Will Charm City be saved by attractive sidewalks?

July 30, 1998|By Christopher Muldor

WHAT IS Baltimore's greatest problem? A murder rate four to five times New York City's? A public school system in which almost two-thirds of the students drop out? The unrelenting exodus of the middle class?

Did the lack of attractive sidewalks downtown come to mind?

City government and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore believe that the lack of such sidewalks is a serious problem, and they plan to spend several million dollars to provide them, along with landscaping, benches and light fixtures. Most of the money for the project, $10 million over five years, will come from the city.

How can a deteriorating city even think of spending money on something like this? I was told by the Downtown Partnership that the appearance of Charles Street near its headquarters needs sprucing up and that the sidewalks need upgrading. Although I often walk by that area, I only recently took a closer look. The sidewalks are very satisfactory to anyone but a perfectionist, and the general aesthetics of the area are excellent. The appearance of much of downtown Baltimore is superior to that of New York City 50 years ago. If downtown aesthetics were the major determinant of urban health, Baltimore would be in great shape.

Away from the waterfront

Just what does the city hope to accomplish? The Downtown Partnership has spoken about making downtown "as well-groomed as the Inner Harbor." In that sense, this project appears to represent one part of a larger effort to upgrade areas of downtown away from the waterfront. Indeed, that appeared to be Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's objective when he recently announced plans to revitalize the Howard Street corridor.

It is impossible to make a definitive judgment about plans in the discussion stage; some downtown projects, when completed, may well be attractive and appealing. Nevertheless, the same caveat that applies to the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor applies to projects in other parts of downtown: This type of redevelopment has not stopped continued deterioration, fueled by the city's increasing impoverishment and a range of pathologies that have not been addressed adequately.

Will urban redevelopment projects downtown do more than allow a poor, deteriorating city to entertain an increasing number of nonresidents? It would be desirable if new projects could do such things as encouraging doctors at the University of Maryland to live downtown rather than in the suburbs.

We need to be clear about drawing the line between substance and mere fluff. Evidence indicates that middle-class residents and stable families will not stay in the city (or move back) on account of downtown attractions. If that is the case, is it likely they will return for nicer sidewalks and light fixtures?

By any reasonable measure, a project involving sidewalks, landscaping and light fixtures is little more than fluff. Spending $10 million of taxpayers' money on such things is bad enough. What is worse is the deficient mind-set such spending reflects. A few years ago, Sun editorial writer Antero Pietila noted that there is "little sense of crisis or urgency" regarding Baltimore's most critical problems. This is not surprising. Communities, like individuals, do not possess limitless energy. Passions and interests cannot be focused on everything at once.

For at least two decades, the energies and passions of Baltimoreans and their leaders have been directed toward one objective: "making a good impression" and putting on a false front for the world.

Putting on a good face

Funding of the Enoch Pratt Free Library is inferior even to that of Newark's library. But that's OK; thousands of "city that reads" stickers decorate city cars, trucks and benches. More people, on a percentage basis, have left Baltimore in the 1990s than almost any other major city in America. That's OK, too. Publicity calls the city they are leaving Charm City. New York is proud of its sharp reduction in homicides. Baltimore is proud that the series "Homicide: Life on the Street" is filmed here.

Isn't it time to say enough is enough to superficial projects? Spending millions on designer sidewalks and fancy lights is something the decaying city cannot afford economically or psychically. Unless Baltimore begins to change its priorities, the question of whether the city can be saved may become a question of whether it is worth saving.

Christopher Muldor writes on public policy issues from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 7/30/98

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