See the vanishing city

April 13, 1996|By DANIEL BERGER

The CITY LIFE Museums addition, which opened yesterday, portray ordinary Baltimoreans, mostly in this century. Since many are still living and of modest means, they ought to go today, which is free to the public. As matters stand, no other day will be.

One moving exhibit consists of photos taken by middle school students living in the neighboring high-rise public housing. What they show will soon be history.

The U.S. government is giving the Baltimore government $300 ** million to implode that housing and scatter these youngsters, among other things.

Some residents of surrounding counties cry foul. There will be anguished debate on whether poor black people from inner city slums should be resettled within neighborhoods they know or in distant ones, whether they require sanctuary from the social pathology engulfing them or are carriers of it.

Many of the arguments will have some merit but miss the larger point. The city is being depopulated, with or without this policy.

A city tour in any direction finds boarded-up rowhouses in poorer neighborhoods that were teeming a few years or months ago. zTC Most of the discussion of this has dealt with the economics and little with where the people went.

The U.S. Census Bureau, which counted 949,708 people in Baltimore City in 1950 and only 736,014 in 1990, estimates that figure now at a mere 691,131.

It says that 68,000 more people fled the city than flocked to it in the first half of the 1990s. Factoring in the greater number of births than deaths, it arrives at a decline of some 45,000 in five years.

Baltimore County's net growth in that period was slight, the outer counties' greater. The biggest flight from the city occurred the 1970s. Most of those leaving were white; a majority of those leaving now are probably black.

White and black flight

William Donald Schaefer was the long-serving mayor considered favorable to white interests, in whose terms white flight roared. Kurt L. Schmoke is the long-serving mayor portrayed as favorable to black interests, in whose terms black flight roars.

Whatever the arguments pro or con about the 1,342 poor black families that federal and city governments hope to disperse out of high-rise public housing to suburban rentals, they are a small blip on this trend, which is enormous without them.

This time, for better or worse, public policies are going with market forces and not against them.

So there is a sense, as more rowhouses are boarded up, that the city shown in the Blaustein ishing, that it went up just in time.

Will this trend carry over in perpetuity and the city vanish? Almost certainly not. As city property values go down, and country land prices up, parts of the city will be demolished for new uses.

It's going on now. On North Charles Street below 25th Street, a massive wasteland exists where a car dealer and city school headquarters were. It is being cleared for a supermarket, that is, for its parking. Charles Street may still lack the traffic snarls of Joppa Road, but will soon start to look like it.

The real city transcends county lines. City and suburb increasingly resemble each other.

James W. Rouse, the city and suburban visionary who just died, entered public life here enforcing building codes and promising that city blight would disappear in a generation. It did not.

At the end of his life, he was still battling it, helping put up new rowhouses in Sandtown-Winchester, even as private developers are putting up larger ones, often with no community amenities, all over the outer counties.

As more of the city gets razed, the battle to halt blight moves to older suburbs, which are really just the city under another name and across an arbitrary line.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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