30 years later, city renewal is still a promise unfulfilled

URBAN CHRONICLE

May 31, 2007|By ERIC SIEGEL

Two Sundays ago, The New York Times ran a travel story calling Baltimore the "forgotten middle child among attention-getting Eastern cities" but noting that a "civic revival ... has given out-of-towners reason to visit."

Two days later, seven people perished and six others were injured in a fire in a rowhouse crammed with people in one of many city neighborhoods untouched by renewal.

The former was the kind of coverage Baltimore didn't get when I moved to the city to work for The Sun in 1977 -- before Harborplace and the National Aquarium; Meyerhoff Symphony Hall; the renovated Hippodrome Theatre; and a host of other projects, big and small, too numerous to mention here.

The latter, sadly, is the kind of tragic event that has occurred too often between now and then.

Thirty years is a long time -- in the life of a person and a city.

During the time that I've been in the city, a virtual generation of civic and political leaders has passed away -- Clarence Du Burns, Walter Sondheim Jr., Howard "Pete" Rawlings, Walter Orlinsky, Clarence Blount and, this week, Parren Mitchell.

The city also had its first black mayor in Burns; its first elected black mayor in Kurt Schmoke; and, now, its first woman mayor in Sheila Dixon.

And by electing Martin O'Malley mayor in 1999 and helping him become governor last year, the city defied two pieces of prevailing wisdom: that after William Donald Schaefer became governor in 1986, the city would never have a white mayor; and that no future mayor of the city, white or black, could become governor.

When I came to Baltimore, the city's population, which had already been declining, was an estimated 830,000; today, it is about 640,000.

The year I came to Baltimore was the last one in which the number of homicides in the city -- 171 -- was below 175. Since 1977, 8,063 people have been killed in the city, including 124 slain this year through midday yesterday. Thirty years ago, the city's homicide rate was 20.6 for every 100,000 residents; last year, it was more than twice that, at 42.9 per 100,000 residents.

Other signs are more positive.

Three decades have been time enough to witness the deterioration of the public housing high-rises -- and their subsequent demolition and rebirth as mixed-income rowhouse communities. It has been time enough to see the last gasp of the city's Howard Street retail corridor -- and its nascent revival as part of the west-side renaissance. It has been time enough to see the departure of one NFL team and the arrival of another -- and the tearing down of a stadium and the building of two others. And it has been time enough to watch the collapse of the neighborhoods north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex -- and the near-completion of the first buildings for a planned new community that will cover dozens of acres.

The last 30 years have seen the emergence of several nonprofit groups -- the Abell, Casey, Goldseker and Weinberg foundations -- that have come to play a significant role in the city's efforts at revitalization by funding programs, projects and studies.

A report by one of those groups, the Goldseker Foundation, issued in 1987, produced one of the most enduring descriptions of the city during the time I've been here: "There is rot beneath the glitter."

Two decades later, there is substantially more glitter -- across the Inner Harbor in Locust Point; eastward along the waterfront in Harbor East and Canton and in parts of downtown. And there are projects such as Frankford Estates in Northeast and Clipper Mill in North Baltimore, plus individual rehabs in neighborhoods across the city, which, while not glitzy, are substantial and important. That is no small feat, and it should not be minimized.

But there is still far too much rot. City planners classify nearly a fifth of the city's residential areas as distressed, based on such factors as sales prices and vacancy rates.

The city's poverty rate has been little changed from the late 1970s to today, with nearly one in five families living below the poverty level.

On crime, the city seems to be forever searching for the right strategy, let alone the right results; on education, more time seems to be spent debating who will control the schools than discussing how to improve what goes on in the classroom.

Over 30 years, we seem to have slowly come to the realization that drugs are a medical as well as a criminal problem. But the city hasn't been able to marshal the resources -- for expanded treatment, training, education and housing -- needed to give addicts the help they need and to help ensure we don't get another generation of drug abusers.

Personally, the city has been good to me. But that's partly -- check that, largely -- because I've had the money and good luck to live in a safe and stable neighborhood, where house values have appreciated six-fold over 30 years and where the corners are the locales for telephone pole postings for yard sales, not the province of drug dealers.

Only when people in those distressed areas can make a similar statement -- that the city has been good to them -- can Baltimore be said to have achieved true civic renewal.

After 30 years and four months, Eric Siegel is taking a buyout offer from The Sun. His last day in the newsroom is tomorrow.

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