City Life: Promise And Pride

September 12, 1999

On the eve of a hard-fought primary election for mayor, The Sun's editorial page staff decided to look beyond the gloomy statistics that so often are used to characterize Baltimore.

Members of the staff fanned out across the City to examine how Baltimoreans live, work and play -- at all hours of the day and night. Here's what they saw:

6 a.m., Broening Highway

The day dawns with thunder and lightning in southeast Baltimore -- a storm brewing inside 2122 Broening Highway, with the clatter of metal against metal and sparks flying.

General Motors Corp.'s Broening plant, Baltimore's largest manufacturing employer, has begun another day making vans. The factory's beneficial impact on the region m immense: It contributes $1 billion to the local economy, employs 2,800 people and is responsible for 4 000 jobs at outside suppliers.

That's why Maryland's congressional delegation, the governor and mayor have been lobbying GM to keep manufacturing vehicles in Baltimore even if it discontinues the Astro and GMC Safari models made here.

About 800 vehicles will be made at Broening Highway this day, like most others. The manufacturing floor is so immense -- 3 million square feet -- that workers get around on old single-speed bicycles, like a scene out of Beijing.

At 6 a.m., the line begins with a floorpan, a piece of metal small enough to hold in your arms. By 5 p.m. the next day, it and 1,356 other pieces will form a vehicle ready to drive out the door.

The intricacy of the process is mind-boggling. Every van has a manifest that describes the final product in detail: what size engine, what style tires, the color, whether it has a CD player.

When a vehicle passes a particular station along the seven-mile assembly line, the part needed on that particular van not the one before or the one after - better be there. Just-in-time inventory, a concept adopted by American manufacturing years ago, makes the task even more exacting since the supply of any given part is so limited. Most pieces arrive by train or truck just hours before they're placed on a van.

There are 175 robots in the plant, spot-welding here and spray painting there But some tasks, such as making sure the radio plays the correct station, require a human touch.

At this sprawling plant, nondescript but for the painted logos of the company and auto workers union on an adjacent railroad bridge, you uncover clues about what happened to cities like Baltimore -- and maybe a silver lining.

When more people made things with their hands, when they felt a purpose as keenly as these men and women apparently do, cities prospered -- economically, but also psychologically.

Many manufacturing jobs have moved to the Sunbelt or overseas. Perhaps they'll never come back. But whatever heavy manufacturing opportunities do arise are best suited to sites like this, near rail, highways and a port.

The suburbs increasingly are rezoning what little industrial land they have for residential subdivisions. The state, if it can afford the incentives to lure this kind of work, won't likely be able to pay for the infrastracture to accommodate manufacturing at places other than Broening or near it.

People who don't think real work happens in the city anymore haven't been here.

7 a.m., Cross Keys

They walk from the elevated Cross Keys parking lot past a shop called Gazelle, past boutiques named for Italian and French designers to reach the Crossroads, an any-place dining room with the reputation of being someplace.

They don't come for the eggs. They come to pitch themselves and their ideas -- to make a relationship or flash their credentials as someone to know.

These are the deal-makers, the facilitators, the zealous schmoozers.

Regulars at this power-breakfast mecca include Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin; developer Theo Rogers; Rouse Co. executive Tony Deering; Maryland School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick: Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; Maggi Gaines of Baltimore Reads; and mayoral candidate Carl Stokes.

Mr. Stokes, who makes the Crossroads an unofficial office these days, came one day last week with a financial backer and the backer's partner, hoping the partner could be persuaded to make a contribution. Mr. Stokes proffered his warmest two-handed handshake.

"I see a lot of people I need to see here," he told an acquaintance. "The Post do anything today?" he asked, hoping the Washington paper will have given him more of the exposure that makes a candidate seem like a good investment for those seeking friendly ears in government,

On another morning, Mr. Stokes scheduled back-to-back breakfast sessions. He stepped from one group to another, table-hopping of a higher order not uncommon at Crossroads.

Of all the noted breakfast spots in Baltimore -- from Windows at the Renaissance Hotel and the venerable Werner's to the funky Papermoon in Remington, Jimmy's in Fells Point and Cafe Hon in Hampden --Crossroads may be the most accommodating.

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