Immigrants' influx can be boon for city


THEY ARE coming now, in larger and larger numbers, and they will change things forever. They will change things in the city's Fells Point, where they are already a hopeful presence, and in places such as Cockeysville and Pikesville, where their population is growing. Gilberto De Jesus sees it up close, and calls it rejuvenation. And never mind what the governor of Maryland may call it.

De Jesus, a government attorney who works in Washington but lives in Baltimore's Charles Village because it feels like a community where people settle in for the long haul, stands on St. Paul Street the other day and hands over a flier. It's a message to Hispanics, working-class people who live in the expensive D.C. suburbs and, says De Jesus, will never in their lives earn enough money to buy homes there.

The message is: You must take a look at Baltimore.

De Jesus, who has lived in Baltimore since 1998, is working with the city's Hispanic Liaison Office, the Housing Department, and the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to make that happen. It is already happening across America, despite traditional anxieties about "outsiders," and despite thoughtless sniping about "multiculturalism" that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. famously considers "crap" and "bunk."

All the census figures tell the same story: America is becoming increasingly diverse. One-quarter of the electorate is now nonwhite, and by mid-century, the nation will be majority nonwhite. It's a reflection of increasing immigration and growth among groups such as Hispanics.

And it means that white Americans, for so long accustomed to seeing themselves as the center of the universe, now have a decision to make: Make themselves crazy about such changes and try to fight them off, or embrace the inevitable as a natural, healthy, productive expansion of the national mosaic.

"It's particularly important for Baltimore," De Jesus was saying now, "because, unless we take steps to redevelop the city, it dies." He mentions population numbers, down 300,000 since the middle of the last century, and down most drastically across the 1990s.

"I'm making my stand here," says De Jesus. "This city has too many assets, historical, cultural, architectural. We can't let it decay. But the fear is, unless you stop this population drop, everybody leaves, and the good jobs leave, and the middle class of all colors leaves. And the city gets a reputation: `Don't move in there.'"

Some of this has begun changing over the last several years. The waterfront neighborhoods, for example, are developing stunningly. Rising housing prices take the breath away - but only by Baltimore standards. By Washington's housing prices, there are deals across Baltimore that are not to be believed, particularly away from the water.

Two weeks ago, The Sun's Antero Pietila reported that, when Alex Cooper Auctioneers offered 87 battered inner-city rowhouses for sale, they were quickly snapped up - at an average price of $30,000, twice the price auctioneers were hoping to get - and "reinforced the notion that Baltimore's low-end investment property market has turned the corner after years of sluggish demand and low prices."

One area was Oliver Street in East Baltimore, where, an auctioneer recalled, half a dozen bidders made offers for a rundown rowhouse. Try driving along Oliver Street sometime. There are parts of it that will make your eyes bleed, from the broken glass and boards over windows and people on street corners with no apparent place to go in the middle of the day.

"In the last 20 years, we've seen thousands and thousands of homes that were lost," De Jesus says. "In the immigrant community - not just the Hispanics, either, but Asians, Africans, Greeks, everybody - we have craftsmen, plumbers, people who have the innate skills to move into these neighborhoods and rebuild these homes.

"These folks who live in the D.C. suburbs are condemned to be renters for the rest of their lives because they'll never earn enough money to buy a house down there. But come to Baltimore, and you can make the payments. And what does Baltimore get in return? Taxpayers, vibrancy of a new generation that enriches the city."

De Jesus doesn't have to convince Mayor Martin O'Malley. Less than 6 percent of Baltimore's population is foreign-born, about half the national figure. City Hall has offered a limited number of $3,000 grants to Hispanics who buy houses here - though the effort raised eyebrows among legal scholars and others who questioned whether the offer, aimed strictly at Hispanics, was either legal or fair.

In any case, it's a reminder of changes in the landscape - and of reactions ranging from hope to the discomfort exemplified by Ehrlich's remarks, which grew out of William Donald Schaefer's troubles with an immigrant woman at a McDonald's.

"I'll tell you something about that woman," De Jesus says. "You go back a year from now, and she'll be speaking better. She's like my mother. I remember, numerous times, when my mother was diminished by those who ridiculed her English. Well, guess what? She was trying to improve from the day she arrived here.

"The governor's remarks were disheartening. They were appalling. But they don't dissuade people who are strong-willed and want to move on. We're not wilting flowers. And we're heartened by the response of people who recognize the immigrant struggle because it was part of their own family history. That's the American story, isn't it?"

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