Transforming Baltimore neighborhoods — and city government

Some are questioning whether Mayor Catherine Pugh’s “Violence Reduction Zones” are actually reducing violence and other crime or whether they’re just pushing it elsewhere. Others ask whether the enhanced services those communities are receiving, from trash clean-up to the boarding of vacant houses, are really meant to benefit residents or to foster gentrification. We think those critics are missing the point. What the mayor’s initiative represents is an effort to reset the relationship between the city government and the residents of some of its poorest neighborhoods. We shouldn’t underestimate the value of that in places where “city government” has long been synonymous with “overly aggressive policing.”

The mayor’s original name for these areas, “Transformation Zones,” might have been more accurate, in the sense that this effort has to do with a lot more than crime prevention. To be sure, violent crime is down in these seven zones — homicides by about 30 percent, well more than the already encouraging citywide reduction so far this year. But the improvements in an array of city services, from employment outreach to needle exchanges to trash pickup, is even more dramatic and in some ways more impactful. You might not notice the murder that wasn’t committed, but you will notice an alley that’s no longer crammed with junk.

If the branding of the initiative as a response to violence has invited criticism that crime is simply being displaced — something officials acknowledge is happening, at least to some degree — it has also imbued it with a necessary urgency. Mayor Pugh’s mandated meetings of city agency heads at police headquarters every morning are now the engine of the Violence Reduction Zones initiative, and they provide the kind of unrelenting focus that’s necessary for something like this to work.

This isn’t the first time a Baltimore mayor has tried to radically upgrade the quality and timeliness of city services, and the lesson of Martin O’Malley’s CitiStat was that it’s possible but requires a massive and sustained commitment. That withered during the Dixon and Rawlings-Blake administrations. Resurrecting something of that methodology through the lens of violence reduction makes it immediately clear where this effort stands in terms of mayoral priorities. And it can’t help but have some spillover effect on how agencies operate in other parts of the city. Yes, more resources are being poured into these areas, but this initiative is also fostering within city agencies the methodology and coordination necessary to do better for the people they serve everywhere.

What difference does it make if Baltimore can do a better job of fixing broken streetlights or hauling away abandoned cars? Combined with the city-state partnership to reduce blight, the $1 billion investment in building and renovating city schools, stepped up code enforcement and other measures, it starts to change individuals’ calculations about whether to stay and invest in city neighborhoods. A lot of people give up on the city when they feel the city has given up on them.

Mayor Pugh has some other interesting ideas for neighborhood development we encourage her to explore, such as one she floated during a recent editorial board meeting to provide the same kind of subsidies to individuals that Baltimore has historically given to big developers. Fostering the creation of more community land trusts — a topic of much discussion during the last mayoral race — could help, too.

Ms. Pugh says of this initiative that “if you can drive crime down in the most violent areas, you can drive it down everywhere in the city.” The corollary is that if you can provide good, responsive customer service in the most disinvested parts of the city, you can do it everywhere else, too. These seven zones (up from an initial four) may represent only a tiny part of the city, but they’re a start.

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