Saturday, October 07, 2006

Lessons from Baltimore: The Inner Harbor

Well folks, I'm visiting the city of Baltimore this weekend. In many ways, it bears great similarity to Cleveland. Baltimore is a former industrial city with large pockets of urban black poverty. Its economy is similarly dominated by health care interests (through Johns Hopkins University, the largest recipient of NIH grants in the nation). It also faces the same challenge of all Rust Belt cities: how to fight middle-class flight to the suburbs and grow its revenue base.

My analysis of Baltimore, I should point out, comes by way of the nature of my visit. My girlfriend, a sales rep for a consumer products manufacturer, is attending a conference at the Baltimore convention center. Since the conference extends through Saturday, I (being the compassionate boyfriend) arranged to fly out to Baltimore so that the two of us could spent Saturday night and part of Sunday in the city.

I'm staying at a hotel in Baltimore's "Inner Harbor", a relatively recent mammoth rebuilding effort in the center of the city. As far as I can tell, city planners constructed a tourist fantasyland in the middle of their otherwise depressed city. It's beautiful! A huge harbor with a gorgeous brick promenade, flanked by restaurants, bars, and cultural attractions (an Aquarium, Science Center, and lots of harbor tour boats). On a sunny Sunday (nice alliteration) the promenade is swamped with tourists: young couples, middle-aged couples, old couples, couples with kids in strollers, couples with teenagers, couples walking their dogs, single folks, tour groups (including at least 30 very chatty Italian ladies in town for Columbus Day), and so on. The cafes are full of folks happily munching down crab cakes and pizza. Kids are clamoring to get on the tour boats. I can't imagine how much money the city of Baltimore is making off of this massive public investment.

Quite a paradise, huh?

As I've noted in earlier posts, however, all is not as it seems in cities. Poverty is a pervasive problem in American cities, especially in the Rust Belt. Although the Inner Harbor itself is well-attended and safe, if you walk more than a block or so away from it you are confronted rather quickly with the stark reality of Baltimore's problems. Downtown's buildings are certainly beautiful, with elaborate brick facades that bespeak a time of wealth and success. In contrast to their physical beauty, the buildings are occupied by the standard run of low-rent tenants common in depressed areas: pawn shops, check cashing services, and of course empty storefronts. In the worst case, entire buildings are unoccupied: the view from my top-floor room in the Hampton Inn was the depressingly hollowed-out shell of a 12-story office building. The fading logo on the building's facade indicates it was built in 1896 as a headquarters for an insurance company; the door is now boarded up, every floor is completely empty, and someone (homeless squatters, perhaps?) has scrawled "Why God Me?" in the dust of an 8th floor window.

More dispatches soon...


Blogger Frank A. Mills said...

The problem with viewing Baltimore as a visitor to the Inner Harbor is that one makes assumptions that are not necessarily true. For example, most of those buildings that you mention are being developed, although it may not yet be evident.

Downtown, by the way, currently has two full-service grocery stores (not to mention Lexington Market) and extensive retail, including the more suburban stores like Best Buy. Their is a new department store -- a real one -- currently being built, with several others in the wings.

That said, the real "Lessons from Baltimore" are to be found in her neighborhoods ... Fells Point, Federal Hill, Otterbein, Hampden, Charles Village, Union Square, etc. I doubt that there is a neighborhood in Cleveland that has the vitality of these neighboroods. These neighborhoods have full-service grocery stores, retail (both of the needed amenity and "draw" types). Several have public markets (12 in the city). Hopkins, unlike the Cleveland clinic, is revitalizibg, with its own money, the entire adjacent residental/retail neighborhood.

Yes, some of the neighborhoods are deplorable and still have a long way to go, but several are on the rebound and that rebound is spilling over into adjacent neighborhoods (ex: Charles Village "bringing up" the "fallen-on-hard-times" Upton/Pennslyvania Ave. neighborhood. The city is buying large tracks of vacant homes, reselling many of them dirt cheap with financial incentives. Baltimore is also honest about the plight of its neighborhoods (if you buy into a neighborhood, you know exactly what to expect). For example, check out the LIVEBaltimore website and read the news clippings below the neighborhood info.

Baltimore has just completed her 25 year master plan (something Cleveland hasn't done), which interestingly is less about buildings than about residents and their desires for their neighborhoods. It is an interesting document that is available online. In the Park Heights neighborhood (heavily Caribbean & Hasidic/Orthodox Jewish), for example, the city planners have created a "what could be plan," rather than a "this is what will happen" plan, telling residents and shopkeepers that the final results are up to them. The city the CDC's will provide the resources, but the residents (and their associations) will make it happen as they want it to happen. Baltimore, by the way, has only 11 or 12 CDC's which provide resources for about 300 organic (natural) neighborhoods in a city with a population of a couple hundred thousand more than Cleveland.

While it is true that Baltimore is an industrial city, it was (and is) much more diversified than Cleveland, and it is still one of the world's busiest ports.

There is much more that could be said, but I think this highlights the differences between Baltimore and Cleveland. I should note that while I am a Baltimore native, and surely biased, I have had the opportunity to study the master plan and to be involved with what's going on in the city's neighborhood revitalization efforts.

8:40 AM  

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