Buses, racists and bridging the Baltimore city-suburban divide

Since the Freddie Gray unrest, the divide between Baltimore and its suburbs seems to have grown.

When urban historians tell the story of Baltimore in the years since the Freddie Gray uprising, they’ll have at least three narrative lines to follow: how some institutions, Johns Hopkins University most prominently, doubled-down on their commitment to address the city’s chronic problems; how political leaders, most prominently the Republican governor of Maryland and the Democratic mayors of Baltimore, missed opportunities to summon public will to pull the city out of its tailspin; how the unrest of April 2015, and the three-year surge of violence that followed, deepened the divide between the city and its suburbs.

Once the Maryland National Guard and Baltimore police restored order, the political leadership of the city, the counties and the state had a chance to meld a message of unity and resolve to help Baltimore rise from its day of fires and vandalism. It was the worst of times, and yet the best for a regional strategy. The governor had a historic opportunity to rally bipartisan support, across all boundaries, on behalf of his state’s largest city.


But two months later, Gov. Larry Hogan killed a light rail system that had been 10 years in the making. Another setback came the following year, with the shelving of the long-planned transformation of State Center on the city’s west side. The governor made clear with those actions that the state’s help during his watch would not reach the transformative scale Baltimore needed.

More importantly, we never heard any political leader — or any group of leaders — call for a unified city-suburban effort to help Baltimore get on track toward the kind of economic growth that can stem poverty, crowd out crime and make people in the more stable and affluent counties willing to visit more often.

Kevin Kamenetz, the late Baltimore County executive, was an exception. After the unrest at Penn-North, he asked county residents to patronize city restaurants. He tore up the county’s bill to the city for police help in restoring order. Kamenetz was planning to run for governor at the time, so you can dismiss his actions as efforts to curry favor with city voters. Still, he saw Baltimore’s problems as the region’s problems, and backed up that belief with action.

We don’t get much of that around here. What elected leader urges people in the city and surrounding counties to see themselves as part of a greater whole and to think in terms of greater good? That sentiment is hardly ever expressed, and certainly not in any way that gets into the regional psyche. We have, mostly, a partitioned metropolitan area, with long-standing jurisdictional, cultural and racial divisions. And, based on my soundings of attitudes, those divisions have grown worse since April 2015.

I have heard more ugly comments about Baltimore over the last three years than at any time in the last four decades — and most of the disparagement comes from people who live outside the city and say they want nothing to do with it.

So pardon my lack of shock at the racist flyer that went out this week about cutting bus service from the city to White Marsh Mall. The ugly thoughts the creator of the flyer expressed about black people from Baltimore have been heard and seen before — in opposition to new mass transit lines, and in opposition to affordable housing in the suburbs. The trolls are not alone on this front. Elected officials have rejected proposals to build houses or apartments for the working poor, and they have abided, even amplified, unfounded complaints about transit lines carrying criminals from Baltimore to the ‘burbs.

That’s not leadership. That’s pandering to fears and prejudice.

It’s also short-sighted and unproductive.

Since the Freddie Gray unrest, sociologists at Hopkins and Harvard have provided the results of long, deep research about kids in Baltimore. They found that, over two to three decades, most city children born into poverty stayed in poverty. The Harvard researchers rated Baltimore just about the worst place in the country in social mobility -- that is, getting poor children to a better life as adults. However, children whose families managed to find affordable housing in low-poverty neighborhoods, in the city or suburbs, did much better in terms of jobs and income, education and marriage than children who remained behind.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Baltimore looked at our poorest neighborhoods and listed factors most likely to improve the quality of life in the city and the entire region: Reducing home-to-work travel time for people in low-income neighborhoods — that is, improving, not cutting, public transportation — and increasing the affordable housing for low-income families with kids.

That’s what I’m talking about — big-think regional approach to Baltimore’s problems that would pay off for everyone around here.

We can’t expect racist trolls to think about this stuff — they’re ignorant — but we should expect it from people who call themselves leaders, or else vote them out of office and out of the way.