'Diversity, balance, stability'

October 18, 1995|By DAVID RUSK

Following are two excerpts from ''Baltimore Unbound: a Strategy for Regional Renewal,'' written for the Abell Foundation by David Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque and nationally known writer on urban affairs.

THERE IS A ''POINT of no return'' for cities -- a combination of high population loss, disproportionately high minority population, and great disparities between city and suburban income levels.

There are 34 American cities, including, by 1980, Baltimore, that have passed the point of no return. Not one of these cities has subsequently ever closed the income gap with its suburbs by so much as one percentage point! No combination of urban renewal, downtown development, model cities programs, community development corporations and, I predict, enterprise or empowerment zones has ever reversed the downward slide of such cities.

There is no factual basis for believing that more of the same, including Baltimore's new federally funded empowerment zone, will reverse Baltimore's decline -- and Baltimore has been one of the ablest practitioners of such programs.

No cause to abandon hope

To be beyond the point of no return is not cause for abandoning all hope. Progress, however, requires recognizing and acting on the core problem: the city's growing social and economic isolation. As places to live, such cities are slowly being abandoned to the black poor, who are themselves the primary victims of such abandonment. To end growing isolation requires conscious, purposeful public policies either to enlarge the city geographically (hence socially and economically as well) or to end the city's role as poorhouse for the region's minority poor.

* * *

Baltimore has many strengths and assets. Its downtown business district, universities and hospitals continue to be major regional centers of high-quality employment. It has a legacy of wonderful urban neighborhoods; our ancestors knew how to create urban environments of convenience, diversity and charm.

However, Baltimore's physical geography is now overwhelmed by its unbalanced human geography -- a geography in which insurmountable social barriers are thrown up by the powerful forces unleashed by the concentration of poverty.

Many middle-class people would prefer to live nearer city-based jobs. Middle-class households would repopulate interesting urban neighborhoods if they could be assured of reasonable safety and good schools. City neighborhoods that were once strong, middle-class communities can become so again if some sociological breathing space can be opened up.

Of course, nobody needs safer neighborhoods and better schools more than the current residents of poverty-impacted neighborhoods do. For many, however, the surest path to safer neighborhoods and better schools is to leave inner-city ghettos for better opportunities that are already in place elsewhere in the metro area.

''Diversity, balance, stability'' -- these must be the watchwords for both diversifying the suburbs and restoring Baltimore.

Metro Baltimore stands at the threshold of the 21st century. The State of Maryland must summon the political will and the political courage to regain for the Baltimore region the front rank among American communities it once proudly held. City and suburb -- we are all in it together.

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