From foreign shores

November 19, 2003

TAKE A STROLL down Broadway, and listen to the busy passers-by speaking Spanish. From Lombard Street to Fleet Street, you'll find more than a dozen Central American restaurants - and a lunch truck selling tacos. You'll see Spanish bookstores, music stores, beauty shops and groceries. You'll pass storefronts selling international phone cards and airline tickets; others offering wire money transfers or courier services to Latin America; still others advertising help with taxes and with the law. Pentecostal iglesias line both sides of the street. Near Lombard, look for the sub shop that has gone out of business. All the old signs in the window are in English; the new one, which says "Business for sale," is in Spanish.

Immigrants are transforming the neighborhood. Broadway above Fells Point, once desolate and derelict, is vibrant again with pedestrians and commerce. Immigrants are bringing city life - as generations had known it - back to the city.

But it's too little - way too little. This whole densely packed neighborhood extends for just five blocks.

Over the course of two centuries, Baltimore welcomed millions of immigrants, and put them to work. Most, eventually, moved on. But wave followed wave, from Europe, Africa and the South. Baltimore's strength arose from the sweat of its newest residents.

Yet the 20th century saw the conveyor break down, and Baltimore fall behind other American cities. No one came to replenish the old rowhouse neighborhoods. The babel of languages died down in the city's schools. Outside a few pockets in East Baltimore and Northwest Baltimore, the tide simply went out. And with it went much of the energy and optimism of the city.

The Census Bureau calculates that about 6 percent of Baltimore's residents are from other countries; that's half the rate for the nation as a whole. It's miles behind other cities - not only the well-known magnets of New York and Miami, but even places such as Newark, N.J., and Oakland, Calif., where as many as one-third of the residents are newcomers.

Those other cities all have their problems, but they're not simply drying up. The minuscule number of immigrants in Baltimore - many of whom came here decades ago - is a graphic measure of the city's long decline from its vibrant past.

Consider this contrast: In Boston and New York, there are serious housing crises, because there are too many people and not enough places to live. Baltimore has a housing crisis, too: entire neighborhoods blighted by thousands of abandoned dwellings.

Immigrants don't bring wealth. They do bring their own sets of problems, largely stemming from language and cultural issues. But they bring something else as well - vitality. They turn dead cities back into living cities.

A year ago, the Abell Foundation released a cogent report laying out a powerful case for action by the city to attract immigrants. No city has ever consciously attempted to recruit a new population, though Pittsburgh and others are now trying. The Abell report argued that Baltimore has no alternative.

It called on the city to provide better services to immigrants already here and create an "immigrant employment task force" to attract others. It said Baltimore should concentrate on a few national groups - which is good advice, because any successful immigrant community requires cohesion.

The report specifically mentioned Africa and Central America as potential sources of newcomers, but Central America holds more potential for two simple reasons: It is easier to cross the Rio Grande than it is to fly the Atlantic, and, paradoxically, Central America is better off economically than much of Africa. Immigrants are strivers; they don't come from the poorest rungs of society.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, recognizing the potential that renewed immigration could have for Baltimore, appointed a task force on immigration as the report was coming out. But since then, too little has happened. The task force is still looking to hire a coordinator - while an opportunity is being lost.

Some question why Baltimore should seek new residents when life is already hard enough for so many here. The answer is this: Too many inner neighborhoods of Baltimore are dying, and that's a problem not only for them but for the rest of the city and the surrounding region. If new people can breathe life into them, all residents will benefit.

Candelaria Flores came to Baltimore from El Salvador. She had reached the 11th grade there, and realized at that early age that she had already come up against the ceiling. If she wanted to better herself, it was going to have to be in America. She came here because her sister was already here (that's typical for immigrants). She took jobs in restaurants, and not once but twice was stiffed by employers who neglected to pay her (also typical). She learned English and works today as a legal assistant - helping other immigrants.

It's the old familiar story. There's nothing remarkable about it - except that it happened here. For decades, Baltimore has let immigrants pass it by. That cannot continue if the city is to have a future.

Over the next several days, this page will examine what immigrants do and don't do for the neighborhoods that receive them, consider the obstacles that keep immigrants away, and propose changes that will help bring new people and new energy flowing again into the city.

It's time for Baltimore to reach for a lifeline.

Next - Vitality and stability: Learning lessons from an unlikely place

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