Cold classrooms, patient dumping: Baltimore tries to put its best foot forward, stumbles

Kids in parkas, hoods up and huddled together in an unheated school classroom. A woman in a hospital gown, ousted from an emergency room and left at a bus stop on a freezing night.

Winter has not been kind to Baltimore, or its already battered image.

The photos and videos sped through social media sites on their way to national news broadcasts. The city, long accustomed to making the news for crime and drugs, now appeared more broadly dysfunctional, unable to handle even the seemingly basic tasks of repairing broken school boilers or sheltering a vulnerable woman.

The multiple failures are piling up at a time when Baltimore is particularly desperate to present a positive face to the world. Its tourism board has launched the #MyBmore campaign to encourage residents to post personal, positive content online to counterbalance the bleaker images more typically associated with their city. And of course, Baltimore is competing against more than 200 other cities and regions to grab the biggest economic development plum in years: the $5 billion second headquarters of Amazon that promises to bring 50,000 new jobs to its chosen city.

“Companies are following what’s happening in the news,” said Staci M. Zavattaro, who researches city branding as an associate professor of public administration at the University of Central Florida. “And they can say either that matters to us, or not.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh said she does not believe recent news will harm the city’s chances of landing Amazon.

“We put out a great proposal,” she said. “We’re ready to go.”

She pointed to a recent New York Times feature that listed Baltimore as one of the 52 places — “in the world,” Pugh stressed — to visit this year.

How Baltimore comes off to the outside world is not the first reason to rue the city’s latest woes. Unheated schools and patient dumping harm real people and communities.

Yet because so much of what plagues the city is tied to the poverty in many of its neighborhoods, most would agree that attracting new jobs and investment is part of the solution. And to do that, Baltimore has to compete with other jurisdictions who want exactly the same thing, and bring less baggage as part of the deal.

City branding — marketing municipalities like new car models or sodas — traditionally has been the stuff of convention and tourism boards. But as competition intensifies for the Amazons of the world, cities increasingly are packaging themselves for companies that have their pick of where to locate.

The subject of branding tends to generate eye-rolling, says Zavattaro, author of the books “Cities for Sale” and “Place Branding through Phases of the Image.” But branding goes beyond new logos and glossy brochures, she says, and will in fact fail unless it is backed up by actual efforts to live up to the portrait.

“You really need a balance between image and substance,” she said.

Additionally, such efforts are not just for the benefit of outsiders, she said, but a way to communicate and engage with residents and other stakeholders — “the people who care about Baltimore” — particularly when problems arise.

“City officials have to dig deeper into the roots of why the problems are happening in the first place, and tell the story of how they’re going to fix them,” she said. “You can’t say, ‘it didn’t happen,’ or ‘it was only that one time.’ These core issues are what government entities need to be talking about.”

Annie Milli is executive director of Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that seeks to attract and retain city residents. It was one of the groups that contributed to the Amazon bid.

Milli said she remains confident that the city made its case as an attractive, affordable place to live. The concerns about crime and schools are perennial, she said, and Live Baltimore tries to address them by pointing their clients to available data and neighborhood groups that can share their experiences.

“In my world, we see so many positives,” Milli said. She said the housing market remains strong, and Live Baltimore helped people from 45 states and four countries move here in fiscal 2017.

Still, she said, she knows there is “untapped potential” — people who would live here if only there were less crime or better schools.

“What is the potential we could reach if we didn’t have these challenges?” Milli asked. “Where would we be if we didn’t have these negative things going on?

“That’s impossible to say.”

As Baltimore has lurched from from one high-profile crisis to another, some see a pattern that has continued for years, symptoms of systemic problems that have long gone unsolved. They see a thread that runs through the anger that erupted into a riot over the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 to the subsequent and still ongoing rise in crime to the schools that couldn’t be kept warm enough this winter.

“This stems from the extraordinary inequality by neighborhood,” said Stefanie DeLuca, a Johns Hopkins sociologist who has researched youth in Baltimore in the aftermath of the riots. “There are just very different resources in different parts of the city.”

DeLuca and other researchers found that young people in the city feel abandoned by a city that sees them as a policing problem, has closed their rec centers and failed to provide jobs or other opportunities — and now can’t even heat some of their schools.

Researchers commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation interviewed 58 15- to 24-year olds for the study “Set-Up City: The Voices of Baltimore Youth After the April 2015 Unrest.” They were unanimous: They said the didn’t imagine themselves staying in the city.

