We’re not really talking about rats, are we? Or rather, we’re not only talking about rats.
“Our president has an extraordinary ability to find the nastiest way to get back at someone,” Alan Mallach, a researcher of blight in Baltimore, observes dryly.
All glinting eyes and flicking tails as they dart across an alley, rats draw such revulsion that they’ve become shorthand for all that ails a city like Baltimore: The crumbling housing. The dangerous streets. The aging infrastructure. The frustration with local leadership over why the problems persist.
But to Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington, President Donald Trump’s depiction of Baltimore as a hellscape of crime, political corruption and, yes, rats is hardly the city he has studied and written about — most recently in his book “The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America.”
“It’s sort of middle of the pack,” he said. “It’s far from the most distressed city in America.”
That may seem like damning with faint praise, but Mallach is among those whose study of Baltimore leaves him with a more nuanced conclusion: While burdened by decades of abandonment and racially discriminatory policies like redlining, the city has used the limited resources available to address its multiple problems, but even when successful, the efforts haven’t lifted neighborhoods equally.
And that’s not unique to Baltimore, he said.
“I’m not sure there’s a secret weapon out there. Baltimore has to figure out — and no city has this one nailed — how to share the benefits of its economy equitably,” Mallach said. “So everyone has a real shot of getting access to the jobs that do exist, so every kid has a shot at the education they need.”
If the Republican president only recently discovered Baltimore’s woes, it’s hardly breaking news to residents, many of whom in fact take a certain swaggering pride in owning their city’s grittiness.
“People are proud of their municipal inferiority complex,” says Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins professor emeritus of political science, and author of “Baltimore: A Political History.”
“They know they’re not New York or Washington, and they don’t want to be," he said. "Baltimoreans are aware of human failings, moral and otherwise. They don’t have high expectations.”
But even such cynics would likely note that Trump’s jaundiced portrayal ignores entire swaths of the city: from the long-established anchor institutions like Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, Baltimore and the range of entirely livable neighborhoods, to newer sproutings of luxury apartments, “maker spaces” and the kinds of amenities that have attracted college graduates and entrepreneurs to give Baltimore a shot.
To point from afar at only the trash-strewn alleys or bleak streets where trees grow through abandoned houses ignores both the historical reasons for how they ended up that way, and the patchwork progress that Baltimore has made in remedying at least some of the blight, said Mallach, who was hired several years ago to evaluate the Vacants to Value program designed to raze or renovate the city’s thousands of abandoned buildings.
Mallach said the program has done “a pretty impressive job of moving properties into the hands of developers to use their own money to redevelop. But it only works in those parts of the city where there’s already value.
“Baltimore does not have the intense economic energy,” he said, “that would push revitalization across the city.”
As The Baltimore Sun has previously reported, Baltimore has been demolishing about 500 vacant buildings a year and developers have been renovating a few hundred more. But because other buildings end up vacant as their owners move or die, the total number of what West Baltimore resident Rodney Lewis calls “abandominiums” has hovered around 17,000 for a decade.
Lewis, 60, said Trump, rather than insult Baltimore, should provide funding or other incentives for vacants to be renovated — like the dollar homes program offered under Democratic Mayor William Donald Schaefer in the 1970s and 1980s, with the support of federal Housing and Urban Development funds.
“Let people fix up these places," said the retired Department of Public Works employee," and let it be their property.”
But federal funds to cities have declined in recent years. HUD funding to the city’s Housing Authority, for example, fell from $386 million in fiscal year 2015 to $330 million last year.
Baltimore’s current state is in a sense a reflection of abandonment, said Crenson. Residents have fled to the suburbs, with the city shrinking from a peak population of nearly 950,000 in 1950, when it was the sixth-largest U.S. city, to the current 602,000. Businesses have left, leaving the city without a single Fortune 500 company’s headquarters, and in some cases so too has the level of commitment of state and federal governments, Crenson said.
A policy like Trump’s tax cuts, for example, likely hasn’t helped Baltimore much, he said.
“The millionaires, the corporations benefited,” Crenson said. “And we don’t have them.”
He also points to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s cancellation of the Red Line light rail project four years ago as another policy decision that hurt the city, halting much-needed public transit that could have helped West Baltimoreans get to jobs on the East Side.
“The state bears some responsibility. The federal government bears some responsibility,” he said. “The city by itself doesn’t have the resources. It can’t be expected to pull itself by its bootstraps because it doesn’t have bootstraps.”
Any discussion of Baltimore’s woes invariably turns to crime, perhaps the largest blot on its image, even if it is intertwined with issues of the economy, blight, race and all the other inequities.
For Daniel Webster, a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, even nearly three decades of studying Baltimore and in particular its crime trends leaves him struggling to understand the persistence of its woes. But he will point to the night of April 28, 2015, and how it halted what had been some progress in alleviating crime and exacerbated the underlying tensions between police and parts of the community.
That, of course, was the night such pent-up tensions exploded in a riot after the funeral of Freddie Gray, who had died of injuries suffered in police custody. In its aftermath, the police chief would be fired, the mayor would opt out of running for reelection and crime spiked to distressing heights.
“After the riots, homicides went up 60 to 70 percent almost overnight,” Webster said. "They haven’t really subsided since.
“I just want to underscore how cataclysmic the event was, and even if we had absolutely the best people in place, it would have been a struggle,” he said. “Post-Freddie Gray, the city’s in crisis and you needed strong leadership at City Hall and the police department. And I think the record shows we didn’t have the leadership we needed in that crisis, period.”
The riot opened a fissure that laid bare much of Baltimore’s underlying fragility, he says — the poverty, the drug trade, the inequitable policing as depicted in the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights investigation of the force, the continued abandonment.
“So many things were taxed beyond their capabilities,” Webster said. “These things feed on one another. They make more people, including police officers, flee the city.”
But there is reason to hope for better days ahead, in Webster’s view. He said the new police commissioner, Michael Harrison, is “absolutely the right person at this challenging time and place.”
Others, too, point to changes that could help move Baltimore forward.
Mallach said Baltimore’s housing could be improved by the city’s stepped-up licensing and inspection of rental properties to include one- and two-family dwellings — which make up about half of the market. He also lauds efforts by Live Baltimore to lure people to the city, taking them on trolley tours to show off neighborhoods and providing information about tax and other incentives for home buyers.
“That’s really important,” he said. “This idea, when you think of economic development, getting more people to live in your city, it’s a form of economic development.”
Crenson said Trump’s slap at Baltimore could light a fire that leads to improvements.
“This has roused Baltimore like nothing I’ve seen in the past five years,” Crenson said. “There’s a community spirit that perhaps the mayor could harness, using Baltimore itself to make appeals to the state and federal government.”
At least some residents have already been trying to fix their community, long before Trump landed on a convenient target.
“I started complaining in December because the alley was cluttered up with trash,” said Marsha Bannister, 41, who lives on Arlington Avenue in West Baltimore. “The people just come and throw trash over there. It’s a shame. We try to get rid of the rats, but how can we get rid of the rats if the community is not helping?”
It still doesn’t mean that Trump was speaking the truth, she said, or that he should disparage her city.
“It was sad when the man got on TV and just lied," Bannister said. "I lived here my whole life. This is a nice place to live.”
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Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Doug Donovan contributed to this article.