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Immigrants, seek Baltimore


"MARYLAND The Ideal Home for the Immigrant," read a promotional booklet the state published in 1915 to entice people to settle in Maryland.

Recently released 2000 census data show that, 85 years later, immigrants do believe Maryland is an ideal home. One in 12 of the state's residents is foreign-born, a whopping 45 percent increase since 1990.

The lion's share of this influx has gone to Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties. The Asian population jumped 136 percent in Howard alone.

This is healthy for the state but bad news for Baltimore City. Although Asians and Hispanics were the only city groups to post gains in the census, their combined total population accounts for a paltry 3 percent of Baltimore's 651,154 residents.

Hispanics and Asians have been the catalyst for population gains in major cities throughout America. Chicago grew 4 percent since 1990, an increase of 112,000, double what the city expected. One of the main reasons Chicago experienced its first gain in 50 years is an increase in the Hispanic population, more than 200,000 from 1990.

The New York City boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and even the moribund Bronx registered gains, mostly because of increases in Asians and Hispanics.

Immigrants are a rejuvenating elixir for urban areas. The Flushing section of Queens has been transformed from borderline decay into a thriving area by Chinese and Koreans. The Atlantic Avenue corridor in Brooklyn is prospering because of an influx of newcomers from many different Middle East countries. Brighton Beach in Brooklyn is now an energized community of Russian immigrants.

People always describe Baltimore as diverse. They delude themselves. It's a black and white city and, for both races, one with a dwindling population. The city suffers because it has no diversity -- no critical mass of any immigrant group that could turn around one of the many decaying and empty parts of the city.

Indeed, Baltimore always has lacked diversity. According to past census figures, the city's percentage of foreign-born reached a peak of about 15 percent in the 1920s. This was low compared with cities like New York, Chicago and Milwaukee with figures of 30 percent to 40 percent in the same time period.

Many will dispute these figures because of Baltimore's large number of Eastern Europeans who arrived after the Civil War and into the early 1900s. But a large majority of immigrants who arrived in Locust Point at the end of the 19th century kept going west via the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Immigration officials in newspaper accounts of the time confirm this.

A great deal of Baltimore's population growth came from Americans from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Eastern Shore who wanted to take part in the booming economy. The city prospered until the early 1960s, so it didn't need immigrants to re-energize it.

But now the lack of immigrant interest in Baltimore is helping to kill it while other cities are rebounding. It's a mystery why immigrants have bypassed Baltimore, even in the 1990s. The land and property values are dirt cheap compared with some cities.

Instead of hiring a public relations firm to craft Baltimore's image, maybe the city should recruit immigrants. It's certainly not a new strategy.

Today's writer

Charles Belfoure, an architect and co-author of the "Baltimore Rowhouse" (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), has profiled more than 40 neighborhoods for The Sun's Real Estate section.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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