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Baltimore's destiny: a 'regional poorhouse'?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Relocation: Rusk's radical proposal to save the city and suburbs

Is ethnic cleansing the answer to dying cities' problems? If we "relocate" poor blacks, would that help the city get well and keep its suburbs from getting sick?

David Rusk says so in "Baltimore Unbound: Creating a Greater Baltimore Region for the Twenty-first Century." (The Abell Foundation, distributed by The Johns Hopkins University Press. 159 Pages. $14.95 paperback).

And when David Rusk speaks, people listen. He is the hottest urban expert in the nation today. He is constantly on the road, delivering speeches to troubled mayors and state and county officials. He does scholarly studies for private and governmental clients. Important studies, that people actually read and that have consequences. For example, his economic and social comparison of cities competing for a new National Football League franchise was a factor in the NFL's going with the cities he said were tops, Charlotte (his client) and Jacksonville.

Rusk is in great demand because he can dish the statistics with the best of the professors at universities and the pay-per-view think tanks. I think he's memorized the data for every census tract in every large metropolitan area. And he's smart. He knows what those numbers mean. And he's clever. He can take a lot of often seemingly contradictory and/or incoherent facts and trends and make a compelling and logical theory out of them.

He made his reputation that way with his 1993 book, "Cities Without Suburbs" (The Woodrow Wilson Center Press and The Johns Hopkins University Press. 147 Pages. $29.00; $13.95 paperback). He argued there that only "elastic" cities can survive, much less thrive. That is, cities that can s-t-r-e-t-c-h their boundaries to keep the suburban middle class (mostly white) on their voting and tax rolls. The little book struck a nerve, got a lot of press attention and for a book of its kind jumped off the bookstore shelves. It went through seven printings and has just come out in a second edition. He has risen above expert consultant class to guru-dom.

Why? Well, as I said, he knows his stuff; he is believed by politicians and businessmen the way scholars (and journalists) are not, because unlike them he has actually been elected something (mayor of Albuquerque) and dealt with real problems. Also, he writes well. A narrative moves his river of data and analysis along, and story and data always fit. I ran out of high-liter as I read along. That this is rare I noted for the umpteenth time, reading along with "Baltimore Unbound" a new Urban Institute book, "Housing Mobility: Promise or Illusion," which also looks at moving people out of slums and ghettos to suburbia.

Well, I've kept you waiting long enough. Does this guy really want to run poor blacks out of town? You bet. He writes that Baltimore, which is as inelastic as a city can get and will soon be "a second Detroit" the way things are going, has got to take "radical" action to shuck its role of being the metropolitan "poorhouse."

This is especially true for poor blacks who, because of discrimination and other factors, are compressed into ghettos where everybody is poor. That breeds crime, other anti-social behavior and hopelessness into a critical mass that scares increasing numbers of middle class and working whites and blacks out to the suburbs, to live, to work, to shop, to play. Pretty soon the city will have no resources to deal with the problems of these black poor. Poor whites can and do move to opportunity, even if they stay poor.

Mitigate ghetto life

Other cities with concentrated black slums have been able to obtain the resources and mitigate ghetto life by annexing or consolidating with suburbs. Baltimore probably can't do that. The state constitution and an unwilling General Assembly won't allow it. So, says Mr. Rusk, break up those black slums by requiring every suburban county in the Baltimore metro region to take its "fair share."

How? By having the General Assembly create a "Metropolitan Council" that could require counties and private developers to provide housing for the poorest of the poor and set relatively uniform property tax rates for the city and counties to raise the money to build the new public housing (and, in the process, make it less likely that tax rates would determine business and homeowning decision-making, to high-tax Baltimore City's detriment).

I am a fan of Mr. Rusk. I don't know a 10th as much as he knows. I don't understand urban and suburban social dynamics half as well as he does. I've never been elected dog-catcher. So I hesitate to argue with him.

Pause.

I say without equivocation that his proposal for Baltimore is too little, too much and too late.

It's too little because the Metropolitan Council would only require 470 new "deep subsidy" public housing units for the poorest of the poor each year in the suburbs (and 30 in the city). That won't change the character of the worst slums enough to keep them from spreading elsewhere in the city.

It's too much because even that is politically impossible. The General Assembly is not likely to create a Metropolitan Council with the right to mandate the building of public housing for the city's poor blacks in the suburbs.

And it is certainly too much to expect the General Assembly to take away from counties the right to keep their property taxes low. There are crackers in Baltimore County who would welcome with open arms Rodney King and Willie Horton as next door neighbors before they would agree to have their taxes raised so that Baltimore City's could go down.

Finally, the Rusk proposal is too late because Baltimore City is no longer worth saving for most people in the metropolitan area. Most people may be wrong, but they are still most people. In a democratic society, the most get their way.

Rusk shows that not only population has moved out of the city, but wealth and jobs. Rusk shows that because of the city's extreme inelasticity, it has declined to a third-tier partner in the region in the past generation. His charts show that from 1966-1986, the city's share of the metro residential property tax base declined from 38 percent to 18 percent and its share of the commercial/industrial tax base from 55 percent to 31 percent. It's much worse by now. The city? Who needs it?

The Suburbs need the city

I myself am impressed and swayed by Rusk's argument that the suburbs do need the city, and that unless they rescue it, they will suffer in the long run, but ultimately I know and half agree with those who will prevail: the apparently cold-hearted (even red-necked) suburbanites who say to the city, "drop dead!"

We missed our chance in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Another thoughtful urban expert, George Sternlieb of Rutgers (in Newark, N.J.), uttered a great truism in 1969: "The suburban way of life absorbs the wealth and increasingly sets the dominant tone of American life."

Some cities accepted that as a historical imperative. They co-opted, or, it seems to me more correct to say, allowed themselves to be co-opted by, their suburbs, and some didn't. We are one that didn't. One that did was Indianapolis. It merged with Marion County in 1970. Had it not, Rusk says, and had Baltimore City and County merged at about that time, today Indianapolis would not have experienced its subsequent impressive downtown building boom, and Baltimore would still have the Colts.

To end on a positive note, maybe that is the argument Rusk and others who want to save Baltimore City ought to be making to the powers that be here, in Towson, Ellicott City and Annapolis. Get together now, one way or another, or in a decade you'll be TC booing the Charlotte Orioles on television.

Theo Lippman Jr. is an editorial writer for The Sun. He has written about urban developments from a dozen cities and is the author of the 1972 book "Spiro Agnew's America: The Vice President and the Politics of Suburbia."

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