Baltimore’s problem is sprawl, not a bad economy

Baltimore City has thousands of vacant row houses that have come under increased outside scrutiny after April’s unrest and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s ramped up demolition program.  These lost structures fit a common, but misinformed narrative about Baltimore as a place in economic decline.

West Baltimore

Many beautiful row house shells remain in Baltimore. Photo by Jeff La Noue

 

When evaluating the city’s 20,000 plus vacant row houses, its crime, and its population loss exceeding 300,000 from its peak; pundits often paint a picture of a broken rust belt region that has never recovered from the loss of thousands of manufacturing and steel-making jobs. Washington Post Reporter, E.J. Dionne Jr.  follows this line of thought in his editorial in May of this year. He says

“The violence that has engulfed Baltimore is visible and heartbreaking evidence of a city that has been under siege for decades.

The obvious flashpoints involve race and policing. But since at least the 1970s, the economy’s invisible hand has also been diligently stripping tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs from what was once a bustling workshop where steel, cars and planes were made. Baltimore has tried to do its best in a post-industrial economy, but when work disappears, the results can be catastrophic.”

This assessment is mostly wrong. Vacant houses and neighborhoods in the city are a symptom of robust suburbanization.

Economy

Baltimore has transitioned from its former rust belt economy.  Its 2014 metropolitan GDP is higher than Portland (OR), Columbus (OH), Orlando, Austin, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Nashville, and San Antonio among many others.  The Baltimore Metro area ranks 4th in percent with a graduate or professional degree and 4th in median household income among the 25 largest metro areas. (Washington DC is number 1 in both categories)

Here’s the rub.  While Baltimore City’s population has dropped by 300,000 people since its peak census count in 1950, Baltimore County has added 550,000. Anne Arundel County over 400,000. Howard County almost 300,000.  Harford County 200,000. Carrol County has added over 100,000 people.

Owings Mills new town

Most new infrastructure has been in green fields to support outward growth not inward revitalization. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

(Shown here is Owings Mills, a suburb that has sprouted adjacent to Interstate 795, the Northwest Expressway, and a subway line constructed  in 1983-1985. I-795 extends 9 miles out from the beltway. Baltimore City lost 50,000 people, 13 percent of its population in the 1980’s.)

State spending in the suburbs sapped the city

Baltimore City’s surplus of vacant houses are not there because of a poor regional economy or because the Baltimore area population is shrinking.  It is clearly not.  They exist because the region has built lots of new roads and highways, new schools, new utilities, and new homes outside the city, without equivalent investments inside the core city.  People and businesses have flowed to the geographic shift of new investments in surrounding counties.  As this was happening, physical and social decay escalated in many of Baltimore’s older row house communities, especially African-American neighborhoods. Some of this early exodus was the result of directly racist practices such as redlining. However, shifting public investments outward, often based on theoretically race-neutral growth formulas, certainly was anti-urban and had the greatest impact on urban communities of African-Americans. Regardless, people of all races with choices, have made rational decisions to leave behind thousands of houses in poor school districts with old school buildings, with high crime, pot holed streets, inadequate transit, and leaky pipes.

A renaissance is coming for more city neighborhoods

There are new positive trends that may impact the future of some of Baltimore’s challenged row house neighborhoods. First, Baltimore City has stopped hemorrhaging net population. New city-based industries are thriving in health Sciences and technology. The Under Armour corporation is a major growth magnet with over 3 billion in annual revenues and it is growing every year. Lots of people are still moving out of the city, but there is a new crop of newcomers, often well-educated millennials and some immigrants.  However, they are not spreading across the city evenly.  They are bypassing the most challenging row house neighborhoods.

Prosperous Canton

Baltimore’s booming Canton neighborhood is mixed with new apartments, offices, and fixed-up row houses. Flickr image by Elliott Plack

 

Thousands of new upscale apartments and professional offices are being added downtown and in a ring of neighborhoods around the harbor, often on former industrial brownfield sites.   The harbor adjacent row house neighborhoods have been fixed up and growing for two decades. It shows, that when there are amenities in the neighborhood, there is demand for row house living.

Hampden

Vibrant rowhouses in Hampden, a hot neighborhood west of Johns Hopkins University. Flickr image by Lunita Lu

A sign of what may be to come, are the resurging row house neighborhoods west and south of the Johns Hopkins University several miles north of the harbor.  Where there is a neighborhood anchor institution, good retail, and reasonable transit, some old Baltimore row house neighborhoods may reverse their fortunes in the next decade. Inclusivity will be important. However, as in decades before, state and regional decisions on school, infrastructure, and transportation investments will play their part on whether some Baltimore city neighborhoods can come back. These decisions are particularly important for the most vulnerable.

A similar article is in Greater Greater Washington

Naming the blog-Comeback City

Post #1

Almost all cities that have been around a long time have had boom years and troughs. Very few have been wiped away for good and some have been decimated by fire, war, or famine, and come back.

New York City lost the world’s largest textile industry completely. It suffered a crack epidemic and a very dark decade in the eighties. New York City has come roaring back.

Many of America’s cities and neighborhoods are not and have not been in a boom. They are in need of a comeback.  This platform is not about dwelling on decay or labeling places as down and out. It is about sharing ideas from different places and building on strength.

Being a throwaway society is not America’s strength.  Some economists suggest people move where the jobs are.  The emptying of some cities in favor of others or distant suburbs, leaves a wake of human distress. Abandoning legions of buildings wastes embedded energy and cultural history.  Jobs can be any place there is human ingenuity. Sun and sand contribute to some jobs, but other human factors are far more important and are not bound by climate or geography.

Throw away cities should not be an American value.  Americans are very generous about helping US cities that have been hit by hurricane, earthquake, or terrorism, (until Sandy) However, Americans can become dismissive when discussing the slower decline of a city. Buildings were falling down and poverty was prevalent before Katrina hit New Orleans, but national focus on the city’s problems only rushed in with the storm. Some cities are poorly managed and its leaders have had misplaced priorities.  They should not be bailed out or rewarded for this.  However, as an American society, we do not win overall, when there is such disparity in the health and opportunity between our cities.

I hope as a reader you will enjoy Comeback City and it will provide content to think about and maybe even spark specific projects.  Much of the future content will be Baltimore centric.  Other content will draw from other places. Baltimore is a city that might be on the precipice of recovery. There are positive sprouts in many places. Its momentum is fragile and the pace of rebound is slow.

America and the world have witnessed comeback cities.  We have a role in helping some of the cities we care about rebound. Thanks for reading!

JL

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