Attacks create a void in city

Urban Chronicle

Impact: The legacy in Baltimore from the Sept. 11 terrorism is uncertainty and the loss of possibilities.

September 20, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

THE DAY AFTER the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I wrote a short profile of Renee May -- one of many The Sun published about victims with Maryland connections.

May was an attendant on the American Airlines Flight 77 that was crashed into the Pentagon, a docent at the Walters Art Museum and a five-year resident of South Baltimore. She was the kind of person Baltimore is working so hard to attract -- young (she was 39), professional, dedicated to her community.

And, from the accounts of some of those who knew her, she was an affirmation of city living. She chose to live in the city not so much to be near her work -- she flew, that fateful day, out of Dulles in Northern Virginia -- but because she liked it.

Now, May, like so many others, is gone.

It's difficult to talk about what Baltimore lost when so much of lower Manhattan lies in waste, with thousands of people missing and almost surely dead, and funerals held for top fire commanders who died in the early rescue efforts.

But, as in much of America, a void has been created in Baltimore -- like New York, a classic American city with downtown office towers and historic monuments.

Part of the void is tangible, although that's just part of it.

With tourism down over the country, prospects for a new downtown convention hotel, already dim, must be considered less likely in the wake of the terrorism. This week, Park Place Entertainment said it was putting off construction of a $425 million hotel tower in Las Vegas. If Las Vegas can't support a new hotel now, it's inconceivable that Baltimore could.

The proposed east-side biotech park, the concept of a digital harbor, even the nascent west-side redevelopment can't help but be hurt, at least in the short run, by a nervous economy made more shaky by last week's attacks and an uncertain future.

Some of what was lost may be regained -- but not in the same way.

The first Monday Night Football game in the city in 23 years and the first in the new downtown football stadium has been rescheduled for Jan. 7. Understandably postponed from this week along with other National Football League contests, the season-ending game might turn out to be pivotal to the season. But -- and this might change -- now it feels that the game will be just that: a game, and not the celebration of downtown it might have been.

That sense of joy and the optimism that fuels it, essential to all of the country but especially vital to cities like Baltimore struggling to regain their footing, is perhaps the most searing loss.

Since Sept. 11, all America feels vulnerable. But with the possible exception of airline travelers, cities seem most exposed. Our urban areas contain our most iconographic economic and cultural symbols, and our largest concentrations of people. Seeking to inflict maximum physical and psychic damage, the terrorists struck our military headquarters and New York, not Podunk.

Much more than bedroom communities, cities are where people congregate and linger -- activities that depend on a sense of security.

And the focus of Baltimore has subtly shifted -- from solving the myriad existing problems to preventing new, heretofore unseen ones. Given the magnitude of what occurred, that's not just rational, but essential.

On Tuesday, Mayor Martin O'Malley announced the appointment of a police consultant to draft emergency anti-terrorism plans for the city. He said protecting Baltimore from attacks was now his administration's top priority. It used to be cutting the number of homicides, which over the past decade has created a death toll that is also measured in thousands.

You can hardly blame him for the change. The drop in the annual number of killings, though significant, can pale in the face of the kind of attack that can take so many lives in an instant. Still, the effect is inescapable: The city, beginning to emerge from its fear of crime, has a new deadly worry.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks, it's not hard to see increases in state support for such key city priorities as public safety, drug treatment and education taking a back seat to the need for increased security at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant and Maryland Rail Commuter service.

As routines return to normal, there's a feeling of slowing progress and things being put on hold.

That could undermine in Baltimore the sense of growing momentum -- the kind of forward motion so important to drawing more people like Renee May to the city.

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