Baltimore needs a citywide approach to street design

Baltimore’s Department of Transportation needs comprehensive policy reform and cultural change. This is the aim of the Complete Streets bill introduced by City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, set to have its first hearing Wednesday. By addressing the design of streets with city-wide policy, Complete Streets puts the responsibility on decision makers to improve safety for all, rather than forcing individual communities to fight for safety, street by street.

More than 800 civic associations claim to represent Baltimore’s 225 neighborhoods. Some emerged in the 1970s as a way for then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer to attract and distribute federal funds for urban renewal. Some were formed in the civil rights era to resist efforts of social engineering designed to integrate neighborhoods that black residents feared would decentralize black wealth and power.

Some, like The Roland Park Company, were backed by foreign investors at the turn of the 20th century with roots in the slave trade, and used language like “suburb,” “homogenous” and “healthy” to market the Roland Park development to new residents, according to Harvard historian Paige Glotzer. The planned community was designed to attract residents concerned with the increasing challenges of city life.

No matter when these boundaries were created, across the city they are used to concentrate political power, lobby for resources and reflexively block projects ranging from new restaurants to the Red Line to bike lanes.

A case in point can be found in Ms. Glotzer’s forthcoming book, “Building Suburban Power: The Business of Exclusionary Housing Markets” (Columbia University Press). When Baltimore began to seek ways to address sanitation, Roland Park developers offered to pay the initial costs of laying the pipe to connect to the city’s new sewer system. The city’s Sewer Commission then abandoned plans to concentrate resources in dense neighborhoods with high rates of disease and death due to poor sanitary conditions, and instead built sewer lines in the new, sparsely populated community of Roland Park.

This pattern of inequity has persisted for a hundred years.

This is now on display in projects from Roland Park to Canton, where some of the most affluent and well resourced neighborhoods in the city will complain of things like plummeting property values to block projects that seek to make neighborhoods more accessible and safe.

“Roland Avenue Initiative,” a nonprofit whose mission is “to shape a better future for the Roland Park/University Parkway corridor by soliciting funds from the general public to augment public funding of the Baltimore City Government,” even goes so far as implying a road with an all-ages bike lane could lead to disinvestment, methadone clinics, blight and vacancy. The irony is in their purported commitment to restoring “historic character,” while effectively ignoring the historical context of the strategies they employ.

Their fervor in pursuing a singular point of view signals an indifference to this past. By giving residents like this credibility, we promote a fortress mentality and a form of liberalism that claims to fight for racial equality while perpetuating an imbalance in power. When neighborhoods with higher property values use that privilege as a leverage point to put pressure on the city for their own interests, we all lose.

At its best, neighborhood organizing can be heroic. Neighborhoods organizing to defend against projects that would cause abject harm is noble and necessary. Destiny Watford organizing Curtis Bay residents against a planned trash incinerator is a recent example. The organizing that protected neighborhoods from Rosemont to Fells Point from being demolished in favor of freeways is a celebrated example from local history. But often neighborhoods use these same tactics to construct strawman arguments to disguise their fear of change.

We must imagine a new way of distributing resources and power. Neighborhoods should always maintain the right to organize and critique city government. But the absence of a comprehensive vision for transportation and land use in this city has meant that city-wide decisions happen in a piecemeal fashion driven by private dollars.

Citizens must think bigger than their neighborhood boundaries and begin to see how asserting one’s tax contributions is ripping a page from the Roland Park Company playbook, a strategy that we must reject moving forward. Imagine the impact of residents from Roland Park combining efforts with residents from West Baltimore to organize for investment that improves the quality of life across the entire city. Not only is that level of organizing possible, but our responsibility to one another as neighbors demands it.

Liz Cornish (liz@bikemore.net) is executive director of Bikemore, Baltimore City’s complete streets advocacy organization.

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