Magazine ranks Washington best in Northeast Cities evaluated as places to live

Baltimore is 6th

June 11, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman and Todd Richissin | Ellen Gamerman and Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Could it have been a typo?

That was what some guessed yesterday after hearing that the Washington area had been voted the No. 1 place to live in the Northeast by Money magazine.

"That's bunk," said David Klein, 55, a cabinetmaker from Baltimore. "Who lives in Washington? Lawyers and crooks. And they're one and the same!"

Even Washingtonians were stunned. "I can't believe it," said Tommy Jacomo, manager of the Palm, the restaurant for quintessential capital insiders. "Are you sure that's right?"

But Washington, the magazine insists, is the hot new thing in the region, up from 162nd place on the survey last year. That is a bit deceptive -- this year's survey has several first prizes depending on region and city size -- but Washington is gloating just the same.

Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. put out a news release, declaring, "I could not have made a better choice myself."

Baltimore has to settle for sixth place.

On the bright side, Charm City still has bragging rights over Philadelphia (which finished ninth). And it isn't last in its category (those honors go to Providence, R.I., at 15th).

Truth be told, the Money survey is a little prize-happy, giving total of 12 first places in different categories. With all these blue ribbons, even Trenton, N.J., got a first (for best medium-sized city in the Northeast).

Washington and Baltimore competed for best large city. The top prize went to the entire Washington area, including parts of Maryland and Virginia.

The magazine purports to look at the cold, hard facts -- economics, crime, health, weather, education and housing -- to come up with the urban area that is the best place to live. And, in Washington's defense, the city has seen big improvements over the past year.

"Washington is always poised for a comeback," said American University law Professor Jamin Raskin. "There's a sense the city hit rock bottom in the early '90s and is on the rebound."

Last year, Washington reported its first budget surplus since being declared insolvent in 1995. Crime statistics dropped for the past two years. And while the D.C. population is still falling, a surge of wealthy professionals from the suburbs is heading back in.

But when it comes to first place, a reality check is in order.

In its 37 "liveability factors," this Money study singles out Washington for strong schools, but last year's dismal test scores threaten to send 20,000 students to summer school this year.

The survey cites lack of water pollution, but the Potomac was rated by the environmental group American Rivers as one of the 20 most endangered rivers this year.

It commends the city for good weather. But on a muggy day this spring, children and the elderly were warned not to spend time outside for an entire day because of poor air quality.

The survey praises the top cities as affordable. But the cost of the average two-bedroom home in Washington is $161,000, more than the national average of $110,000 and the price of a Baltimore home (about $129,000), according to the Money survey.

Although the survey boasts about the city's low crime rate, from 1987 to 1998, in cities with more than 400,000 people, Washington reportedly had the highest homicide rate in the country.

Still, the ranking is likely to fuel Washington's collective ego and put Baltimore in the role of gawky city stepsister once again.

"I think dowdy old Baltimore is pretty swell myself," said Washington real estate broker William Cuddy. But, he noted, "It's hard to beat Washington. It's the center of the world, after all."

Still, the proud in Baltimore were not prepared to move south because of a little survey.

"I'm a city boy. I was born here, raised here and like to live here, and I'd say anybody who thinks Washington is a better place to live than Baltimore should live in Washington," said Walter Sondheim, 89. "Personally, I'll take Baltimore."

Pub Date: 6/11/98

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