Racially integrated Baltimore? - I believe

December 18, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

RECENT STORIES in the Real Estate section of this newspaper profiled couples buying their "dream houses" in Northwest Baltimore neighborhoods that were once all white and have been predominantly black for a few decades. One couple bought a 6,600-square-foot grand five-bedroom, four-bath Dutch colonial in Forest Park for $160,000 and invested $30,000 in renovations. The house has a wraparound porch. In Hanlon, near Lake Ashburton, there are Roland Park-style homes going for ridiculously low prices. One couple bought a three story, six-bedroom lakefront English Tudor there for $119,700.

A friend who grew up in the area, and is old enough to remember when all the homeowners were white, noted the positive trend in home sales and investment in Northwest Baltimore, along the Liberty Heights corridor, and asked:

"In this time of hyper housing-price inflation, is segregated housing still so powerful in Baltimore that this dual market will continue? Think we'll ever get to a day when whites may actually begin moving back into areas their parents and grandparents fled decades before?"

Despite what I heard in federal court yesterday -- about which more in a moment -- I'd like to think it could happen, and not just because I remain an idealist against the advice of my doctor. This isn't about idealism. It's just math.

If something is a good investment, people will find it. You don't need an MBA to notice that housing has become attractive to people who got their fingers burned in the stock market and who want to return to more conservative investing.

Plus, people eventually are going to get sick of driving long distances for everything, and more of them are going to rediscover the city and the old suburbs. You can't go by what you see right now in the metropolitan area. If the population continues to grow at the present rate, people are going to have to move back to the center.

I'm a believer in the full-circle nature of things. Eventually, everything comes back.

Baltimore neighborhoods will probably continue to be attractive to people with two incomes and no kids, or empty nesters. But -- here's the difference -- there's another generation coming along, hip to multiculturalism and unencumbered by the baggage their parents or grandparents carried. And they are the ones who are going to tip things toward this ideal of a more integrated Baltimore.

That's my prediction for the future.

As for the past, that has been getting a good going-over in the U.S. District Court here, where tenants of Baltimore's public housing have brought a discrimination suit -- it was filed nine years ago -- against the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A lot of time, effort and money are going into an exhaustive analysis of how government policy discriminated against the poor and led to a Baltimore apartheid.

Yesterday, a UCLA professor, William Clark, very carefully answered questions about his research on modern American urban life: where we live and why, what we prefer, what we'll tolerate and what will make us move to another place. He has studied population flows and the impact of government housing programs on neighborhoods. Essentially, Clark seemed to conclude, racial separation was not going away any time soon, even with government tinkering.

During a colloquy on the influence of race in housing, the presiding judge, Marvin Garbis, seemed to agree with this. Whites tend to be more uncomfortable living among blacks than blacks do among whites, surveys have indicated. Should a neighborhood start to tip in a way that makes its white residents uncomfortable, those whites would move away. Once that happens, the remaining whites who had a higher tolerance for living in a racially integrated neighborhood would start to leave. That leads to the separate society we pretty much have throughout the United States.

"In the real world, we see just the situation you describe," Clark told Garbis.

"We're going to continue to have a separated community, inevitably," Garbis said. "There's no answer to it."

"There's slow progress," Clark answered. "But we're not going to find a suddenly integrated society in the next decade because of economics and preferences."

When it was his turn to testify yesterday, the city's former housing commissioner, Dan Henson, was asked if racial balance was something he attempted to engineer during the 1990s, when he pursued an ambitious and successful effort to demolish Baltimore's horrible high-rise public housing and replace it with new communities of homeowners and tenants.

"No," Henson said. Economic diversity was one thing -- requiring that the new communities have a mix of income levels among its residents -- but racial diversity was impossible to achieve.

"Baltimore is a city of white or black neighborhoods," Henson said. "It's a segregated housing market."

Hard to argue with that. Hard to believe it will ever change. But I believe it will, some day, and not only because a new generation of Baltimoreans will be able to see past race, but because they want to live in a city, and get a good buy on a house, maybe even one with a wraparound porch or a lake view.

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