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Solutions for city, solutions for suburbs

The Baltimore Sun

Few things are as tiresome as listening to a couple of middle-aged suburbanites, neither of whom live within 30 miles of Baltimore, trash the city, smugly ridicule efforts to improve the social conditions at the heart of its most challenging problems and dismiss the idea that some people might actually want to live here.

I heard such prattle the other day, after Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, a young politician not yet infected with cynicism, staged a series of news media events to promote Baltimore as a place to live for some of the thousands of families expected to move to Maryland in the next five years as part of military base realignment.

The two 'burbanites found the idea that anyone would want to move to Baltimore laughable.

I've gotten to the point where I don't listen to this cackling for very long - and hardly at all anymore: Heard it all before, learned nothing from it.

Cracking sarcastic about Bad Baltimore is one of the easiest things to do, but what does it get us? I'm interested in ideas and solutions, people who are active and directly engaged. Like many others, I want the city to be better than it is today. I feel that way out of civic spiritedness, and because it's good for my property values - and, believe it or not, the property values of my friends in the suburbs.

Those who ridicule the city and offer nothing in the way of a suggestion - who needs them?

Far more people, including many social progressives who made the choice to raise their families in Baltimore's suburbs, understand something the dinosaurs don't: A better Baltimore means a better metropolitan area, and that means a better quality of life for all.

"We live in a profoundly interconnected world, with interwoven destinies," Cory Booker, the young mayor of Newark, N.J. wrote in The New York Times last week, calling for a broad-based solution to crime, our burgeoning prisons and recidivism. "This is not an urban problem or a suburban problem. It is not a black problem or a white problem."

That goes for every problem in our midst - the violent crime, the struggling schools, the concentration of poverty, the lack of jobs and investment in wide swaths of old, forgotten Baltimore, and the pressure that new growth has put on the suburbs as a result.

Fly up to the clouds with me.

If you were looking at the Baltimore metropolitan area from the sky, and considering where we might suggest all those defense workers from New Jersey and Virginia should live, you'd say the city of Baltimore makes total sense - that's where the vacancies are.

There's room for probably 200,000 more people in the city.

The suburbs are already congested and can only grow so much.

It's Baltimore that has all the opportunity for what the planners call "in-fill."

And yet, we all know the realities on the ground.

The city's violent crime and its national reputation for it - amplified by television programs - hurt all these efforts. The lack of confidence in the public schools hurts these efforts. We can't expect thousands of families to suddenly move here because of great deals on rowhouses in need of rehab.

Violent crime might have dropped overall in recent years, but the homicides and shootings are up again. Doesn't matter that it's usually guys with criminal records killing guys with criminal records. It happens here, within our borders, and the whole city - and, believe it or not, the whole metropolitan area - suffers because of it. Progress in schools - it's there, and it has been documented and chronicled. But we still haven't reached the tipping point where more middle-class families than not would consider staying in Baltimore and putting their kids in the public schools.

The military base realignment points up the problem and the great challenge. Here's an opportunity to repopulate Baltimore with thousands of families, and yet only a small percentage is expected to land here.

If you live in the suburbs, you should care about this - and many of you do. Polls conducted for The Sun in recent years showed that most Marylanders think their communities are growing too fast, with more than 60 percent of people in Anne Arundel and Howard counties showing the greatest discontent, and Republicans having even stronger concerns about the pace of growth than Democrats.

So along comes base realignment - an opportunity for the state to grow, but in an area where there's real room. Every new family that could with confidence move to Baltimore would be one less family putting additional pressure on Bel Air or Ellicott City, Crofton or Eldersburg.

But we're not there yet.

It's a missed opportunity.

I'm not just saying this to express regret, throw up my hands and say, "What can you do?"

It's the "do" part we should be talking about, getting to the great unfinished business of the greatest half-city in America: saving the next generation of children from drug-dealing and violent crime, getting more cops on the street, treating drug addiction as a public health crisis, teaching nonviolent offenders a craft so they can find employment when they leave prison, pushing for more investment and jobs in the inner city, pushing for more progress in the public schools. We all need to get together on this - the state, the city and the counties - because, believe it or not, we are profoundly interconnected.

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