Tipping points and cities

June 15, 1998|By Marcus Pollock and Ed Rutkowski

I can't justify this line 0) CITIES across the nation, including Baltimore, have suffered major losses of population, especially middle-income families.

It is not a mystery -- the forces arrayed against cities are formidable. Some of the problems are of the cities' own making, but most are not. Government policies have both encouraged suburban sprawl and fenced the poor into the inner city.

Examples of the former are the mortgage interest deduction, federal mortgage insurance and the interstate highway system. Examples of the latter are zoning laws that limit development of affordable housing outside the city and transportation systems that make it difficult to live outside the city without a car.

Given that these issues will not be resolved any time soon -- and indeed can only be resolved at federal and state levels -- we might ask if there are strategies we can employ to mitigate the problems we have and strengthen the parts of our cities that work well. We might ask if there are ways to retain the middle class.

We believe there are. We believe the worst part of the city's loss, both in population and in dollars, comes from areas we call Urban Transition Zones -- neighborhoods whose demographics are changing.

We not only mean racial change, but also changes in income (dropping), age (old, but getting younger) and tenure (increasingly short-term tenants). Historically, these changes have been destabilizing as bottom-fishing investors squeeze the remaining equity out of houses of departed residents, as neighborhood incomes no longer support neighborhood businesses and as the real-estate market collapses.

This course of events has been illustrated repeatedly in Baltimore neighborhoods for the past 50 years.

Under the stresses of demographic change, neighborhoods gradually slip until they reach a tipping point at which only massive intervention can bring them back from the brink, if at all.

The time to act is before the neighborhoods reach the tipping point, for both practical and moral reasons.

We believe that the best response to the urban situation as we approach the year 2000 is to face reality.

We can no longer afford to lose our cities. We have to use appropriately large public investment to counteract massive policy-driven public and demographically driven private disinvestment, thereby reclaiming our cities at those edges -- the Urban Transition Zones. We have to save the neighborhoods that are the most vulnerable, yet the most viable, before it's too late.

Simply stated, we believe the secret to saving our cities is to focus on areas just beginning to feel the effects described above.

It worked in East Baltimore 20 years ago when Neighborhood Housing Services and its allies stopped the spread of blight north of Patterson Park. In another East Baltimore example, public investment worked in what is now the successful -- and successfully integrated -- Washington Hill neighborhood.

We seem to have forgotten what can be done when we have the will, and of course, the money.

Marcus Pollock, a Baltimore writer, and Ed Rutkowski, executive director of the Patterson Park Community Development Corp., are authors of the forthcoming book, "The Urban Transition Zone: A Place Worth a Fight."

Pub Date: 6/15/98

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