The "great man" approach to history, which credits events to powerful leaders rather than to accident, inertia or teamwork, has many flaws. But the great man version of Baltimore's economic revival is closer to the truth than many such yarns.
William Donald Schaefer presided over the critical acceleration of the downtown renaissance and a selective recovery of neighborhoods when he was Baltimore's mayor from 1971 to 1986. He will probably soon leave public service after losing the recent Democratic primary for re-election as state comptroller.
The next time you eat soft-shell crabs at Phillips, watch Corey Patterson steal second at Camden Yards or goggle at the $400,000 rowhouses on Federal Hill, remember Don Schaefer. If despite its problems the city has become a global model for urban turnaround, he gets as much thanks as anybody. It will be his most important legacy.
He didn't start it, of course. There was a broad coalition of politicians and businesspeople laying ground for reviving Baltimore's seedy waterfront when Schaefer was still a city councilman.
Future Harborplace developer James Rouse was thinking about Baltimore's long-term health even earlier, while Schaefer was still lawyering drunk-driving and divorce cases.
Downtown's Charles Center redevelopment project was launched by the Greater Baltimore Committee and Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro Jr. in the late 1950s. Legislation allowing the Inner Harbor to be rehabilitated went through under Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin in the 1960s.
What Schaefer did, he didn't do alone, as he agrees.
"The renaissance was great, but the renaissance was not Don Schaefer," he said on the phone last week. "The renaissance was a group of people with visions and a city that was ready for a renaissance."
Those people included Bob Embry, the housing commissioner whose "urban homesteading" program helped transform Federal Hill and other neighborhoods; development coordinator Mark K. Joseph, who helped pry money out of Washington; Mark Wasserman, who dealt with the developers; and others.
Schaefer didn't appropriate most of the government money for the turnaround.
Fixing up the waterfront and environs couldn't have happened without many millions in federal development grants and real estate tax breaks. (There were also huge state contributions, including a lottery that helped pay for stadiums.)
Of course he didn't finish the job, either. When he left as mayor, numerous neighborhoods were still blighted, poor and dangerous, as they are today. Anybody who lives in Sandtown-Winchester would laugh at the idea of a "renaissance."
His arrival as mayor marked the early stages of a brutal drain of jobs and population that may not have stopped.
"My verdict on the Schaefer years is still, in broad terms, that the structural problems weren't attacked," says Marc V. Levine, director of the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and a longtime student of the city.
And yet Baltimore might be less attractive, vibrant and sustainable today if Schaefer had not been mayor.
The National Aquarium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Harborplace, homesteading, blocking the expressway through Federal Hill and other developments on his watch didn't turn Baltimore into Paris. But they might have nudged the city away from becoming a Detroit or a Newark.
Schaefer ran with the revival idea in a headlong and sometimes exasperating fashion.
He milked it for gangbuster publicity, clowning as cowboy, admiral or Victorian bather at ribbon cuttings. He browbeat businesspeople into contributing to the effort.
He hired or retained the right aides to make things happen, and if most city sections weren't receiving millions in reinvestment, he tried to give them an equal volume of "You live in a great neighborhood" blather.
Schaefer was the model of the late-20th-century "messiah mayor," credited with miracles and resurrections, wrote C. Fraser Smith in his 1999 Schaefer biography.
"People spoke the word renaissance as if reclamation of a single set of downtown blocks was equal to a rebirth," Smith writes. "Unless they were totally swept away by the excitement, they knew that their language included more hope than actual achievement."
But hope was what Baltimore needed. Hope and a more hospitable downtown may have kept the city from losing even more jobs, people and corporate headquarters. The investments of the 1970s and 1980s laid ground for today's biotech parks, the revival of Canton and the return of apartments and residents to center city.
Schaefer didn't invent Baltimore's comeback, "but it never would have reached where it did except for Schaefer," says Walter Sondheim, the 98-year- old GBC executive and living Baltimore history book. The renewal was initiated, and "what he did was push for it."
And that makes him a great man.