Luis Cardona asks a challenging question: "Are you still bullish on Baltimore?" He means, in light of the fallout from the death of Freddie Gray — the April looting and fires, the profiling of Baltimore by the national media as a city beset with profound social problems approaching the dystopian — am I still hopeful of the city's prospects?
Where's Cardona coming from with this question?
"I'm a Bostonian who is moving to Baltimore next year," he wrote me last month. "I chose Baltimore for its affordability, my enjoyment of the city and to pursue career opportunities in the nonprofit space. I think Baltimore has a lot going for it despite its often negative portrayal in the media.
"I've visited Baltimore two dozen times in the past ten years, twice this year, and I see it as a wildly active place right now. There's new development and urban renewal seemingly everywhere, but right alongside are Baltimore's entrenched long-term problems. As a future Baltimorean, I must accept that uncomfortable duality, but I wonder: as someone who's lived in the city for [more than] 30 years, are you bullish on Baltimore's future? Now that the city is (just barely) growing its population, do you think it will turn corners?"
I've been thinking about Cardona's question since he posed it.
"Bullish" means more than optimism. Bullish means having robust confidence in a rising trend — stock prices or the housing market, to cite obvious examples.
If you're bullish on a city, it means being civic-spirited and financially committed. It means you believe in a place enough to stay for the long haul, put down roots and invest in a house or a business. It means you're telling people about your city, suggesting it as a good place for others to live and to work. You see potential for growth and you want others to join you in the adventure.
Cardona's letter made me think of the many people I came to know after I arrived here from the Boston area four decades ago. Real Baltimoreans: white and black, old-timers and newcomers who were engaged, involved and vigilant. They were socially active, creative and committed to the city. They built businesses. They did good deeds — "civic mitzvahs." They were neighborhood watchdogs. They raised hell when they had to, or until they burned out and handed off to others.
Baltimore, our city of perpetual recovery, requires that kind of extra effort. You don't move here for the privacy or solitude, though you can find both. You don't move here if you want to be left, as the natives say, "A-lone." There's too much to do, too much going on, and way too many problems for the indolent and apathetic. You move here because you still believe problems can be solved, that a city can be great.
So, if I'm advising newcomers, yeah, OK. I'm bullish on Baltimore — for the right person. Someone like Cardona.
He's 33, works for a financial institution in Boston and has decided to move here because, having done his homework, he sees the potential many of us were starting to see before April, and that we will see again.
"The opportunities available to the middle class in Baltimore — to open small businesses, improve communities in the volunteer/nonprofit space, and work on transit solutions — are widely available and exciting," he says.
Cardona is not interested in living in "the gentrified cocoon of the southeast side." He says he and his girlfriend plan to find a home in Southwest Baltimore, where a coalition of neighborhoods have formed an exciting partnership for community improvement.
"Unlike Boston, moving to Baltimore will allow me to become a first-time home buyer," Cardona says. "Investing in a city and neighborhood that treasures historic architecture — affordably! — is something that no longer exists up here. But Baltimore is overflowing with beautiful homes and diverse communities. By this time next year, I hope to be a proud homeowner in Union Square, and I look forward to plugging in with the Southwest Partnership. The work of tackling neighborhood revitalization alongside dedicated community members, daunting and lasting as that might be, is what excites me most about moving to Baltimore."
Despite reports to the contrary, Baltimore is working on its problems — has been for years. Cardona seems to have noticed that, too.
"The issues of crime, schools, racial inequality and questionable government are not lost on me," he says. "Nor do I think anything can adequately prepare someone for the degree of entrenchment to which these issues persist in Baltimore. But on the whole, I am really excited about Baltimore's future. It's a city that's working — and often struggling — to reinvent itself. But the fact it's so aggressively wrestling with what its future identity should be is promising. In this era where people are increasingly forsaking suburbs for revitalized cities, I think Baltimore is poised to capitalize enormously. I think it's the most overlooked gem on the east coast, and I'm excited to join and contribute to an already great city."
Sign him up.
Dan Rodricks' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. More commentary can be found at his blog, "Roughly Speaking," on baltimoresun.com.