Even at an inauguration, where people expect to hear the grandiose, it takes a lot of brass for the mayor of Baltimore to stand before the crowd and state as her goal a city population that grows — specifically, and relatively modestly, by 10,000 more families over the next decade. It takes courage to say these things because such an ideal runs counter to the cynical, jaded "hell hole" view of the city held by many, including many of those who live here and who conduct business here.
At a dinner the other night in an old Baltimore club, an attorney seemed to find hilarious the juvenile sarcasm that 10,000 new families would need "Kevlar vests and bulletproof glass" before moving into Charm City.
Ha! Such a witty and original perspective!
Of course, when he finished chortling, I could have asked the fellow if he lived in the city or had his law practice here. I could have asked if he'd had a personal experience with violent crime. I could have asked if he'd noted any of the recent gains in the Baltimore Police Department's efforts to reduce violent crime, or if he'd read that the city could finish 2011 with one of its lowest homicide totals in recent memory.
And I could have thrown in some recent good news about fourth-grade math scores in the city schools.
But I decided to enjoy my bisque.
Such things — Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld's efforts, and the efforts of the Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso — do not seem to matter to people who opt for the grim view that things have been going downhill here since '68, and there's no sign of the slide stopping. The city's problems provide essential daily content for suburban pundits, AM talk shows and club-basement bloggers; in that world, sarcasm, ridicule and absolute scorn for city life pass for enlightening public discourse.
There are also numerous people who, having no interest in the nuts-and-bolts reality of a city struggling toward the future, prefer the fictionalized and exploitative version of apocalyptic Baltimore. It's far more entertaining than listening to Fred Bealefeld describe his department's successes in arresting "bad guys with guns" or hearing Andrés Alonso go on about the fourth-grade math scores.
So when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the other day that she'd like to see 10,000 more families here by 2021, there was predictable derisive laughter and sarcasm.
But for those of us who have stuck around through the years, or those who have moved here recently for college or career, the mayor of 2011-2015 said exactly what needed to be said.
Baltimore needs a mayor who thinks bigger and better, not one who manages for smaller and worse.
We do not need a mayor who shrugs and says, "Oh well, what can you do? The city is in decline. Didn't you see, 'The Wire'?"
This was an important moment for Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
There's a tendency to see her as a balance-sheet manager, a mayor who's good at math and little else, a cool-hearted woman lacking big vision. Part of that is personality and demeanor; part of it is a matter of being mayor in one of the nation's worst economies ever.
Tuesday's inauguration provided her with an opportunity to state her ambitions, even as the long tentacles of the Great Recession stretch around City Hall and keep ambitions in check.
"Our number-one goal in the next 10 years," she said, "must be to grow Baltimore — strengthen our neighborhoods, create new jobs, and attract new people. That means we must do something that is counter-intuitive: grow our city at the very same time that the economy is forcing us to reduce the expense of government."
If people hear a progressive mayor express such ambitions — maintain essential services, make government more efficient — while cops keep attacking crime and the schools keep improving, then the mayor might meet her goal. Baltimore finally could hit that tipping point we've all been waiting for. It's where the outlook shifts from grim to bright, and a new generation of Baltimoreans (urban professionals, entrepreneurs, graduates of the Alonso schools) take charge and take pride. No more Kevlar jokes.
I hope Stephanie Rawlings-Blake keeps up all this big-and-bigger talk. It's the only way to go.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.