Unlimited Access. Try it Today! Your First 10 Days Always $0.99
News Opinion Op-Eds

Why can't Baltimore be more like Brooklyn?

While working on the rehabilitation of historic buildings in Baltimore City, I'm always dogged by a sense of futility — especially when I compare Baltimore with Brooklyn.

More than 30 years ago when I went to college there, Brooklyn was a total basket case — much worse statistically than Baltimore in crime, urban decay and poverty. It seemed absolutely hopeless that the borough would ever rebound. It was so dangerous that at my architecture school, no one stayed late to work on their projects.

After graduation, I moved out as soon as I could. Still in the habit of reading New York newspapers, I knew that Brooklyn was still mired in crime and decay and reeling from white flight. It seemed that it would always be that way. Then in the late 1990s, an odd thing started to happen. Young white professionals moved into minority neighborhoods that no one would ever have dreamed would become gentrified. There had been pockets of pioneer gentrification or areas where whites stayed put — like Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights. But the first war zone to change was Williamsburg, a run down industrial area across from Manhattan. Then came an even worse neighborhood, Red Hook, a deserted waterfront section. Bushwick, maybe the worst of the worst, saw a dramatic resurgence.

Now the unimaginable has happened. Brooklyn is considered the coolest place on earth. Trendy restaurants, cheese shops, fashion boutiques, gourmet ice cream shops, Internet cafes and clubs have sprung up like weeds in once abandoned storefronts. The whole image of Brooklyn has changed from a funny accent in the movies to people naming their kids Brooklyn. The borough supposedly has the most creative people per square mile in the country. A friend explained to me that a Brooklyn neighborhood is considered gentrified when you see a white woman walking alone at night. Brooklyn is fast approaching its 1950 peak population of 2.7 million. It even has its own NBA team now in an architecturally spectacular arena that draws circuses and big-name concerts.

This image of the new Brooklyn is slightly skewed. A quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. There are still very dangerous places that one avoids at day or night, but they seem to be slowly vanishing. But it's the perception of Brooklyn of a good place to live that's most important — something that Baltimore doesn't have.

So I ask myself, if Brooklyn can turn around, why can't Baltimore, which has lost 30,000 more people since the 2000 census? Baltimore boosters will complain that this isn't a fair apples-to-apples comparison. It's true, high real estate prices in Manhattan helped drive people to Brooklyn. But they could have left the city altogether, and the story isn't all about young white people moving there. Brooklyn has something that Baltimore lacks altogether — real diversity. Ethnic groups that take hold of a decrepit neighborhood and turn it around. The Chinese in Bensonhurst and Sunset Park, Russians in Brighton Beach, Hispanics in South Brooklyn and East Williamsburg, West Indians and Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights.

Baltimore has no comparable mix of immigrants. It's basically a black and white city — mostly black with the whites concentrated in a few areas. The city's one bright spot is that its Hispanic population grew 245 percent over the last decade to 27,000 people, mostly concentrated along lower Broadway. That's an encouraging trend, but Hispanics still represent only 4 percent of the total. Baltimore has to attract way more. William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, called Hispanics "the magic bullet for a lot of cities."

You can't blame the difference on jobs. Like Baltimore, Brooklyn's job base changed from manufacturing to service-based. There are no more industries in Brooklyn. Brooklynites commute to jobs in Manhattan and Long Island like Baltimoreans do to jobs in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Another explanation for Brooklyn's success is former Mayor Rudolph Guiliani's hard-nosed campaign against crime in 1990s that reduced violent crime in the borough significantly. Baltimore never had the political nerve to be so harsh on crime.

Baltimore's historic architectural fabric rivals Brooklyn's. But the once bustling Howard Street is now a ghost town. Reservoir Hill, the city's best concentration of historic properties, stays run down.

Of course, Baltimore isn't alone in its troubles. There's St. Louis, Cleveland and — God help it — Detroit. Maybe I shouldn't think about Brooklyn. I should just go back to help rehabbing buildings one at a time and try to bring back this city.

Charles Belfoure is an architect and co-author of "The Baltimore Rowhouse." His novel, "The Paris Architect," is coming out in October. His email is cbel4@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Baltimore is not Brooklyn, nor should it be
    Baltimore is not Brooklyn, nor should it be

    In response to Charles Belfoure's commentary ("Why can't Baltimore be more like Brooklyn Sept. 19), I would ask "why can't Baltimore just be itself?"

  • No weather TLC without TWC
    No weather TLC without TWC

    People love to talk about the weather. And people listen to those who know what they're talking about — like meteorology guru Jim Cantore. But when Verizon FiOS unexpectedly dropped The Weather Channel (TWC) from its line-up on March 10, those voices went silent for the cable company's...

  • The conservative case for same-sex marriage
    The conservative case for same-sex marriage

    Before the current Supreme Court session ends this summer, the justices will make a landmark decision on same-sex marriage. But conservatives shouldn't wait to lose in court. They should accept same-sex marriage now.

  • The people's representatives should be elected
    The people's representatives should be elected

    Members of Congress don't always complete their terms due to factors like death, a new job and scandal. When a House seat becomes vacant, the Constitution requires an election to fill it, and every House member has been elected. The 17th amendment established direct election of Senators as...

  • More quality teachers, fewer administrators
    More quality teachers, fewer administrators

    Each year when it is time for executive central office school officials to present their proposed school budget to local government officials for approval, a funny thing happens. The needs of children anchor the plea for more funding. From a political perspective, this is a tough plea to...

  • Supergirl Power
    Supergirl Power

    About a year ago, I walked into Gotham Comics in Westminster with the intention of restarting my comic book collection after letting it lie dormant since the comic book boom of the early 1990s. Upon entering the store I was immediately confused.

  • Calls for a constitutional convention are reckless
    Calls for a constitutional convention are reckless

    There's a right way and a wrong way to amend the United States Constitution, and far too many current state legislators are trying to do it the wrong way: by attempting to call our first constitutional convention since 1787.

  • Hogan's Maryland: open for big business
    Hogan's Maryland: open for big business

    Driving home to Baltimore from a meeting with a potential new customer one cold February afternoon, my wife and I chuckled when we crossed the state border. In addition to "Maryland Welcomes You," our state's "Enjoy Your Visit!" sign on Route 15 now read, "We're Open for Business," followed...

Comments
Loading