For better or worse

March 06, 2006

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley refers to his time in office as "the turn-around years." By his account, the bedrock of the city's "comeback" is improved public safety. But the measure of a better Baltimore shouldn't be pegged to one factor. Many things make a city great - or contribute to its decline. A safer city may well influence home sales, community reinvestment and downtown development. But is a reduction in violent crime what led to fewer lead-poisoned children in Baltimore, more downtown jobs and a drop in teen mothers? Probably not. Yet the latter are as relevant to Baltimore's well-being as the former.

Focusing solely on the city's crime statistics misses the larger picture: Are Baltimoreans better off today than they were five years ago? That is the question to ask. That should be the measure of Mr. O'Malley's leadership at City Hall and his stewardship of the city.

Turning around a city requires progress on several fronts. Mr. O'Malley suggested as much earlier this year in his State of the City speech, which could have been delivered on the campaign trail. Crime can't be the only measure. There's more to city life - and its health - that deserves review:

Housing: The boom in the housing market has doubled the value of city homes. Since 2000, the median sales price in Baltimore has risen from $65,000 to $120,000, half the region's 2005 median sale price of $252,000. That's a plus for homeowners, but remember, the median income of Baltimoreans is in no way increasing to keep pace with prices.

Health: The number of lead-poisoned children in the city has declined dramatically since 2001, by 64 percent, according to city health reports. Despite that progress, the city is not on pace to meet federal goals to eradicate lead poisoning in kids by 2010.

Economy: Job growth downtown has been positive. From 96,000 in 2000, jobs dipped to 90,000 in 2003 and then bounced back to 97,500 last year. Most of the growth has been among private employers, according to a study by the Downtown Partnership. Census data show an increase in the number of employed city residents ages 16 to 24, from 58.6 percent in 2000 to 63.5 percent in 2004, the most recent figure available. Downtown development has expanded out from the Inner Harbor to upper Mount Vernon. But transportation remains a problem, both in congestion and accessibility.

Schools: The 12th-grade graduation rate rose from 50.5 percent in 2000 to 58.9 percent. But that figure doesn't account for students who took five years to graduate from high school. The city high school dropout rate also rose, from 10.4 percent in 2000 to 11.6 percent. But those figures don't reflect students who left the city schools and graduated elsewhere.

Mr. O'Malley's critics will keep hounding him on his record on crime - this single-issue attack has become popular, especially among Republicans nationally. But a measure of Baltimore's livability should reflect all aspects of city life, from crime on the street to the downtown skyline to social and cultural amenities.

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