The Truth About Baltimore

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The truth is we as a nation do not have a remedy for a troubled city that loses more than a third of its population in fifty years.  I worked in downtown Baltimore for eight years on its central tourist drag, Pratt Street, which runs from Camden Yards to the Inner Harbor redevelopment.  Baltimore is a contrast in fascinating history, beautiful scenery, interesting cuisine, great museums and stadiums, grinding poverty, poor public schools, and continuing decline.

The press and various groups on both sides of the political divide have tried to overlay race, falling unionization, globalization, over regulation, high taxes, and all the usual divisive narratives onto the city to explain this year’s crisis.  Many of those issues do exist, but the root cause of Baltimore’s grinding poverty is the extraordinary loss of people over time.

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You cannot solve a problem if you are not honest about the root cause of the problem.  Since 1960 for a variety of good and bad reasons people have left Baltimore at a rate far above those moving into the city.  That is the root cause of the problem.

All across my travels in Europe and Latin America you come upon the ruins of once great cities who are no longer cities or are ruins.  Much of the Middle East and Asia Minor contain massive ruins of Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian, and other ancient cities.  It is not a new phenomenon for cities to shrink or fail.

It was also true during my eight years in Baltimore that many of the data driven solutions that modern business and government use failed.  Baltimore city government endlessly quoted the number of visitors, the number of conventions, the reduction in crime, the growing amount spent on education, and a host of other statistics.  But it was done not to understand why people were leaving, but to cover up the fact that they were leaving.  There was a total absence of focusing on people.

In 2004 for the second time in less than a month one of our employees was mugged on Pratt St. at noon in front of the federal building.  Our CEO was so incensed that he called the mayor’s office and I was tasked with setting a meeting including all of the major businesses on Pratt Street, the federal government, and the mayor’s office.  Mayor O’Malley did not attend and instead sent an official.

The most shocking revelation in the meeting was how every business, particularly the hotels, revealed that crime on Pratt Street was an everyday occurrence.  Ominously, all of the hotel managers warned that a high profile tourist murder would shut down the convention trade.  But the response from Martin O’Malley’s office was that crime was down statistically in Baltimore and here was a powerpoint to prove it.

What is needed in Baltimore is a focus on people.  Why are they leaving?  What would cause them to stay?  What would cause them to ask their families, friends, and business associates to move back?

This is not to say that racism, police brutality, high taxes, a byzantine business regulatory environment, pollution, and terrible schools are not problems.  But they are the symptoms of the root cause that is dramatic population flight.  What is needed in Baltimore is leadership to stop dividing the city and instead focus on uniting it around why citizens believe their future lies anywhere but in Baltimore.

3 COMMENTS

  1. A little follow-up – I had some email from folks on the post giving various reasons why people are leaving that all fit within the typical partisan range. My point is that nobody in Baltimore is even asking the question of its residents – instead of obsessing on crime or police brutality statistics, have SurveyMonkey run a combo internet, phone tree, mail survey of “why are people leaving”, run the results through a model, and actually identify “why”. At that point you can actually adopt policies that might work.

  2. John – Thanks for the thoughtful piece – and the reminder that we often overlook the most basic questions. Urban population decline in the US is widespread. The resurgence in the 1990s petered out in the first decade of the 21st century with just a few notable exceptions in the sunbelt and the largest cities like NYC and LA. #3 Chicago lost 10% of its population between 2000 and 2013.
    Among the chief reasons is the lack of immigrants who would typically congregate in urban centers as they gained their footing in the US. (The same is true of the black migrants of the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th century.) Their energy fueled the urban economies. When the 2nd and 3rd generations moved out other immigrants would take their place. Cutting off the influx cuts off the fuel.
    Whatever the initial reasons, once the decline begins it leads to conditions that accelerate the loss and when the proverbial “tipping point” is reached, the question goes from “Why do you move away?” to “Why would you stay?” Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland and many other 2nd tier “rust belt” cities are examples.
    I can’t help but think that the US culture plays a large role. For most, the “American Dream” is a bucolic suburban home rather than brownstone. “Good fences make good neighbors” embodies our desire for privacy and space to separate us from others.
    If we are not going to encourage large-scale immigration (which would get my vote) perhaps its time to face the fact that the majority of established Americans do not want an urban life. Instead of trying to make a round hole look attractive to a square peg, we ought to try a different tack. Open urban landscapes by demolishing unused/decrepit housing – try to make Detroit look more like Grosse Point, Cleveland more like Shaker Heights, and Baltimore more like Davidsonville.

    • Vince, Millennials seem really interested in moving back to inner core cities, but that’s DC, NYC, San Fran, not Baltimore – that’s what we have to ask. Buddy Miles on the facebook post had I thought a very thoughtful response – he’s a long time Baltimore resident now getting ready to leave.

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