Dan Rodricks: A new arena and faith in the future

Convention center/arena proposal is a great idea, but the key is getting young Baltimoreans to see that it's about them

May 28, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

On the same day the Greater Baltimore Committee unveils transformative plans for a new downtown arena, we receive word of a shooting of a 12-year-old boy who was watching an NBA playoff game on a television set perched in the window of a house on Cliftview Avenue — and this just a day or so after the FBI again affirmed Baltimore as one of the most violent cities in the country. On Thursday, the boy, Sean Johnson, died of his injuries.

That's the way it goes around here: Big visions and bold ideas for buildings in the places attractive to tourists, violence and frustrations out in the neighborhoods where Baltimoreans of modest means reside, along with their children.

Guns and drugs and the maddening violence among young men — these things persist as the rest of the city keeps trying to recover from the riots of 1960s, the loss of industry in the 1970s, the epidemic of drug addiction in the 1980s and the decline of the middle class through each of those decades. It has been a long recovery, with many significant progress points, but every time someone fires a gun and sends a bullet through the flesh of another human being, it feels as though there has been no progress at all.

It's not true, of course. Baltimore is a smaller but busy city today: Progress on the east side, progress on the west side; expanding universities and medical institutions; a redeveloped waterfront; thriving waterfront neighborhoods and stable residential neighborhoods across big swaths of the city; improving public schools; a professional sports complex that other cities have emulated; a growing arts, creative and entrepreneurial class.

The cynics and cranks who still call Baltimore a hell hole are either blind or prejudiced against the city; some of them seem to savor the city's flaws and failings. I don't even like to acknowledge them because they contribute nothing except a skewed assessment of the state of Baltimore's health.

But it's easy to slip into that cynical, cranky class when a bullet enters the body of 12-year-old boy, and when people in the neighborhood of the shooting talk about how helpless they feel. No matter how much progress the police make in curtailing crime — and they've made considerable progress over the last decade — the one who shoots the seventh-grader shoots the city's ascendant star.

People question now, and have always questioned, why so much capital and human energy go into downtown when these profound human problems persist. As the mayor of Baltimore when Harborplace and the National Aquarium opened, William Donald Schaefer used to hear that all the time: What about "the other Baltimore"? When will the big-money get there? When will we see the investment in people instead of tourist attractions?

Mr. Schaefer, who became mayor three years after the 1968 riots, had to do something to stop the loss of population and the erosion of the city's tax base. The rap that he didn't care about neighborhoods was baloney. The problem was poverty, persistent poverty and high unemployment in the inner city.

The Baltimore Renaissance hit a wall; it stalled for several years in the 1980s and 1990s. It did not spread far enough. There have been plenty of new developments since then, and poverty has become less concentrated. But there are still large pockets of misery, and the shootings that occur within them magnify the misery.

I don't know how we get the message to young men with guns that they are ruining the future for themselves. Civic spirit is contagious, but it has never evolved easily in the pockets of misery. The Baltimore Renaissance never seemed to reach there.

Many of us still believe that there's a magical tipping point coming, a transformative moment when Baltimore experiences a big shift into a period of steady growth and sustaining civic health. When do we know we're there? When the annual homicide count drops below 150? When city leaders find a way to cut the property tax rate in half? When the high school graduation rate hits 90 percent? When a new generation discovers the city their parents and grandparents abandoned and the population grows instead of falls?

It will be a combination of all of those things. The key is having faith, not giving up.

Those who are promoting the new arena combined with an expansion of the convention center describe the plan as "transformative," meaning that it could push the city into the next echelon of convention towns and perhaps bring Baltimore another major-league sports franchise. It makes sense to keep doing these things, and not only because it's good for business but because it's all about the future. Young Baltimoreans need to believe in a future. We just need to help them see their place in it. That's the challenge.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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