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Do we want a true city or an oasis on the water?

ElectionsConservationExecutive BranchCulture

It was an intimidating experience indeed. Downtown on Pratt Street, late at night, surrounded by looming shadows. The sound of approaching footsteps spawned immediate unease. We prayed that our expected ride would appear soon. It was 1964. The Inner Harbor area was a hardscrabble place by day, and a dark and forbidding one at night.

By then, the development of the suburbs and the integration of public schools had been steadily changing Baltimore. The tightly knit neighborhoods that had been defined by ethnicity, religion and workplace were inexorably disintegrating. It was a phenomenon driven by readily available suburban land, cheap gasoline and changing lifestyles; and it was undoubtedly fueled, in large part, by inherent and pervasive racism. That year, Maryland became a dominant factor in presidential politics when it gave nearly half of its vote in the Democratic Primary to George Wallace, who had famously assumed the office of Alabama governor with a declaration of "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." It was the governor's strongest showing outside the Deep South and a significant embarrassment to the sitting Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson. Two years later, a divided vote in the Democratic primary for governor resulted in the nomination of George Mahoney, who campaigned on the thinly veiled segregationist slogan "Your home is your castle, protect it." Protect it, that is, against open housing laws.

Such was the climate that ultimately helped turn America's sixth-largest city into a shadow of itself. When the April 1968 riots, following the assassination of the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr., sent many of the remaining small businesses packing, it left numerous neighborhoods desolate. This helped seal the fate of a city that had lost its vitality and grudgingly adopted the diminished role of home to a growing concentration of the region's poor.

It was unimaginable then that the rotting piers, warehouses and lumberyards of the Inner Harbor would become the vibrant gathering place and tourist destination that exists today. But when insightful thinkers had the dilapidated area cleared for renewal, and the tall ships arrived in celebration of the nation's bicentennial, eyes became opened to possibility. Development soon followed the creation of a waterfront promenade, while shells of rowhouses that were first offered for a dollar became the subject of escalating bids. Since then, we have seen this reinvention of the downtown produce hotels, condominiums, office buildings, and an enviable twin-sports complex, while spreading residential vitality along the Canton waterfront and throughout Locust Point. It has become, by far, the most stimulating social venue in the region.

And yet, despite this remarkable and glowing transformation of downtown, the forces that prompted the city's decline remain in play, and in some respects they have worsened. Neglected neighborhoods that once offered structure and stability are plagued with family disintegration, poverty, substance abuse and violence. Racial segregation has evolved into economic segregation. The public schools remain a non-option for most families with the means to be elsewhere.

Consider this in the context of the effects of our modern-day policies and economic realities. We promote suburban sprawl while urban commercial and residential properties sit dormant and abandoned. The high-paying manufacturing jobs that once supported the residents of our city neighborhoods so well are long gone, the victims of cheap foreign labor and continued relocation of jobs overseas. The stability and fabric of neighborhoods is further damaged by the loss of local merchants, replaced by suburban big-box retailers and chains.

We expend huge resources on a so-called war on drugs that has served only to create an enormously profitable narcotics trade that employs violence and intimidation to maintain its stranglehold on communities and lives. We willingly absorb growing debt to borrow billions from foreign sources to finance our wars, while suggesting that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society find support through charitable efforts. We bemoan failing schools and fractured families that are not active in or supportive of their children's education, but we will not commit the resources needed to provide adequate facilities, qualified teachers, recreation opportunities and afterschool activities. And we glorify shallow consumption that fosters near-riot conditions upon the release of a new athletic shoe, while barely a peep of protest is heard as our political process becomes something bought, paid for and controlled by privileged interests.

The consequences of these historic and present-day factors occasionally manifest themselves in our revitalized downtown, such as when large groups of young people are fighting with each other, a convenience store is the scene of afterschool mayhem, or rival gangs take their petty disputes to downtown streets. When these things happen, there are bound to be — as there have been recently — calls for more police and more effective law enforcement. The aim of this, of course, is to keep our reclaimed downtown safe for those with the means to enjoy it, and to preserve its economic vitality and income production. All well and good.

But it will do nothing to change the effects of decisions we have made and the policies we have adopted that have contributed to the blight of our urban communities for half a century. If we just want an urban oasis on the water, we have one worth maintaining. But if we want a true city, it will take a far larger commitment — along with a profound change of hearts and minds.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email is rdburke@ober.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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