A Generational Change The City Needs

February 04, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Starting today, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has an opportunity to recharge the city and become the leader of a new generation of public-spirited citizens who have the most to say about what kind of place Baltimore becomes in the next decade.

The new mayor turns 40 years old on St. Patrick's Day and represents the young, energetic, educated, BlackBerry-tapping Baltimoreans who are becoming the new movers and shakers here. It's their turn to take responsibility for getting Baltimore to the tipping point, then pushing and kicking and insisting that it become the bigger, healthier, wealthier city that those before them hardly imagined.

If Stephanie Rawlings-Blake becomes the face of a youth movement in civic leadership - men and women who are engaged, vigilant, progressive and demanding - then a lot of good could follow. There is so much potential. The 20- and 30- and 40-somethings in Baltimore, roughly one-third of the population, represent the crowd pushing toward the tipping point. They are less cynical than restless, and they have a strong desire to move on, to think bigger and better.

It's why they voted for Barack Obama.

It's part of the reason they live in Baltimore. They might have grown up or gone to college here. They might have taken a job here or found their significant other here. They might have just run out of gas here. But they wouldn't be here if they didn't want to make the idea of city life - ("I love city life!") -- the reality of city life.

They like the funk and hum of Baltimore, they appreciate its manageable size (small town/big city) and they find its ethnic and racial diversity appealing.

Unencumbered by traditional prejudices as America's first color-blind generation, they'll hang longer than the previous generations did - but only as long as they start to believe that the public schools can educate their kids, that their property taxes will start to come down, and that the city is on the way out of its long, deep slide through drug addiction and violence.

A young, smart mayor who concentrates on the task before her - and not on getting to the State House or the White House - can be a major attraction for companies seeking a place to do business and bring jobs, and for young people looking to put down stakes and live where cool things happen.

I hope that's what we have in Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. We don't need a lot of flash, and we certainly don't need fur coats and Jimmy Choo shoes. What we need is smart, informed and focused leadership -- and the energy and enthusiasm that can excite those around her and following her.

We need the 20-, 30- and 40-somethings to take control and start insisting that Baltimore be better than it is. It's their turn.

Despite the recession, the timing is great for all of this - military base realignment bringing more workers and their families into Central Maryland, major urban redevelopment projects under way and in the pipeline on the east side and the west side, declining numbers of poor, population stabilizing, city school enrollment growing under impressive leadership, medical centers and universities expanding.

But more than all that, Ms. Rawlings-Blake assumes leadership in a time of rich progressive thinking among people who insist on doing - and funding - what works, what sustains and what's right.

Sheila Dixon deserves credit for trying to get her fellow citizens to think and behave in healthier ways, and for pushing the green movement here. Ms. Rawlings-Blake needs to build on that because there's a new generation of Baltimoreans eager for it.

The generation she represents, the one born in the nearly four decades between the end of the baby boom and 1990, is better educated and more politically engaged - in spirit, not to mention via Twitter - than previous generations. These are men and women in tune with environmental, health and human rights issues, and they generally think more holistically about everything, including where and how they live. They've been around just long enough to notice that some things have gotten better while too much has stayed the same, stuck in that rut of mediocrity and failure that made Baltimore such a frustratingly upside/downside city for so long.

We've had enough of all that. It's time to move on, and time to push past the point that seemed too long impassable. Here's to the push. Here's to the new mayor, and to her generation.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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