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Rodricks: Breaking away from Baltimore's past

In his political history of Baltimore, Matt Crenson observes that the Queen City of the Patapsco Drainage Basin faced major obstacles during its early development that likely contributed to a kind of municipal inferiority complex.

“History endows places with personalities,” writes Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University, in “Baltimore: A Political History,” to be published next month by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

The city started as a small town in colonial Maryland, under the heavy boot of the provincial government in Annapolis. Baltimore had no political power, it was economically stunted. Other cities on the East Coast got off to a better start and grew faster.

In the early part of the 19th century, about 30 years after its incorporation, Baltimore became, along with Maryland, a major investor in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, a quasi-public venture in state capitalism. Travel and commerce by rail might have been the next big thing in the late 1820s, but the B&O struggled for years and made frequent financial demands on the city. The city borrowed money and, by 1840, Baltimore’s biggest municipal expenditure was interest on debt for the railroad. That meant the city had to limit other important investments for sewers, schools, police.

“Perhaps the most jarring shock to Baltimore’s economy was the failure of the B&O Railroad, the city’s signature enterprise,” Crenson writes. “The company could not cover the bonds issued to pay for its construction costs. It stopped paying dividends in 1888.”

When the B&O emerged from bankruptcy in 1899, its owners were in New York and Chicago. Other local companies were bought out during the age of the robber barons, Crenson notes, and Baltimore became a branch-office town, another development that worked for decades against the city’s self-image.

Local leaders recognized that the city needed to expand manufacturing, and it did. But, Crenson writes, Baltimore was an “old-fashioned town” that lagged behind other cities in that regard. The Civil War had made local bankers and investors more conservative and more easily satisfied with meager returns on low-risk investments in manufacturing.

Then there was a massive fire that destroyed all of downtown in 1904, another major setback. The city legalized segregation in housing in 1910. It saw the rise and fall of industry during and after World War II. It experienced rioting in 1968, robust white flight and steady population loss for several decades. All of this is covered in Crenson’s book, and all of it adds up to a fascinating narrative about a port city that had so much going for it, so much potential, but potential either stunted or never realized.

Which gets us to 2017, and what we talk about when we talk about Baltimore: The distance between its potential and its reality.

Crenson’s book brings to mind questions: Does the city’s past constrain its present? Are we still afflicted with collective self-consciousness and inferiority, in what former Mayor Martin O’Malley once called a “culture of failure”?

How much longer do we live with the surreal, half great-half horrible condition where, for instance, two people are shot, one of them fatally, in West Baltimore on Friday around 12:45 p.m., at the exact hour my friend and I are enjoying an excellent lunch in a Hampden restaurant that last year underwent a $1 million renovation?

Will it always be like this, with some parts of the city strong, rising and thriving while others struggle with poverty, drugs and guns? Will the hundreds of thousands of us who live here, work here or at least care about the place ever see a city-wide renaissance?

Imagine a year of just 100 homicides. Even twice that would be an improvement over where we have been for the last two-plus years, and where we are today, with more than 200 killings before August.

I make no apology for the leap from Crenson’s excellent book to the grim topic of homicides. There is no avoiding it. It is right in front of us.

It is hard to think about Baltimore, in any respect, without thinking about the insane rate of killings that occur here. This year, there has been roughly one per day, and while the police commissioner seems to be responding smartly, and with urgency, a citizen takes little comfort that the mayor — winner of the Democratic primary in a heavily Democratic city in April 2016 — is just getting around to formulating a crime-reduction plan.

It might seem like a stretch to equate the persistent drug addiction and violence with Baltimore’s history of unrealized potential and lingering inferiority. But it’s not. Breaking this cycle — achieving sustainable progress in reducing poverty, crime and addiction — takes recognition of Baltimore’s history, and defiance of it. It means getting out of this mess we’re in. It means demanding the best effort from police, politicians, all of us. It means not letting the past constrain our future.

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