City needs better quality of life, not flashy events

The Grand Prix will bring no lasting benefits to Baltimore and distracts us from improving the basics of city living

August 23, 2011|By Christopher Muldor

Last year, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake claimed that the upcoming Grand Prix auto race promised to be a "game-changer" that would "change the way the world sees Baltimore."

What, exactly, is this supposed to mean?

Why would the city need a "game-changer" if it has had several decades of renaissance? How will a three-day auto race do what years of tourists and marketing failed to accomplish? How will changing "the way the world sees Baltimore" help with the problems actually experienced in Baltimore? Will a positive image of the auto race by residents of Oshkosh prevent a shooting on Preston Street?

Note the contrast between the city's deficiencies and the pretentious rhetoric about the Grand Prix. If we look at the five major Eastern cities (Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston), Baltimore has the highest homicide rate, the lowest rate of public library book circulation and the highest pedestrian death rate. It is the only city of the five without a downtown department store, the only one to place a Greyhound bus station in a location with almost no public transit and the only one to lose population over the past decade.

And, when researchers at the Brookings Institution examined a dozen major U.S. cities, they found that Baltimore had by far the greatest percentage of middle-class neighborhoods falling into poverty status between 1970 and 2000.

Do our mayoral contestants have the courage to openly discuss the city's dirty little secret: that Baltimore's vaunted renaissance was never really a renaissance at all? The city's critical issues over the past half-century have been the exodus of the middle class and the failure to adequately address the problems of distressed communities. "Renaissance" has never been directed at these issues; instead, it provided a framework in which the increasingly poor and deteriorated city would entertain the people who abandoned it and caused it to deteriorate in the first place. As Richard Ben Cramer has noted, the "Inner Harbor theme park" was meant to deflect attention from the city's decline while providing ample parking so that, in Mr. Cramer's words, "the white people could jump into their cars and go back to the suburbs to sleep."

The Grand Prix is just the latest example of Baltimore's passion for the pretentious and the ephemeral. The pretentious and the ephemeral, however, do not bring residents or jobs to the city. The experience of New York offers a real-life example of the difference between show and substance. In 1976, the nation was enthralled by the procession of the tall ships in New York's harbor. Did this procession change the way the world viewed New York? No. The positive image didn't last much longer than the procession itself, and the city continued to struggle and lose population. Two decades later, the city experienced a drastic reduction in crime. This development did change both the way the world looked at New York and the way New Yorkers looked at their own city; the increase in population during the 1990s mirrored New York's improved quality of life.

When he became mayor in 1999, Martin O'Malley announced a goal of reducing yearly homicides by 43 percent, to 175 by 2002. The goal wasn't achieved, even though numerous U.S. cities had reduced their homicide rate by a comparable amount in the 1990s.

Baltimore has been very successful at allowing the affluent to flee the city and show it off at the same time. By contrast, the city consistently ranks poorly in its quality of life.

Today's leaders need to announce specific quantitative targets for improvement in multiple quality-of-life measures (homicides, library circulation, retail sales per capita, etc.), along with specific and rigorous strategies to meet the targets. This procedure will not be a magic elixir, but it will help citizens hold their leaders accountable and establish clear criteria that define success and failure. Most importantly, it can help to redirect the city's energies and focus away from putting on a false front to the world and toward fundamentals: increasing the number of residents and jobs and dealing more successfully with the problems of distressed communities.

Christopher Muldor, a writer, lives in Baltimore.

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