The dream, the promise

Our view: Investment in the city should ease pain

April 06, 2008

The pull-down map in the president's conference room at Davidge Hall shows the University of Maryland, Baltimore's sprawling downtown campus. The school's movement west across Martin Luther King Boulevard opens a door to the past and a window on the future. It recalls how the landscape has changed, from the riots and ruin that scarred Baltimore in 1968 to the potential and promise reflected in the university's new biotech center in Poppleton. And while the city has struggled in the intervening years, Baltimore has emerged a changed - but stronger - city.

In churches and classrooms and conversations this past week, people remembered a pivotal man and a devastating moment in America's civil rights history. The assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took place in Memphis 40 years ago, but it radiated throughout the country and unleashed great public sorrow and outrage. Riots in more than 100 cities followed the murder at the Lorraine Hotel and burned through blocks and storefronts in parts of east and west Baltimore.

The aftermath ushered in a decade or more of rebuilding, while the city's population became smaller, poorer and less diverse. The city's tax rate climbed as its schools became more segregated. Drug use and crime tore families apart and devastated residential neighborhoods and commercial centers, while redevelopment dollars financed the revitalization of the city's waterfront and the surrounding communities.

At the same time, a new class of political leaders emerged from the African-American community and began to assume the reins of power. A decade after Milton B. Allen made history as the city's first African-American state's attorney, Kurt L. Schmoke became Baltimore's first elected black mayor and the city took another turn. During those years, a former school teacher, Sheila Dixon, was among the minority in the City Council, and it took a redistricting plan to have a majority of the council reflect the majority population.

Through the Schmoke years, other changes occurred. Housing projects along Martin Luther King Boulevard and elsewhere in the city that had symbolized the ills of urban life were torn down and residential, mixed-income developments replaced them. Many African-Americans had the chance to purchase their first home. Redeveloping the shabby west side of downtown began then too. Now, new condominiums, renovated office buildings and the restored Hippodrome Theatre typify the area.

Today, UM's biotech center is changing the contours of the west side as the Johns Hopkins University's expansion of its campus is changing the east side.

Dr. King died while waging a battle for economic opportunity for the poor - black and white. Today, Baltimore, with its 21st-century focus on education, health care and high-tech research, is pointing the way to a future that should offer more jobs and a better life for its poorest citizens. Dr. King would savor the promise of this diverse and vibrant city that is still emerging from the turmoil that followed his death.

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