City Death

by John V. Brain
     So the Baltimore City Life Museums have been brought back from the dead, their collections if not their premises revived by the Maryland Historical Society. Those of us who viewed the collapse of the institution--dedicated to preserving the city’s history--as a major disaster can breathe again. But the fact remains that we were too few or too niggardly to support it while it struggled to survive. The city’s priorities were elsewhere--on sports stadiums, hotels, marine biology centers, whatever.
      Turning off Franklin Street onto the approach to the Jones Falls Expressway, one can’t help noticing the boarded-up hulk of the Carroll Mansion and the shuttered Shot Tower looming behind. They symbolize our city’s decline: the Baltimore City Death Museums. And now it seems these stark reminders of a dying city are to be saved by a statewide institution that has more support and more resources--and are perhaps a precursor of the city’s own future.
      Baltimore City today is not unique among America’s older cities. All confront deteriorated housing, a dwindling tax base, rising costs of social services, loss of blue collar jobs, proliferation of the poor and black, and flight of the white middle class to the suburbs. This socioeconomic decline is compounded by a democratic system that gives control of local government to a majority of racially polarized voters which creates an ongoing standoff between city government and the business community.
      Agreed, Baltimore is not yet in the situation of Washington, D.C., where voters reselected a convicted crack addict whose incompetent administration brought the nation’s capital to its knees. There, Congress eventually intervened to restore responsible government, but Baltimore City has no intercessor to intervene...unless the State of Maryland eventually takes control.
      This breakdown of the central cities would not have happened if they had continued to grow by annexing their surrounding suburbs, as Baltimore did before 1918. The area where I live was once the village of Govans in Baltimore County, before residents opted to become part of the city so as to take advantage of the city services--gas, water, sewage, electricity, police and fire protection. Then, hooking up to city services seemed like a giant step into the twentieth century. Today, many Govans residents wish they were on the Baltimore County side of the line, where taxes and auto insurance are lower and the schools far better.
      The end of annexation marked the beginning of Baltimore’s decline. Not only the more affluent residents, but also the businesses, from large corporations to local stores, picked up and left, taking their taxes with them. And now of course, as the poverty and run-down communities expand into Baltimore County, the affluent move on again, to the upscale communities of Howard and Anne Arundel Counties. It’s the American Way: Go West, Young Man! Move on and away from problems, and let the devil take the hindmost!
      Today there is zero chance of Baltimore City expanding to include the entire metro area as one tax base, one community. Divisions are clearly etched in black and white, haves and have-nots. A unified metro area would mean blacks in Baltimore City would no longer control an overall majority and the present city power structure would collapse. Suburban residents, moreover, have no interest in assuming responsibility for Baltimore’s poor, Baltimore’s schools, Baltimore’s problems. That’s why they moved away, remember?
      Twenty years ago Baltimore City was being held up as a model of urban renewal. The City Fair celebrated the Baltimore Renaissance. Office towers arose. Harborplace opened. William Donald Schaefer, with his straw hat and rubber ducky, embodied a spirit of confident renewal. Neighborhoods and downtown worked together. It was then I wrote Of Fairs and Festivals and Of Renaissance and Renewal.Baltimore was famous as Bootstrap City, the comeback kid of urban renewal. Our future wasn’t rosy, but at least we had a fighting chance.
      Today the bloom is off the Baltimore Renaissance. It’s a withered flower. Population has dropped 25%--and it’s the taxpayers who’ve left, not the welfare-dependent. The Baltimore Bicentennial was a bust, brought down by an ugly spat between the Mayor’s cronies and the business leaders as to who would pay for it. Taxes are misspent. Scandals abound. Many citizens believe a rich baker owns the Mayor and the City Council. Many of them would move out if they could.
      Confronted with the depressed city real estate market, the Citizens Planning and Housing Association created a Neighborhood Marketing Institute to educate residents about how to market their communities. It’s a worthy endeavor. But when you try to sell your house in Baltimore, you’re also selling Baltimore City, and that’s a tough assignment. Would you want to buy into the city schools and the city housing department and the failed Fish Market and the failed Columbus Center and the proposed White Elephant Hotel and Mayor Schmoke’s motley entourage? Thanks, but no thanks.
      Maybe one day the State of Maryland will take us over, as the Maryland Historical Society has taken over the City Death Museums.

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This story was published on July 1, 1998.