Our City Right Now
Right now, Baltimore City is the worst-governed major city in America. For many Baltimoreans, its been twenty years since they’ve been as concerned about the city’s future as they are right now.
But our current challenges — including a police department in a tailspin and leadership that can’t do anything about it — are just symptomatic of the real issue.
The real issue is what these maps of vacancy rates show, and what they mean.
This is what failure looks like. These maps show a straight line increase in disinvestment and abandonment between 1990 to 2010. And from 2010 until today, things have not gotten better.
For much of this timeframe our leaders have told a certain story. That things are getting better. That we’re doing everything we can. That story, and a “low” homicide rate of just 200-ish bodies a year, blinded many of us to the painful reality these maps depict.
I sat in hours and hours of CitiStat meetings looking at maps of the city, and they all looked like these. Maps of vacants looked just like maps of homicides looked just like maps of trash complaints. We’ve been looking at the same maps for fifteen years to no result.
If we put the current crisis in the context of our history we can understand the trajectory we’ve been on so that we can change it. I bet you think you know this story. But I bet you don’t know that you live a lot closer to Gary, Indiana than you do to Washington, D.C.
If we look at the cities we’ve compared ourselves to throughout history the year 1910 is a good place to start. The flood of European immigrants to American cities, through Ellis Island and our own Locust Point, had peaked, and soon after 1910 the beginning of World War I would bring mass European immigration to an end. Meanwhile, the Great Migration of Black Americans from the south to the north had yet to really begin. At that time we’re one of the top ten largest cities in the country, all hubs of industry, shipping, and manufacturing, on their way to becoming even larger and stronger:
The next important year is 1950. Production for two World Wars as well as the Great Migration brought millions of people to these centers of what we now call “the old economy.” Most of these cities, like many smaller manufacturing cities across the northeast, would never be this large again. Los Angeles and D.C. bumped Buffalo and Pittsburgh out of the top ten.
By 2000, the rise of the Sunbelt, and the hollowing out of the “legacy cities” of the industrial northeast, was complete. Six of the top 10 largest American cities were far from shores on which millions of Europeans had landed a century before.
Four cities were in the top ten for the entire century. One, New York, is a behemoth its own category. As far as Baltimore is concerned, Chicago is too, though it has much to teach any student of city politics and American racism. Detroit is another city in class by itself, and if things are looking up for them now it is because things couldn’t get any worse.
Philadelphia straddles the line between those cities most victimized by deindustrialization and those that have become “magnets.” Philly has struggled with abandonment but, according to the 2017 census estimate, it has added almost 80,000 people since 2010. We've lost almost 10,000 during that same time.
Two other cities dropped out of the top ten between 1950 and 2000, Boston and D.C. These both count as “magnet cities” — growing in people and economic strength. Our populations are somewhat similar (Baltimore is at 612K, Boston at 685K, and D.C. at 694K) but we’re facing challenges the other two are not.
Becoming Boston or D.C. does not have to be our goal. It sure isn’t mine. But neither can we allow the fate of other “legacy cities” to be ours.
When we consider our place not just among the cities that used to be the backbone of the country — St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo — but all the smaller cities that by 2000 had lost at least 30% of their peak population, it doesn’t look like we're at risk of ‘becoming Boston’ anytime soon:
Despite what we might see in Harbor East, our trajectory has not been aligned with the “magnet cities” but with their opposite, where vacancy and abandonment have multiplied drastically, as a new report has shown:
That report tracks a phenomenon we know very well — hypervacancy, places where 20% or more of properties are vacant or abandoned, places that, because of the spiraling consequences of abandonment, have a hard time ever recovering.
In our city 30% of our census tracts are hypervacant, putting us in league not just with St. Louis and Cleveland, but Dayton, Flint, and Gary, Indiana.
It is hard to see our city — with our people, our legacy, and our position on the water and on the Northeast Corridor — listed alongside the most challenged cities in the country. But here we are.
Instead of denying the facts we should face them, and get angry. It is time to actively fight against a mediocre status quo where our leaders play it safe rather than be bold, who cheerlead big new glass boxes downtown in a desperate attempt to will us into the ranks of the magnet cities without understanding the true reasons why we are not one of them.
Not only did the economic booms of both the 1990s and the 2000s pass our leaders by while other cities figured out how to take advantage, but the policies we’ve been pursuing have exacerbated the divide between rich and poor. The strongest census tracts have been getting stronger, while those with the highest vacancy have been getting even weaker. (See the report linked above, The Empty House Next Door, p. 35.)
Our choices are straightforward. We can continue to chase cities already far out of our reach — cities I don’t want to live in, and you don't either, and that no one can afford anyway. Or we can continue to spiral downward with other cities that have never rebounded from deindustrialization.
Or, we can take a third option. Not up, not down, but forward, and make our own way between the extremes of wealth and poverty, taking our rightful place as ground zero in the fight for a middle class future — a livable, anti-racist, sanctuary from the hell-world Donald Trump is trying to create.
To take this path, together we’re going to have to demand a new sense of urgency from our leaders. Absent that, we will have to take their place.