Baltimore Blues

Political Overreach in Charm City


Forget about New York, New York, and start spreading this news: Baltimore is the Greatest City in America. Martin O'Malley, elected the town's mayor in 1999, has declared it so. Now his optimistic motto graces everything from signs and buildings around town to the city's Web site.

Sadly, people actually living in Baltimore have more than a few reasons to be skeptical about the accuracy of that assessment. While other American cities witnessed a steep decline in violent crime beginning in the mid-1990s, Baltimore's murder rate remained stubbornly high throughout the decade. Embarrassing studies revealed that serious drug use, syphilis, and gonorrhea were worse in Baltimore than almost anywhere else in the country. Rotten schools, a troubled police force, and decrepit public housing round out the picture.

As a city revitalization plan notes, Baltimore suffers from a "diminished industrial base, the loss of 50,000 jobs in the last decade, declining population and crippling poverty." Indeed, Baltimore lost about 11 percent of its population during the 1990s, reports the Census Bureau, reducing the city to just over 650,000 residents. That exodus took place even as Maryland's overall population grew by about 10 percent.

To his credit, O'Malley has been doing more than slapping cheery slogans around the city and there's been some improvement since he took office. Baltimore's murder rate, for instance, is still high for a city of its size, but it has come down, falling to its lowest total in a decade.

But like the mayors of so many other struggling cities around the country, O'Malley is betting that dubious public works projects and old-style urban renewal will turn around his town's fortunes. He's joined in his delusions by other local pols. They point to the city's "success" with the Inner Harbor, the downtown area that was redeveloped with gobs of public money a decade ago. Now it boasts Camden Yards, where the Orioles play baseball, and a host of chain restaurants; tourists even go there when they're in town. Cities such as Denver and Cleveland have built what amount to carbon copies of the area, and isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

O'Malley is promoting a plethora of publicly funded projects in hopes of keeping people and businesses from fleeing Baltimore. Three quick examples show how ridiculous they can be.

Seemingly taking a page from a memorable episode of The Simpsons–in which a scam artist sells the town of Springfield a useless but massively expensive monorail system–O'Malley is working hard to make sure Baltimore is part of a high-tech federal railroad boondoggle. The Federal Rail Administration is looking for a testing ground for a commercial magnetic levitation train (Maglev) that will zip travelers along at speeds approaching 300 miles per hour. Earlier this year, the feds narrowed the candidates down to Pittsburgh, another city that lost 10 percent of its population during the '90s, and the Baltimore-D.C. corridor. The feds plan to pick up only one-third of the project's whopping $3.6 billion price tag, which means that the "winning" location gets to shell out for the privilege.

State and local governments are champing at the bit. To drum up support among locals, the Maryland Mass Transit Administration has unleashed a marketing campaign that promises thousands of jobs, a 16-minute trip from D.C. to Baltimore, and the diversion of about 30,000 commuters a day from congested roads.

Never mind that no one in the world has built a commercially operating Maglev system. Never mind that officials were unable to tell concerned residents in the proposed path of the train how loud it would be. Never mind that officials cannot say who will run the system (though they have assured everyone that it will be a "cooperative effort."). And of course, never mind that the proposed $20 one-way fare might keep commuters in their cars.

Then there's the West Side Initiative. Though underway before he took office, O'Malley has championed this ballyhooed revitalization plan. It will use more than $100 million in state and local dollars to put upscale residential developments and mixed-use retail in a West Baltimore neighborhood adjacent to the famed Inner Harbor (apparently, the rousing success of the Inner Harbor hasn't migrated next door).

While West Baltimore has always supported a number of thriving businesses–many of them owned by minority families–the area as is apparently doesn't project the clean image that the Greatest City in America deserves. Among the casualties of West Side Initiative are over two dozen mom-and-pop stores that were deemed insufficiently upscale.

As with the Maglev project, residents are being asked to suspend their disbelief. In this instance, they should forget that a similar government initiative failed to do anything for the same neighborhood in 1980. And they forget to ask whether governments should subsidize homes for middle- and upper-class families, who can presumably find places to live easily enough on their own.

The West Side Initiative showcases how complex redevelopment plans can end up sponsoring all sorts of insanity. In order to kick the businesses out of the neighborhood, the city agreed to buy them out and relocate them. One of the enterprises belonged to a local entrepreneur named Kenneth Jackson: His El Dorado Lounge had been a well-known area strip club for more than 25 years. The Baltimore Sun reported that in helping relocate the establishment, the city paid Jackson $450,000 for his property, twice what he paid for it just four years earlier. Moreover, the city's relocation plan would have made Baltimore the strip club's new landlord, leasing it space in a large city building at a rock-bottom price (with an option to buy, no less).

Jewish community leaders complained when they discovered that the El Dorado's new home would be just one block away from the city's newly refurbished Holocaust Memorial. Mayor O'Malley has since scrapped the El Dorado's relocation plan, but not before the Sun and Manhattan's City Journal revealed that O'Malley had received a $2,000 campaign donation from Jackson's mother in 1999.

In yet another plan–perhaps the most ambitious in O'Malley's portfolio–the mayor has announced that he will turn Baltimore into the Silicon Valley of the East Coast. This project, code named "Digital Harbor," will try to lure high-tech companies to the city through a "cooperative plan" that will include all sorts of government and business interests. According to the plan, this "Smart Growth" initiative will allow the Baltimore faithful to "to live, work and play in a city that can serve as a national model for redevelopment."

Digital Harbor and the West Side Initiative are moving ahead. Maglev is chugging along too, now that a final environmental assessment has been completed. All that remains is whether the feds "award" the project to Baltimore-D.C. or Pittsburgh. The feds have been reassuring Baltimore's political class that if they do win the project, the system will definitely be in place in time for the 2012 Olympic Games. That's yet another thing that O'Malley and local officials are sure will help Baltimore keep the title of Greatest City in America, or the world, or something.

The only question left, it seems, is whether anyone will still be living in Baltimore by then.