Baltimore's population loss hurts more this time

Being attached to Baltimore is like being attached to a drug addict: You love the best of it and you hate the worst of it. You're on this emotional roller coaster — up and down, up and down — and just when it seems that recovery is steady and strong, relapse happens, and everything flops like daffodils in a frost.

I call Baltimore "Our City of Perpetual Recovery" because it reminds me of various drug addicts and alcoholics I've met over the years. They could be quirky and lovable; they could be nasty and unlovable. They were worthy of sympathy and deserving of disdain. They seemed promising one day, hopeless the next. They demanded a lot of patience and forgiveness.

For many people, such swings from stable to erratic are too much to bear. There are too many challenges — high property taxes, too much crime, too many racially charged issues — so they walk out. That's an old story, of course. Baltimore has been losing population for most of the last century. The sharpest drop in population, from 906,000 to 787,000, came after the riots of 1968 and during the 1970s. After that, while the population slide in other major cities started to slow, Baltimore's continued, dipping below 700,000 by 1995. Some 85,000 people left the city during the 1990s.

Throughout that period those of us who were committed to the city reacted to the census news in different ways. There were some who saw the flight and cursed the deserters: "Good, let 'em go." There were others who understood the movement to the suburbs: Parents did not trust the city schools, and they were sick of paying property taxes at the highest-in-the-region rate and not having public education included in the benefits package. And there were still others who stayed because they could afford to, or because they believed in Baltimore — even loved it — and felt invested in the place and saw a brighter future. And, for a lot of city dwellers, part of the motivation for staying has always been, deep down, a determination to prove the smug city haters and deserters wrong.

So we got some bad news this past week, on top of a lot of other bad news about the city: After a period when the population seemed to stabilize, even grow modestly, the number of city residents fell by more than 6,700 in the 12 months that ended July 2016. That's according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The city's population is now about 614,000.

There are plenty of reasons to get depressed about this city: The homicides continue at a horrible pace, following two consecutive years of killings on a scale we have not seen since the crack-infested 1990s. (That was a really dreary decade around here.) We still have way too many drug addicts. We don't have enough police officers to patrol a sprawling city once the home to close to a million inhabitants. And then there are the schools, with a big budgetary gap this year and the threatened layoffs of teachers — the last thing the children of Baltimore need.

The population loss amounts to a vote of no confidence that this patient will ever recover. People will stick with Baltimore for a while, with the belief that things will get better, but we still lose too many residents who have kids to raise and can't wait until things get better.

When you identify with a place, you take things about it personally. I've been depressed, even despondent, about the city's future before — particularly in the 1990s. There were so many killings and so much population loss, the city seemed to be in a perpetual spiral. The NFL returned to Baltimore during that decade, and the Orioles moved into a new ballpark and made the playoffs, but professional sports does not make a city complete. Leaders with bold vision, safe streets, schools that work — you need all that, and more, to make a city complete and inviting. You need all that to make it grow again.

Hearing about this slide in population this time hurts more because expectations had started to rise. Following the recession and the Freddie Gray unrest of nearly two years ago, there was a sense of movement again. I've noted it in recent columns about construction around the city. I look at the redevelopment of neighborhoods to the west of Greenmount Avenue — I'm tempted to call it amazing — and I find hope in all that. Somebody somewhere believes this city is going to grow again.

I have to believe that all the redevelopment — from Barclay to Port Covington, from East Baltimore near the Johns Hopkins medical campus to Locust Point — is based on a business calculus and not just wishful thinking. I have to believe this about Baltimore.

Call me a fool. I decided a long time ago not to give up on it.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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