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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
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