Population loss is city's big opportunity

March 29, 1997|By Daniel Berger

LIKE SPREADING infection, the plywood proclaiming vacant houses oozes through the city, spectacularly in poor black neighborhoods but also in poor and working-class white ones, with disfiguring blotches in middle-class communities usually dismissed as stable.

Until recently, there has been little recognition or discussion of this trend. But we seem to be operating with inherited programs and policies that assume shortage and congestion.

The best comment I have seen was a letter to the editor March 11 from Vincent P. Quayle, the redoubtable housing activist.

''I cringe every time I hear that public money is being used to build 'new' houses when there are so many empty units scattered throughout our neighborhoods,'' he wrote, guessing their number at 50,000.

He suggested the presence not only of too many houses but too many neighborhoods, and saw the bright as well as gloomy side -- ''. . . think of what job-enhancing opportunities we might create on the newly cleared land?''

Now all this eye-balling is put in some frame of reference. The Census Bureau officially estimates Baltimore's population last year at 675,401, down from 736,014 in 1990, having shrunk to 13 percent of Maryland's population from 40 percent in 1950.

The former 800-pound gorilla of Maryland subdivisions is a distant fourth behind explosive Montgomery County (816,999) and Prince George's (773,810) and Baltimore (717,859) counties.

Small as Baltimore's clout in the General Assembly has become, it will shrink more after the next census and redistricting. The aggregate of those two Washington suburban subdivisions is now 1,590,809, against 1,491,669 for the two main metropolitan Baltimore subdivisions.

Concentrate the mind

But this should focus civic thinking on a raft of issues.

Where did the people go? This projection helps explain growing complaints from black residents about the government and schools of Baltimore County.

It explains the bulldozing of city row houses that created the incredible open-air drug market on N. Chapel Street in East Baltimore that was filmed by police and federal agents last year.

It adds poignancy to the loading of costs of school administrators on the backs of ever-fewer city school children, who should be getting more books and smaller classes as a result but are not. With school management about to be reorganized with a state role, the prospect is raised of still more central administrators for ever-fewer children.

And it explains why the hunt for illegal non-residential pupils in Baltimore and Howard County schools winds up harassing new residents whose children legitimately attend those schools.

Population shrinkage should inform the strategic planning that the Enoch Pratt Free Library is now undertaking. It helps explain the land-value reversals leading to construction of large drug stores and supermarkets with ample parking in modest city neighborhoods for the first time in decades. They may be aesthetically displeasing, erasing the visual difference between city and suburb, but are economically stimulating.

Baltimore is not alone in its decline. If the estimated loss is accurate, our town remains more populous than Washington, Boston, Seattle, Denver and Cleveland; and much larger than Atlanta, Honolulu, Miami, St. Louis and Pittsburgh -- to name a few cities still large in the national consciousness.

Population loss may be seen as disgrace and failure, but a fat lot of good hand-wringing does. It should also be seen as opportunity for regeneration, as Mr. Quayle's letter to the editor suggested, putting market forces to work for the people remaining, all 675,401 of us.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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