In Kenneth Clark's Civilization, he describes the early invaders of the Roman Empire as "there for what they could get out of it, taking part in the administration if it paid them, contemptuous of the traditional culture, except insofar as it provided precious metals." The next wave of invaders didn't "destroy the great buildings that were scattered all over the Roman world. But the idea of keeping them up never entered their heads. ... They preferred to live in pre-fabs and let the old places fall down. ... The wanderers seem to have lost the impulse to make durable habitations."
Baltimore is not Rome, and the latest newcomers to the city are not sacking churches and looting granaries, but their contempt for the traditional local culture and their impermanence are otherwise similar to those who overran the Roman Empire. About half of those indulging in the recent wave of real estate speculation were investors with no intention of settling down and raising a family here.
Indeed, the term "five-year people" is used by long-term residents to refer to those who buy a house in the city and hope to move out and sell it for a profit within five years in order to take advantage of the city's five-year moratorium on property taxes for new construction. Others cease enjoying the "urban experience" once children arrive, and they quickly move back to the suburbs for the lower taxes, less crime, better schools and easier parking.
Have these speculators lost "the impulse to make durable habitations"? One need only see what types of houses are being thrown up around the city to know the answer. Basements are not built, as this is more expensive, slows construction and requires greater skill than pouring a slab. Interior walls and floors are made of waferboard, or "hamster chips," as one veteran builder describes them, referring to the material composed of wood chips and resins. Separations between the townhouses are not two widths of brick anymore but two sheets of drywall with insulation between them on metal studs.
It's fortunate that these townhouses, no longer made of brick, have sprinkler systems installed throughout them, or conflagrations might become a deadly reality returning from the past. In one section of townhouses built in Locust Point six years ago, all 26 of the homes are having new roofs put on, and these structures have been otherwise continually under repair since the development opened.
While the city hunts far and wide to recruit teachers and police officers, the Baltimore Development Corp. and other operatives shove through tax breaks for developments that are profitable without such giveaways; consultants sell the city meaningless public relations programs such as the "Believe" campaign; and the age-old game of giving contracts to the well-connected goes on unchecked.
To create long-lasting institutions requires patience, diligence and determination. Rising up from the Dark Ages, it would often take more than a generation to build a structure such as a cathedral, and it was built by a huge number of people working together, not by cliques looking for a quick score and then departing. In Baltimore's more recent past, opportunities were fewer, so people tried to make the best life they could in the city for themselves and their children. They enlisted in the police, became teachers, took care of their homes and made a safe place that provided a quality education for their kids.
As the real estate boom peters out, a handful of speculators who were unfortunate enough to "get in on it" too late may not be the only casualties, as their selfish ways will poison the neighborhoods around them. Unable to sell their townhouses and condos for a profit, refused bailouts by cash-strapped local and state governments, and deterred by changes in the bankruptcy laws from filing for Chapter 7, they will rent the houses for whatever they can get. Given the shoddy construction of these townhouses and the owners' disinclination to put money in a losing proposition, these homes will rapidly deteriorate physically and the entrepreneurial speculator of yesterday will become the slumlord of tomorrow, eventually abandoning the ruins.
This can be as devastating to a neighborhood in the long run as any Vandal horde.
Mark J. Hannon, a former member of the board of directors of the Locust Point Community Association, is a resident of Locust Point. His e-mail address is email@example.com.