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Rebuilding Baltimore, brick by brick

Why does the reopening of a Baltimore Rite Aid matter so much?

Rarely do people get misty-eyed about the opening of a chain drug store, if only because such outlets are as common in the 21st century American tableau as fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, cookie-cutter emporiums of the cheap and the ordinary. But the reopening of the Rite Aid on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard this week was far from typical. It, like the resurrection of the CVS on Pennsylvania Avenue that was regarded as ground zero of April's conflagration, represents something important — hope that Baltimore can rebuild.

There is a well-worn cliché about a friend in need being a friend indeed, and etymologists have traced similar sayings about the importance of providing help in a crisis as far back as the Ancient Greeks. It's a powerful sentiment. Yet we don't delude ourselves: At some point, corporate executives must make choices based on financial returns, not on faith in people or communities. Even so, Rite Aid and CVS didn't have to rebuild, they might have taken a more cautious approach, they might have cut their losses and left those neighborhoods where the future is most in doubt.

They didn't. We are grateful that they made the choice and suspect many city residents feel the same. But it doesn't end there.

Six months after the riots, Baltimore is still hurting. From hotel bookings and restaurant reservations to casino gambling and museum attendance, business has suffered from a trifecta of adversity, not just the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray and the surge in crime that arrived after that but the lack of cavalry riding in from Washington or Annapolis. No big checks from FEMA, no ambitious stab at urban renewal beyond the usual sprinkling of government-backed loans here and there. To the rest of the country, Baltimore remains yesterday's news, a brief crisis that left those indelible images of rocks thrown, police cars burned and stores looted to be revisited by the national media only when the six police officers accused in Gray's death face legal proceedings.

Yet despite this, there are reasons for genuine optimism. The senior center that was under construction when it was burned down in April rises again at Gay and Chester streets. Baltimore area hospitals are moving to create 1,000 entry-level jobs in exchange for a modest rate increase. The vast majority of the estimated 400 businesses affected by the unrest have either reopened or are rebuilding. Baltimore's non-profits have stepped up their game, organizing neighborhoods at the grassroots level and giving voice to community concerns. Longtime Baltimore benefactor Mark Joseph kicked in $3 million, the third largest donation in the history of the Baltimore Museum of Art, so that the BMA can open a new education center. Last month, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra received a check for $6 million that will also help teach young people. This is not like Baltimore after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when rioting rocked the city, not in the size of the losses nor in the scale of racial division.

And then there are the little victories. The Ellicott City couple that decides to dine in Little Italy not merely because it's a great place to visit but because they want to help, or the Towson family that decides it's a great day for a stroll around the Inner Harbor, or the thousands of athletes who compete in the Baltimore Running Festival, undeterred by events. "We put the hon in marathon," a popular t-shirt reads. In such a manner is a city rebuilt, brick by brick. The job won't be complete tomorrow or next month or next year. But the banner flapping the in the breeze above the Rite Aid, "Now Open!" suggests the task is not impossible.

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