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.
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.