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Waiting for Baltimore to finally reach the tipping point

Richard Florida's think tank ranks it 10th in U.S. as a 'creative class' city

Dan Rodricks

5:00 AM EDT, August 22, 2013

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Baltimore is your unpredictable uncle in a bathrobe — sweet one minute, grouchy the next; as kind as an old friar today, as menacing as a hit man tomorrow. This town will baffle you. It is sane and insane, charming and ugly, cosmopolitan and puny, brilliant and middling, future thinking and stuck in its ways.

Maybe every city is like this, particularly those with lingering violent crime. Every city with lingering violent crime probably has an old-school bakery or a revered deli where you can still get amazing smoked herring. You can always find something good to say about places with homicidal tendencies, and the travel writers do that with Baltimore all the time.

Baltimore drives you crazy — a simmering, festering, everyday crazy: Here's an interesting restaurant that just opened in Hampden; here's a shooting that just occurred in Harlem Park. Here's a smart, young entrepreneur who invented The Next Big Thing; here's a gang leader who ran a lucrative smuggling operation in the city jail and got four of his jailers pregnant. Here's the amazing Marin Alsop conducting Mahler's Seventh at the Meyerhoff; here's four people shot, two of them fatally, inside a rowhouse in Pigtown.

Baltimore is home of the Super Bowl champion Ravens. Baltimore has one of the highest heroin addiction rates in the country.

You want to haul off and slap Baltimore: Snap out of it!

Of course, that's just another violent act, and where does it get you? Our kids won't learn their math any faster. The young men who sell dope and do the killings won't suddenly put down their guns. A slap doesn't create jobs. Changing behaviors and outcomes takes time; we know that. But there are still too many days when it seems as if Baltimore's epoch of drugs, crime, poverty and dysfunction might never end.

But here's the thing: Throughout that epoch, we've survived. We're not Detroit, and far from it. Some parts of the town are thriving and growing. There are absolutely stunning changes taking place in certain neighborhoods, and not the predictable ones. I mean Barclay and Johnston Square; Greenmount West, North Broadway and Station North. There's a high demand for rental properties in the central part of the city, and developers are creating more space for people who want to live here.

As a place on the Earth to live and work, Baltimore is not as bad as we think — and Richard Florida, who does a lot of thinking about cities, agrees.

Florida has written extensively about the rise of the creative class — the professionals, artists and entrepreneurs who provide the brainpower that communities need to thrive. He directs the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, a think tank that considers "the role of place in economic prosperity." The MPI looks for the "Q" factor — "quality of place" — in cities and metropolitan areas as a measure of a community's potential. There are three other things the MPI looks at: technology, talent and tolerance. (Tolerance refers to "places that are most open to new ideas that attract talented and creative people from across the globe.")

Florida's team conducts a major survey over several months; they call it their Global Cities project. It's a way of identifying the places that are most supportive of the creative class and, therefore, best positioned for success.

In the most recent MPI survey, just published, "Greater Baltimore" ranked 35th in the world and 10th in the United States. Not bad. The U.S. cities or metro areas ahead of us were — from the top down — Seattle, the District of Columbia, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and Miami.

Thirty-seven percent of the adult workforce in the Baltimore area is considered to be in the creative class, the MPI found. As a grade, that amounts to a B-plus.

While giving the area A's and A-minuses for our public and private education system, the survey gave just a B-plus for our talent pool. Here's the reason: "Only 68 percent of the population has a high school diploma or higher and only 24 percent of the population has a bachelor's degree or higher. These numbers are much lower than other global cities."

The city got a string of A's for innovation and technology; a B for overall diversity (and an A specifically for "bohemians"); B's for arts and culture; an A-minus for museums; an A for "civic capital" (nonprofits doing good work); a B-minus for public transportation and an A-minus for bike paths. All those amenities speak to quality of place. So does crime, of course. The city got a C-minus there, its lowest score.

Overall, the MPI sees Baltimore as a "city on the rise" with great potential and, of course, we've been hearing that for years. We're still waiting for the tipping point — where the good outweighs and eventually smothers the bad. Outsiders see progress; it looks like we're getting there. To those of us who live here, it seems like it's taking forever. Snap out of it!

drodricks@baltsun.com