North Avenue is not only one of the longest East-West corridors in the city, but it stands as one of Baltimore’s most historically significant boulevards. From Hilton to Milton, North Avenue connects key anchor institutions like Coppin State and MICA. Along North Avenue lives the story of Baltimore’s arts and culture through the ages. It anchors us to our past with architecturally significant buildings like the Arch Social Club and the North Avenue Market, while buildings like the redeveloped Parkway and Centre theaters provide glimpses into its potential for a brighter future.
While there is great opportunity for a renaissance along North Avenue, it is also a corridor that faces significant challenges. A third of the housing units on North Avenue — 35 percent — are vacant, compared to the citywide average of 17 percent. And the disparities don’t end there: Unemployment is higher, and the average education level is lower compared to the city as a whole.
Based upon those factors alone, it makes sense then that the Maryland Transit Administration and Baltimore City Department of Transportation chose North Avenue when applying for the federal Transit Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program. Despite being the second busiest bus route in the city, business largely fails to thrive along most sections of the corridor. Head east or west out of the central Baltimore community of Station North and you’re left wondering if you are still on the same street.
The $27.3 million North Avenue Rising project is by definition meant to spur economic recovery. But after two years of meetings, both public and private, I am forced to conclude that, as designed, there is little in this project to elevate North Avenue above its current state of decline.
How can one expect to address over 100 years of disinvestment along a 5-mile stretch of road with $27 million? For comparison, the five blocks of Charles Street in front of Johns Hopkins University from 29th street to University Parkway received $25 million of investment from the city and state. Let that sink in: $27 million for 5 miles compared to $25 million for 5 blocks. In a city that has seemingly awoken to the fact that it has an equity problem, I dare you to find me a more egregious example of inequitable investment.
Couldn’t find one? Well let me help you: The city invested nearly $50 million in a 1-mile stretch of Central Avenue — even creating Tax Increment Financing to pay for the bridge to Harbor Point. Now, before you go revoking my economic development credentials, no one is debating the significant value that Harbor Point adds to Baltimore. But even a novice in community development would have to wonder what value North Avenue could hold if the city put an additional $50 million into a road that tens of thousands more people use per day.
This story of unequal investment in the city is as old as Baltimore itself. We continue to repeat the mistakes of the past and wonder why all indicators of prosperity are on the decline. What does it say to our residents when a 5-mile street with major health and economic disparities — which coincidentally connects the black butterfly wings on the racial map of Baltimore (Baltimoreans you know what I’m talking about) — receives crumbs, while the head, thorax and abdomen along Charles Street, also known as the city map’s “white L,” continues to get the whole loaf?
We have to stop seeing economic development in this city as an either/or proposition. Investments like Harbor Point see better returns when neighborhoods like the ones along North Avenue thrive. We must be honest about the impacts of continuing to under-invest in our historically black neighborhoods and acknowledge how these critical infrastructure and transportation investments can and should catalyze residual investments. We must be bold in our vision when we invest in transit and community development so as not to continue to place us further behind other cities.
Until we as a city value the North Avenues like we value the Charles Streets, Baltimore will never realize the great promise that this city still holds, despite all of its challenges.
Maya Angelou was quoted as saying, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
Baltimore, it’s time to do better.
Leon F. Pinkett III (Leon.Pinkett@baltimorecity.gov) represents Baltimore’s Seventh District on the City Council.