Because of the pandemic, I have not worked in the newsroom of The Baltimore Sun since March of 2020 and have made only a couple of trips to the Sun building at Port Covington on the south side of the city. I was there the other day for the first time in several months and counted seven cranes standing above buildings under construction as the next taxpayer-subsidized “city within a city” takes shape. It was mildly shocking to see how much work has progressed at Port Covington — in some ways impressive and encouraging, in other ways surreal.
Surreal because of everything else.
Because of the continuing and depressing violence, shootings and homicides across the city.
Because of the latest report from the U.S. Census Bureau showing further decline in Baltimore’s population.
And because of what I recently saw in another part of the city — vacant houses in Harlem Park on the west side, an area of immense potential described in a new master plan, but with almost no public or private investment. The contrast with Port Covington was striking, and the status of Harlem Park speaks to the recent population loss.
It’s not white flight that’s been driving it. It’s the lack of investment in the old neighborhoods of the so-called Black butterfly, with its geographic wings spreading west and east, separated by what’s known as the white L, the north-south stretch of the city with a sharp turn to the southeast.
If you live in a relatively safe neighborhood where you see efforts at renewal or at least community stability, if you can afford and like city life, you’re less inclined to flee. But if you’ve lived in a place that gets no love — none in the recent past and none foreseeable — then your patience wears thin, your resolve weakens. Even more significantly, when residents leave or die, those areas do not attract new residents.
I asked Mayor Brandon Scott about the recent population loss during an interview at City Hall on Monday.
“Anyone who’s been paying attention to the Baltimore story should not be surprised by this,” he said. “Look at where the loss is.”
Clearly, he says, the exodus has been from mostly Black neighborhoods.
“For all these folks out there saying, ‘Brandon is just talking this race stuff, and equity and investing in these neighborhoods’ — now they see why,” he says. “Because in that Butterfly, you’re seeing people who are saying, ‘OK, I’ve had enough of being ignored, of my neighborhood being disinvested, being treated like I don’t matter.’”
Scott has made equity a guiding principle in the development of his administration’s priorities. He emphasized it when he was in City Council, when he ran for mayor and when he took the oath of office in December. He’s talking about a better balance in how the city does everything, from seeding development to how it procures goods and services.
“We are pivoting away from the status quo to enforce inclusive policies and growth strategies,” Scott says. “That’s why equity remains a top priority and we’ll be focused on it.
“It’s not just about changing the narrative. Changing the narrative only happens by changing the way the city operates so people know we’re working to make Baltimore more equitable. We can’t have another [public relations] campaign. We have to actually change the city. We have to build trust, cultivate an inclusive economy by encouraging Black- and women-owned businesses, and make sure residents who live in those areas that have been historically underserved see the city investing in them.”
That’s been the missing piece for years, says Seema Iyer, who keeps the city under a microscope at the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore. Population loss occurs where people see no investment in their communities, and where little effort goes into attracting newcomers. Iyer has been harshly critical — and she’s far from alone — of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision in 2015 to kill the $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project. The Red Line would have been huge for neglected stretches of West Baltimore and possibly limited the city’s population losses.
The data back that up. Harlem Park sits within a couple of blocks of the Red Line route. Nearby is Sandtown-Winchester, Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. Those areas combined lost nearly 30% of their population between 2010 and 2020. South Baltimore, meanwhile, grew by 28%. (And it will grow even more if Port Covington becomes the tech hub its developers have been working toward.)
That leaves Scott to focus on the neglected parts of town — neglected residents and businesses — and he wants to use some of Baltimore’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act to fund a growth strategy. His approach might be called, “build it and they will stay, and others will come.” Scott wants to render basic services with a modernized city government: Stop the violence, get the trash picked up, push Black homeownership and affordable housing, keep and attract middle-income and immigrant families. Do those things and the population of a smarter, safer Baltimore might stabilize and even grow again.
“We’re not going to be an administration that just goes out and says, ‘OK, we’re going to focus on bringing in new people.’ No. We have to invest in people who have stayed here through all of this crap and make sure they feel that this is their city still.”