The title of the study was inspired by a 20-year-old interviewee.

“Baltimore. I mean, I love my city to death, but this is setup city,” he said. “They set it up for you to fail.”

DeLuca said the cascade of recent problems shows that the city’s entrenched ills can no longer be ignored — and not just because they might harm the city’s bid to Amazon.

“It’s obvious for far too long that urban development increases amenities, from the Inner Harbor to Harbor East, but the benefits don’t trickle down across all the neighborhoods,” she said.

“To me, it has moved into a question of moral urgency,” DeLuca said. “We can’t assume the families who choose to stay here and raise their kids here will always stay. It’s not a given.

“Can we afford to let things go?” she said. “Absolutely not.”

Odette Ramos is the executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland, a coalition of 180 groups that advocates for resident-focused initiatives, and the mother of a kindergartner in the city schools.

Her child’s school had heat. But she was outraged when other kids, particularly those in disadvantaged neighborhoods, were not so lucky.

“I just found it very sad and really disrespectful,” she said.

“I think one of the reasons people don’t live here is the schools — and this just made that 100 percent worse.”

If there is a positive amid Baltimore’s rash of crises, some would point to the multiple grassroots efforts that have emerged over the years as residents seek to solve their city’s problems. And indeed, when the schools turned frigid, it was teachers and alums who spread the word and raised funds. The anti-violence group Baltimore Ceasefire, led by residents, has taken on the alarming rise in homicides and shootings.

But as “heroic” as these citizen efforts are, Seema Iyer said, they are just putting out brush fires unless City Hall can provide more leadership.

Iyer is associate director for the Jacob France Institute, an economic research center at the University of Baltimore business school, where she oversees a data-collection program on neighborhood quality-of-life indicators.

“It just feels uncoordinated,” Iyer said. “We are waiting for the mayor to set the agenda, and that doesn’t seem to be coming.

“What’s our vision for Baltimore in five, 10 years?” she asked. “Only strong leadership can actually voice that.”

As eyes turn to City Hall, Pugh is increasingly more visible. She drew news cameras as she and other officials descended on the schools last weekend to get the heat back on.

While many schools’ heating systems were restored, others broke down. Then, an ice storm slicked the streets, closing the schools for another day. In the changing weather, water mains in the city’s aging system burst, leaving pockets of the city without heat or water.

Pugh wrote in a year-end letter of her desire to change the narrative of Baltimore, and as the Baltimore Brew first reported, she hired a $240-an-hour communications specialist to help her do just that.

The Board of Estimates approved a three-month contract, with an option to renew, worth up to $40,000 for Gregory Tucker to provide Pugh with “strategic consultation and tactical services for communications and the media.”

Both moves drew derision as window dressing that avoided rather than solved the city’s multitude of problems.

But Zavattaro, the city branding expert, said this could be helpful.

“Narratives are powerful,” said Zavattaro, “It would make sense a city would like to tell its own story.

“But you have to couple it with meaningful changes,” she said. “You can’t do one without the other.”

Pugh would say she is checking both boxes. In an interview with The Sun, she ticked off in rapid fire how she is addressing crime — from increasing the number of police cadets currently in the pipeline toward becoming officers to securing private funding to bring the anti-violence Roca program to town to installing more street lights. New schools will be built to replace aging ones, she said, and institutions such as the University of Maryland are partnering with the city to encourage employees to live near their workplace.

“Here’s the reality: things don’t change overnight,” she said. “Everybody can do more. We can either stand on the sidelines and complain, or help me change what’s going on.”

Pugh said she hired Tucker because “no one is talking about” the positive stories in the city.

Tucker is a former vice president for public relations for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and more recently a communications executive for Transamerica and its parent company, Aegon. He said he sees his role as bringing “greater clarity about the steps, the specific actions, that are underway by the mayor and the agency heads and across the city — in the community, not just city government — to address the root causes of the violence that so undermines all the good and positives of Baltimore.”

Tucker points to initiatives such as the daily meeting of agency heads Pugh has ordered to brainstorm ways of curtailing violence, and “Call to Action” meetings in which residents share their ideas.

As a longtime resident of the city, Tucker said, he understands the “anxiety and current sense that the city is going in the wrong direction.

“The other side to that,” Tucker said, “is that progress is underway.”

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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