Moving ahead by building on local strengths

Possibility: Though it has problems, the city possesses an array of resources that could fuel prosperity in the new century.

Reviving Baltimore

November 07, 1999|By Timothy D. Armbruster

TWENTY YEARS ago this spring, I returned to Baltimore, drawn by a new professional challenge and the air of possibility that animated the place in those days. There was an esprit that was almost palpable, whether you were dealing with City Hall, the business community, neighborhood groups or your neighbors. There was the sense that though battered by two decades of dramatic economic and social change, Baltimore had righted itself and was moving forward again.

The realists knew the glory days of manufacturing and transportation would not return, but civic and political leaders were convinced -- or at least made a good show of it -- that better days were ahead. Baltimore, it was said, was adjusting to the challenges it faced more successfully than other older industrial cities.

I remember a presentation I saw in London's Docklands, which described the ambitious redevelopment project there in terms of the very best examples of urban revitalization elsewhere in the world. In slide after slide, London's point of comparison was Baltimore.

There were other pleasant surprises: charming, affordable city neighborhoods; expanses of parkland; a vibrant cityscape; and, most striking of all, a deep sense of community.

But there were other, less pleasant realities at work. One of the first that struck me was the preoccupation with race. Twice before, the city where I formerly lived was rent by civil disorder. When I got here, 11 years later, I was astonished by Baltimore's fixation on "the riots." For a while, I thought I must have missed something.

Another impression was Baltimore's attachment to nostalgia. Evoking past glories is charming, but after hearing Baltimore's mantra, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" for about the thousandth time, you begin to understand why we haven't always adapted so well to the economic and social changes of recent decades.

Also surprising was Baltimore's inferiority complex. Many new acquaintances acted surprised that I had chosen to come here.That attitude persists to a degree, though it has been muted in recent years.

Less surprising, but no less troubling, was the appalling condition of the public schools. Few urban school systems are very good, but Baltimore's was particularly bad. Though strong city neighborhoods remained, they were strong only because their residents either were able to afford the superb private schools that dotted the region, sent their kids to parochial school, or were childless. That, sadly, has not changed.

That was 20 years ago -- almost a generation. Looking ahead to the next 20, we need more than ever to understand what forces Baltimore is up against, what has improved, what has not, and think together about how we want to spend our collective energies in helping Baltimore choose its future.

In doing so, it's helpful to look at what's good, at what will stand Baltimore in good stead as we face a new century. Our high-tech, health care and higher education resources are as good as any. We are, though we haven't begun to celebrate and market it the way we should, a college town of substantial resources and diversity. We enjoy, in the Inner Harbor, the Camden Yards complex and the Mount Vernon Cultural District, a wealth of tourist and cultural attractions our Sun Belt neighbors can only envy. We have safe, affordable neighborhoods in a variety of price ranges, this too a rarity among urban communities. So, although in recent years we have often been dispirited, and discouraged, we enjoy strengths and reasons for renewed hope.

Among other things, the philanthropic community has developed into a significant presence.We have seen the Abell, Casey, France-Merrick and Weinberg foundations emerge as leaders, along with, most recently, the Baltimore office of George Soros' Open Society Institute. Together, they bring an economic and intellectual dimension to Baltimore that, in partnership with government and business leadership, could help the region look at its most pressing and intractable problems in new and unconventional ways.

For half of my 20 years at the Morris Goldseker Foundation, I have also had the privilege of being president of the Baltimore Community Foundation. Our objective has been to develop this unusually flexible and potentially entrepreneurial institution into a major civic presence in the Baltimore region, a role its sister institutions play in other urban areas. Over the past decade, I have shared my time between the two in an attempt to create, in the community foundation, a large, permanent civic endowment, supported by thousands of individuals, families, corporations and local and national foundations.

When we began, the community foundation had about $11 million in assets and made charitable grants of less than $1 million annually. This past year, we made grants to nonprofit organizations and institutions in the Baltimore area of $11 million, and with a little luck, will close 1999 with assets of $100 million.

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