The City's Neighborhoods Have Become the Poor Stepchildren

by Myles Hoenig

Lately it appears that the city government would much rather deal with favored developers than with its communities.

Baltimore was once known as a city of neighborhoods. The neighborhoods are still there, but we no longer celebrate them. And why should we? We have lost our pride in our city. Once in a blue moon the Orioles win and Baltimore is back on top-for a day. The mayor takes on international terrorism and we're in the national spotlight.

But the day-to-day life of our city is being sucked dry. Our citizens are being denied a say in their communities' future-or they're deluded into thinking that, by "sitting at the table," they'll get the same meal as those dishing it out.

Although some communities are making a comeback, it's a never-ending fight competing against overwhelming powers.

What is the cause of much of Baltimore's decline? It is easy to say that those who prey on our residents and are associated with the drug trade are responsible. That is true. But also, it is the unhealthy relationship between developers and the City Council, Mayor's Office, and Department of Planning, whose sole common interest appears to be the corporate bottom line. The fate of communities is but a minor consideration, and often a nuisance.

It is rare to see a case in recent years where a neighborhood got what it wanted, not just being able to minimize damage. The Memorial Stadium Task Force was one such successful endeavor by the surrounding communities, City agencies, and developers. Unfortunately, that 'textbook' case of civic cooperation is how things should be, but rarely are.

Cases in point: The collective communities of Woodberry were coerced into signing an agreement with Loyola College to give up a City forest, and their character, for the sake of the private college's wanting to play in the big leagues of collegiate sports and garner enhanced revenues.
Our citizens are being denied a say in their communities' future-or they're deluded into thinking that, by "sitting at the table," they'll get the same meal as those dishing it out.

The Clipper Mill neighborhoods' concerns over an oversized, car-dependent housing development were absolutely rejected by the Department of Planning and then rubber-stamped by the Planning Commission. (The developer, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, Inc., even opposes sound methods for relieving a serious traffic concern.)

Until neighborhood activists finally were heard and heeded, the City Council was even pushing for the passage a bill that, if passed in its worst form, would have given the developer the right to have private property condemned for the use of private developers. (The much-revised Bill 701 finally passed after the Urban Affairs Committee made major amendments to it to restrict the City's exercise of eminent domain powers.)

Even the wealthier, politically connected community of Charles Village is threatened with the very problems that the Clipper Mill community fought, and lost, to the same developer, Struever Brothers. And now we're seeing that the long-forgotten Jones Falls Valley Master Plan is being managed by AB Associates, a consultant to developers, while the communities adjacent to the Jones Falls left out of the process.

We community activists would hope that our recourse would be the City Council. Unfortunately, due to its having been stripped of much of its powers some years ago, its purpose has evolved into serving at the will and whim of the Mayor. There are too many members who, while not delivering donuts to the Mayor on Sunday mornings, would certainly carry his water into battle for the developers. When we need independent thinkers and actors, we have Gunga Dins instead. Even its web page ironically hints at its purpose, baltimorecitycouncil.com-"dot com," not "dot gov."

Although Franz Kafka said, "There is hope, but not for us," we do see a glimmer of better times ahead. The redistricted City Council, though not a perfect solution, offers an opportunity for real grassroots third parties, like the Green Party, to mount a serious campaign to have real representation. Not taking corporate funds, and placing limits on political contributions, the Greens would be accountable only to the residents of Baltimore, and would be their truest advocates.

The other dominant parties are tainted with developers' and other corporations' influential contributions. We need to ask ourselves in what direction do we want to go. Should we continue to slide into the abyss-becoming even more of a city of the developer, by the developer and for the developer? Or do we want to regain our streets and communities again with smart development that enhances the best of our neighborhoods?

The choice is easy. Getting there is the struggle.

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This story was published on April 19, 2003.