Imagine a city in which the streets always ran smoothly, with no interruptions for special events.
I get a lot of complaints about the traffic disruptions caused by one event or another taking place in Baltimore. If it's not Artscape or the Book Fair, it's an ethnic festival. If it's not the Baltimore Marathon, it's the Preakness. And then there's the Labor Day weekend Grand Prix, which will find me thousands of miles away in blissful — if coincidental — avoidance.
All these events create a plethora of traffic headaches. But what would Baltimore be without them?
Special events are part and parcel of city life. They may be a hassle, but they're also a sign of a living, breathing, vibrant city. If detours, traffic disruptions and crowds aren't for you, there's an abundance of efficient, tidy and monotonous suburbs in which to live. I know, I live in one. But when there's a need for a shot of adrenaline, Baltimore is the place to find it.
Yes, Baltimore may be crime-ridden and poor. Some of the streets would embarrass a Third World country. Dysfunction is to our city what jazz is to New Orleans.
But we're still Major League, even if the Orioles give us occasional doubts. We draw crowds. There's stuff going on here.
As a result, streets get closed and bus routes rerouted. Light rail trains arrive late and are too crowded to board. Parking is a nightmare.
But consider the alternative. Who wants to live in or even near a city where there's nothing going on? No parades. No street fairs. No goofy civic events. What do you have? A combination of the excitement of Waldorf and the economic vitality of Youngstown, Ohio.
That's not to say people shouldn't complain. Griping falls somewhere between civic duty and national pastime. But we should be careful lest we get what we wish for.
Baltimore needs events that draw people from the suburbs to spend their money. The resident tax base isn't enough to sustain essential services. The city needs national exposure for reasons other than being the backdrop for TV crime dramas. It's relatively easy to estimate the costs of staging such events and to criticize that as waste. But what is the cost of doing nothing? Of stagnation? Of fading into the third tier of American cities?
If you're really a city person — whether full-time or on weekends — the traffic problems caused by special events are more a challenge to be surmounted than an ordeal to be endured. They're an opportunity to park the car at a station and take the light rail or Metro into Baltimore. They're a reason to find a new route from Point A to Point B.
If anything, Baltimore could use some more and bigger civic events. It's a shame, for instance, that the old City Fair fell by the wayside. It tied up traffic, sure, but it was a great event during its heyday in the 1970s. Nothing since then has brought the city's diverse neighborhoods together in such a festive way.
But it's not unreasonable to expect city and state officials to do a better job of handling crowds than they do.
The Maryland Transit Administration, for instance, still doesn't have a good plan for handling the crowds that converge on the light rail system for Artscape. Service broke down, and at least one person was seriously injured when a surge of riders forced him into a train.
For festivals such as Artscape, the city ought to lean on organizers a bit harder to expedite the set-up and break-down time. A three-day festival shouldn't be translating into a weeklong street shutdown.
This September's Grand Prix is one of the more vexing events to come to the city in recent decades. It's brought enormous disruption to the section of downtown between Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor. Yes, much of the work had to be done anyway. Unexpected utility issues complicated the process of preparing the streets for their debut as a racetrack. But the fact so much work had to be packed into a small part of the city in a short period of time is directly attributable to the race.
The street work may be coming to an end, and in fact some of the streets are riding much more smoothly. But now those of us who live near or commute through the Mardi Gras neighborhood now face the prospect of additional delays while concrete barriers and grandstands are erected around the race course.
As disruptive as the preparations have been, I'm trying to keep an open mind about the Grand Prix. For me, watching an auto race is only slightly more appealing than a root canal. But if 100,000 people come downtown and spend a bundle and have a good time and go home and tell all their friends what a great town Baltimore is, that would be a good thing.
If ESPN and ABC and other networks put the city in the world spotlight on an otherwise slow sports weekend, that has real value — as long as the news isn't crowds run amok or a race car ending up in the spectators' laps.
If it goes smoothly and the traffic disruptions are manageable rather than catastrophic, the politicians who got behind the idea and stuck to their guns while we were all complaining will deserve some credit. In particular, that means Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Councilman William Cole IV.
But there ought to be accountability, too. If the worst fears of critics are realized and the event turns into a civic embarrassment, the people behind it ought to pay an electoral and professional price. You play craps with Baltimore's reputation, you deserve to go bust if you roll snake eyes.