Hurting neighborhoods won't help city

City Diary

March 20, 2002|By Francois Furstenberg

I WAS one of 200 people crowded into a small room in the Northern District Police Station to attend a City Council hearing earlier this month. The topic: Loyola College's plan to buy 49 acres of city property in Woodberry and convert the woodlands into a large stadium and athletic complex.

It was a thrilling display of civic activism -- Baltimore residents devoting themselves to protest something they believe will hurt their community.

At the same time, representatives from city agencies testified on behalf of Loyola against the wishes of the very people who pay their salaries.

The scene was disconcertingly familiar in Baltimore, and it transcended one particular neighborhood and one particular institution. Two models of urban development -- the people and the institution -- confronted each other that night, and the City Council's decision will have implications for Baltimore's potential renewal.

Baltimore was the nation's comeback city in the 1980s. Its urban renewal relied on public funding to large institutions and corporations to spur development. Development would lead to economic growth, fanning out through the city. What was good for the city's institutions would be good for the city.

The Baltimore model was copied by other cities. New York's South Street Seaport, Cleveland's downtown and many other projects imitated Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

This was the precisely the model advocated by the Baltimore Development Corp. at the City Council hearing March 6. True, no new taxes would be generated and no jobs created, acknowledged BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie. But institutions like Loyola generate jobs and revenue for the city. What is good for them is good for the city.

Unfortunately, that promise has not been realized. Over the last two decades, as Baltimore obdurately pursued this redevelopment strategy, it slid steadily into poverty and social decay. Even as other cities rebounded, Baltimore continued its sad decline.

After more than 20 years, we know that government subsidies to private institutions and corporations will not alone renew the city. We know that a university's building will not develop or enrich the surrounding neighborhood. If it did, the East Baltimore neighborhood surrounding Johns Hopkins Hospital would be the wealthiest in Baltimore.

As Baltimore's decline has continued, cities such as Boston, New York, Cleveland and Chicago have all "come back." They stemmed their decreases in population and saw their middle classes grow, their tax base climb and their crime rates decrease.

In all these cities, as Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio show in their book, Comeback Cities, small neighborhood organizations revived urban areas and brought their cities back to life. Ordinary citizens, acting through grass-roots community groups, rehabilitated housing and revitalized open spaces. They fought crime and litter. They improved their schools and created businesses.

In the old model of urban renewal -- here in Baltimore -- community groups are a problem, a nuisance. People who oppose large development schemes prevent urban renewal. They stand in the way of progress.

That's what we heard from the city March 6. The Planning Department, the BDC and the Department of Public Works all testified as Loyola's advocates. Loyola came with its sound engineers, light engineers, geo-technical engineers. They were very persuasive.

Woodberry residents waited three hours for their turn to speak. Although they dedicated enormous time and effort preparing for the hearing, they were not as smooth as the professionals. Even so, when I left at 11 p.m., nearly five hours after the hearing began, the room was still full and people were still standing because there were no empty seats.

The kind of civic activism displayed at the hearing is the lifeblood of this or any other city; it distinguishes a living, vibrant community from a desiccated group of buildings.

Loyola is indeed an asset to the city. But the city's greatest assets -- by far -- are its citizens and community groups dedicating themselves to their neighborhoods.

Loyola's proposed development will hurt these people by creating nuisances, lowering property values, degrading the social life and destroying the physical beauty of the neighborhood and its forest.

In damaging the neighborhood, it will undermine precisely the people and groups who are the answer to the city's problems.

The city should support the large institutions when it can. But when those institutions harm neighborhood communities and threaten the very fabric that holds them together, the city must stand behind its neighborhoods.

Neighborhood groups and active citizens do not stand in the way of Baltimore's comeback. They are its only solution.

Today's writer

Francois Furstenberg is a doctoral candidate in U.S history at the Johns Hopkins university.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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