return" in its descent into hopelessness and fecklessness. He has studied the rise and fall of all of the nation's cities in the past few decades, and has come up with a natural history of urban growth and decay.

Mr. Rusk concludes that a city has passed its point of no return when it has lost 20 percent of its peak population; has 30 percent minority population; has twice the percentage of minority population as the metropolitan area, and has a ratio to suburban income of 70 percent. Baltimore has lost 23 percent population, is 60 percent minority, which is 2.2 times greater than the metro percentage, and has a city/suburban income ratio of 64 percent.

What's terrible for Baltimore City is also bad for its suburbs. Mr. Rusk's careful analysis of data from recent Censuses shows that when a metro area's central city collapses, suburbanites are affected, and ultimately they pay for it.

By coincidence, Mr. Rusk's book comes out as city and county leaders are embroiled in a dispute regarding the city's proposed settlement of a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union. It seeks to disperse residents from city public housing into less impoverished neighborhoods throughout the region. Even suburban politicians angered by this pact acknowledge that Baltimore cannot continue as a poorhouse for blacks in the region. Only by dispersing the slums in a fair and equitable way, Mr. Rusk writes, can Baltimore come back past a point of no return.

The Rusk comeback proposal is to create an elected Metropolitan Council with the right to change city and county property tax rates and to see to it that localities house their "fair share" of the black poor. These are rare approaches to the problem, but as Mr. Rusk notes, Portland, Ore., and Toronto, Canada, are being governed well by metro councils; Minneapolis-St. Paul's metropolitan area has shown healthy growth with a metro approach to taxes, and Montgomery County, Md., has grown more diverse and more prosperous in the 23 years since it started requiring localities to provide nTC housing for their "fair share" of poor and minorities.

These remedies are going to be seen as radical by many. We are not endorsing (or rejecting) them. We are endorsing the thesis that unless something brave and maybe even radical is done, the city, the region and the state will suffer. All state and local officials need to read "Baltimore Unbound."

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