Facing a great challenge

Urban Chronicle

O'Malley: Baltimore's mayor has success in fighting crime, but bringing residents back may prove to be tougher.

April 05, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

IN HIS FIRST year in office, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley did what his predecessor couldn't do in 10: get the city's homicide count below 300.

Now, he's faced with the challenge of doing what seven predecessors haven't been able to do: reverse the city's half-century decline in population.

Without minimizing the difficulties in cutting crime, rebuilding population is even more daunting. It's not just a matter of beefing up warrant squads and flooding violent areas with more cops; he's got to rebuild confidence in the city as he encourages the building of desirable housing.

And he's got to do it against the backdrop of a slowing economy and the city's waning political influence.

Whether he succeeds is only partly within his control.

"The mayor is a supporting actor in the situation," said Lenneal J. Henderson, professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs and a senior fellow at the university's Schaefer Center for Public Policy. "There are other things -- like the condition of the economy and the condition of the real estate market -- that make a greater contribution."

O'Malley and other officials take some solace in the fact that the city's loss of 84,860 people in the past decade was less than projected, hoping it's an indication that a slight rebound might have begun.

It's possible. But given that projections for several other cities -- Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Washington, to name three -- were also too low, it's more likely that Census Bureau estimates were wrong.

Whatever the reason, the numbers saved former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, whose tenure lasted from 1987 to 1999, from the ignominy of having presided over the city during its greatest population decline. That distinction belongs to William Donald Schaefer, the Do-It-Now mayor who served from 1971 to 1986.

For those keeping score, Baltimore lost a greater number and a greater percentage of people during Schaefer's Seventies (119,046 and 13.1 percent) than Schmoke's Nineties (84,860 and 11.5 percent). In the 1980s, a decade split between Schaefer and Schmoke (separated by the 10-month tenure of Clarence H. Du Burns), the city's population dropped 50,727, or 6.5 percent.

During the three decades between 1970 and 2000, the number of people living in the city fell by 254,633, to its current level of 651,154. That figure represents 85 percent of the 298,554 people the city lost since its peak at 949,708 half a century ago.

Under Schaefer, the Inner Harbor blossomed but public schools went to seed; under Schmoke, public housing high-rises were brought down but crime ran amok. The most common reasons given for the decline in population: poor schools, high crime.

Numbers aside, a case can be made that Baltimore fared worse in the 1990s than in the 1970s.

In the 1970s, a decade of post-urban unrest, Baltimore had plenty of company in population loss. New York lost 823,924 people, or 10.4 percent; Chicago, 364,285, or 10.8; Detroit, 310,695, or 20.5; Philadelphia, 261,786, or 13.4; Cleveland, 177,057, or 23.5.

Like Baltimore, many cities that lost population in the 1970s slowed their losses in the 1980s.

But in the 1990s, Baltimore's loss of population stands out in its enormity. Its numerical loss of 84,860 people was greater than any of the country's 243 cities with populations of 100,000 or more, according to data released this week.

Of those 243 cities, only three lost a greater percentage of their population than Baltimore: Hartford, Conn., which lost 13 percent, to 121,578; St. Louis, which dropped 12.2 percent, to 348,189; and Gary, Ind., which fell 11.9 percent to 102,746.

And some cities that joined Baltimore on the list of municipalities that lost people in the 1970s gained population in the past decade, among them New York, Chicago, Boston and Atlanta.

One possible explanation for what happened in Baltimore is that many of those who remained in the 1980s, hopeful that the Inner Harbor might inspire a more broad-based revival, gave up on the city in the 1990s, when things got worse, not better.

Which brings us back to O'Malley.

City Planning Director Charles C. Graves III said the city will never again approach the peak of its population -- nor does it want to, given a land area that is a fraction of that of some fast-growing Sunbelt cities.

"We want to provide a city with a lower density. We need to provide development opportunities by clearing blocks, then provide a housing product people want, with amenities, with garages, with open space," Graves said.

To Graves, a Baltimore with 700,000 people is realistic, desirable and attainable. To O'Malley, reducing crime is the first step in bringing Baltimore back from the brink and regaining population.

"I have yet to meet the person who wants to live in someplace dirty and dangerous," he told a community meeting last month.

A few days later, O'Malley said he understood the importance of doing what no mayor has been able to do for 50 years. "Part of my evaluation -- whether I succeeded or just tried hard -- is whether we gain more population," he said.

City population drop by decades

......................................Decade......Percent

...................Pop...........Change.....Change

1950:...... 949,708.......... --- .......... ---

1960:...... 939,024...... -10,684........ -1.1

1970:....... 905,787.......-33,327....... -3.5

1980: .......786,741.....-119,046.......-13.1

1990:........736,014........-50,727........-6.5

2000:.........651,154...... -84,860.......-11.5

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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