Baltimore, coming back

January 22, 2001|By Paul S. Grogan and Tony Proscio

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Year's end brought the welcome news that Baltimore, emulating successful policing tactics pioneered in New York, has driven its homicide rate down after 10 years of escalation.

The city appears, belatedly, to be joining a major urban trend: City after city is enjoying significant drops in violent crime. Only recently, the expectation that crime would always be high in inner-city neighborhoods was nearly universal.

This progress prompts a larger question: Can Baltimore participate in other salutary trends that are lifting the fortunes of cities across America? In addition to showing progress on crime, America's "comeback cities" are exhibiting three additional positive trends: Extensive neighborhood revitalization spearheaded by grass-roots organizations, the return of functioning private markets and the reform of public housing and public schools.

Top-tier comeback cities have created and sustained networks of competent grass-roots development organizations, often called community development corporations, or CDCs. These groups are producing astonishing neighborhood turnarounds in many cities, mostly by building and renovating housing and erasing blight.

Baltimore is not without effective CDCs, whether it is the venerable SECO and Southeast Development Corp. or the younger but promising Harlem Park CDC on the west side. The problem is that Baltimore, unlike many other cities, lacks the robust network of many CDCs that are needed for a complete turnaround. To do this will require a level of commitment the city's government, foundations and corporations have yet to make.

Commerce is appearing again in neighborhoods where the private market as most Americans know it had collapsed. Supermarkets are returning, lured by residential revival and oppressive competition in the suburbs.

Evidence of market reformation is appearing in parts of Baltimore. Housing values are on the rise and some supermarkets, pharmacies and other retail establishments are re-entering the city. Safeway has opened three stores in Baltimore, including a major complex in lower Charles Village, which includes a Hollywood Video and a CVS drugstore.

Also hastening the revival of other cities has been the new immigration. Immigration is at a historically high level, resembling the period from 1880 to 1920 when American cities grew the fastest. But this time, only some cities -- the so-called "gateway" cities -- appear to be benefiting: New York, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, etc.

One in every four Boston residents is foreign-born, and the influx is credited for much of the splendid neighborhood revival under way there. Why couldn't Baltimore embark on a major campaign to recruit its share of America's new arrivals? What the city needs more than anything is new people.

For decades, public housing and public schools have been the great fixed negatives of the urban scene, isolating the poorest of the poor in desolate enclaves and encouraging those with choice to leave cities altogether.

But public housing reform is advancing smartly in Baltimore. Because of Hope VI, a federal program, the city is replacing one awful high-rise project after another with just the kind of attractive mixed-income communities that will strengthen, not destroy, neighborhoods.

The first completed projects, like Pleasant View Gardens in East Baltimore, show a wholesale transformation of both the physical appearance and social dynamics of places once so isolated they had become economic leper colonies.

Though not as far along, a tide of reform and competition is also engulfing public schools -- the institution most necessary, yet the most impervious, to change. No city will fully recover until working- and middle-class families with children rebuild their faith in the public schools.

But change is stirring. In Baltimore, CPHA -- the Citizens Planning and Housing Association -- spearheaded school choice. The New Schools Initiative permitted, for the first time, charter-like schools in Baltimore which are free of the usual bureaucratic restrictions and work rules. Five initiative schools are up and running and more are planned.

Nationally, more than 2,000 charter schools are in operation, offering new choices to restless parents within the public school framework. It is too soon to know if the proliferation of choice can restore confidence in urban public schools, but the necessary experimentation is under way.

Together, these trends -- "a surprising convergence of positives" -- are opening vistas for the inner city not seen in 50 years, before the great post-World War II exodus and decline.

Baltimore, building on its new crime-fighting success, can make the choices to become a true comeback city.

Paul S. Grogan is vice president for government, community and public affairs at Harvard University. Tony Proscio is a consultant to foundations and civic organizations and a free-lance writer on urban affairs. They co-wrote "Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival" (Westview Press, 2000).

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