The effort drew admiration from his contemporaries across the country. William H. Hudnut, mayor of Indianapolis from 1976 to 1992, always included Schaefer when asked to name the nation's best mayors. Though the two had a chilly relationship after Hudnut wrested the Colts from Baltimore in 1984, Hudnut said they reconciled during a phone call about two years ago.

Hudnut, who was credited with breathing new life into his city's downtown, said Schaefer's effort in Baltimore's core was crucial.

"You can't be a suburb of nothing. You need a vital downtown," said Hudnut, a Republican. "Schaefer did exactly what a mayor should."

Inconsistent federal aid

Complicating the recovery was the federal government's inconsistent vision for urban areas, several experts and former mayors said. Federal aid to cities peaked in the 1970s as the Nixon and then Carter administrations agreed to share federal tax revenue with state and local governments. Beginning in 1981, the Reagan White House changed the way federal aid was administered to cities and began reducing it.

"One of the problems we had is that many people in Washington had no appreciation for the importance of local and state government," said George Voinovich, who was mayor of Cleveland from 1980 to 1989 and who said he personally lobbied President Ronald Reagan, sometimes successfully, to increase aid to cities. "It was a very difficult time."

Voinovich, a Republican who retired from politics last year after serving as Ohio's governor and senator, said that he came to Baltimore to learn from Schaefer when he was first elected in Cleveland. Schaefer reciprocated years later, flying to Cleveland to talk with area business leaders about investing in the city under Voinovich's watch.

Despite the mixed messages from Washington, Schaefer's administration became particularly adept at gathering whatever federal and state funding could be leveraged for development, said Don Borut, the executive director of the National League of Cities.

"Schaefer was at the forefront. He was kind of the model for moving forward," Borut said. "And he was also a bulldog."

Those efforts often paid off.

While Oldtown fell back into disrepair, the Otterbein did not. The neighborhood just west of the Inner Harbor had been entirely gutted when Schaefer started the $1 homesteading program that brought the area back to life.

Mary Gorman, an Otterbein resident, would have been lying to say she was happy to move to Baltimore 30 years ago. But her husband had won a fellowship at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He promised her that after two years, their next city would be her choice.

But there would be no "next city." The Gormans — who moved from Washington — stayed. Willingly. And largely because of Schaefer's efforts.

They initially moved into a new house in the neighborhood, and then bought a place that had been previously sold and fixed up through the homesteading program.

"Before urban renewal, the only way to be caught in this neighborhood was if you were dead," said Gorman, who raised three children in the neighborhood and credits Schaefer with the turnaround. "He made it attractive and he made it alive."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts