Baltimore's three tyrannies [Commentary]

Since coming to Baltimore nearly 35 years ago to work for the Goldseker and, later, Baltimore Community foundations, I have had the good fortune to observe and participate in the city's civic and philanthropic life during a period of profound change in the region's economic and social fortunes.

And while the very difficult challenges of poverty, low educational attainment and crime are still very much with us, Baltimore's future seems, to me at least, a lot brighter than it was in I first arrived.


Baltimore's ability to face successfully the social and economic challenges of creating a new economy and at the same time offering educational and employment opportunity to everyone who lives here is being constrained, however, by some deeply ingrained ways of thinking. These habits of mind continue to affect our collective perception of what is possible for us to accomplish as a community. And whether you are a native or relative newcomer, it's important to acknowledge and understand them.

I call them "The Three Tyrannies."


The first is the Tyranny of Nostalgia. Every town, especially those that have been around as long as Baltimore, has to some degree an affinity for the glories, real and imagined, of its past. Nostalgia has its place, but we can't let sentimentality be an impediment to our need to be more nimble, better equipped and ready to adapt to global economic competition. While Baltimore has become better at accepting new ideas and people than it once was, we need to be intentional about it, even if it means letting go of older ways of thinking, if this community is going to compete successfully over the long term for economic growth — and especially for intellectual talent. The idea is to honor the best of our past and get rid of the worst, while simultaneously embracing the future.

Second is the Tyranny of the Small Detail. This is our tendency to focus on the small negative within a larger, more positive reality. It's the tendency to complain about problems and limited financial resources and blame somebody else for the situation, rather than recognizing our considerable assets and forging new collaborations that build on them. In fact, we are increasingly seeing that successful collaborations to improve Baltimore are precisely those that combine the capital and intellectual assets of institutions, government and community leaders. These collaborations come in many shapes and sizes, from the Homewood Community Partnership Initiative and Baltimore Waterfront Partnership to more modest community-inspired initiatives like Friends of Patterson Park and the neighborhood gardens springing up all over town.

The third oppressive habit is the Tyranny of Modest Expectations. Churchill famously said about Clement Attlee, his successor as British prime minister, that he was a modest man who had much to be modest about. To the contrary, I've long thought Baltimore's ambitions for itself have been far too modest, considering its impressive assets: its East Coast location, natural and cultural amenities, $17-plus billion a year higher education economy and world class medical institutions, to name only the most obvious.

Even now, I occasionally hear the civic mantra we heard far too often in earlier times in response to a new or, in local opinion, too ambitious an idea: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." It's my sense that we have been far too slow to recognize and capitalize on the city's potential. For a very long time, natives to Baltimore would be surprised to learn how much my family and I enjoyed living here. Only recently has Baltimore begun to think of itself as an artistic, intellectual and economically desirable place to live and work.

The ultimate lesson, I believe, is that as we think about our community, the challenges we face, and the city and region we would most like it to become, let's make sure we don't let how we think about it get in the way.

Timothy D. Armbruster is a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is based at the Institute For Health and Social Policy. His email is

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