City escapes a Top 10 list, not problems

Urban Chronicle

Report: A study that ranked Baltimore as the sixth most troubled city in 1970 now ranks it 21st -- but hurdles remain.

September 30, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

BALTIMORE HAS been taken off of at least one ignominious Top 10 list.

The list may be known largely to urban-oriented academics but, hey, you take your victories where you can.

The list is that of cities with the highest level of "urban hardship."

Back in the mid-1970s, at the height of the so-called "urban crisis," a pair of researchers set out to compare the economic conditions of major U.S. cities by developing an index based on six factors as measured by Census data. The factors were unemployment, poverty, per capita income, education, crowded housing and "dependency," the percentage of the population under age 18 or over 64.

Baltimore ranked as the sixth most troubled city among the 55 major cities that were reviewed.

It was worse off than Cleveland and Detroit, which ranked ninth and 10th respectively, and was behind only Newark, N.J.; St. Louis; New Orleans; Gary, Ind.; and Miami.

Rounding out the Top 10 back then were Youngstown, Ohio, and Birmingham, Ala.

Baltimore was considered to have a "high" level of urban hardship, the second most troubled category.

A recent report replicated that study using more recent census figures.

Titled "An Update on Urban Hardship," the report, issued this month by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government of the State University of New York, looked at an expanded list of 86 cities, to reflect the country's increased urbanization.

This time around, Baltimore made out much better.

Based on figures from the 2000 census, Baltimore ranked 17th among the original 55 cities. And among the larger group of 86, Baltimore ranked 21st.

Baltimore has "steadily improved its ranking through the years," write the report's authors, Lisa M. Montiel, Richard P. Nathan and David J. Wright.

But not every city fared better on the updated list.

"Five central cities -- Newark, Gary, Miami, Cleveland and Detroit -- remained in the highest 10 cities for this 30-year time span, indicating continuous socioeconomic hardship," the report says.

Two other cities that made the top 10 in 2000 -- Hartford, Conn., and Buffalo, N.Y. -- were in the top 15 in 1970, according to the report.

The other three cities to make the top 10 in 2000 were all fast-growing cities in California: Santa Ana, Fresno and Los Angeles.

In Baltimore, as in many older Eastern and Rust Belt cities, urban problems are often linked to loss of population. But the inclusion of this trio of California cities on the list suggests that population growth can be as much a problem as population decline. Santa Ana, which tops the list, and Fresno weren't big enough to be included in the 1970 study; they more than doubled their populations in the last 30 years, while Los Angeles grew by more than 30 percent.

"Western cities are beginning to experience similar socioeconomic hardship conditions that older cities in the Northeast and Midwest regions have already had to confront," the report's authors point out. "There is a significant need to address crowded housing in the central cities of the West."

And Baltimore's indexed score for 2000 places it among the one-third of cities deemed to have "moderate" levels of hardship, rather than the 15 percent with levels that have either "high" or "very high."

While it's nice that Baltimore is off this particular Top 10 list, it's worth noting that it is significantly worse than average on the hardship index overall. The city also fares far worse than average in five of the six categories that make up the index. The lone exception is housing crowding, a fact that is no doubt due to the city's high rate of housing vacancies.

And the most telling figures about Baltimore in the report might not be in the rankings of urban hardship for 1970 or 2000, but rather in a couple of the selected statistics that were listed in an appendix for each of the 86 cities studied.

They have appeared in this space before, but they're worth repeating. The percentage of the city's population older than 25 without a high school diploma was 31.6 in 2000, while the percentage of families living in poverty was 18.8.

The former figure was greater than all but six cities; the latter was greater than all but 18.

Seattle was the city with the lowest level of "urban hardship" in 2000. Only about 10 percent of its residents over 25 did not have a high school diploma, and only about 7 percent of its families were living in poverty.

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