Always looking, always hoping, for Baltimore to find its groove

"Plenty of us wonder when this city will ever get into a groove — that is, a steady improvement in quality of life."
"Plenty of us wonder when this city will ever get into a groove — that is, a steady improvement in quality of life."

What happens is, you’re walking along a sidewalk in the city of Baltimore, or you’re looking out a bus window, or you’re driving down a street, and suddenly you see something that was not there before, and it’s like, “When did that happen?”

This experience occurs more often than you might think. Last spring, I discovered new construction and rowhouses being rehabbed in a dozen places in East Baltimore. A few weeks ago, I came upon a stunning mural at the end of a Remington street that included some recently renovated homes. The other day, I suddenly noticed new construction along the west side of Key Highway, a $66 million development called Bainbridge Federal Hill, representing another 224 apartments. I was a little shocked to see it.


The Bainbridge Companies plans a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday of a 224-unit unit apartment project on Key Highway in Federal Hill.

And part of the shock is this: People with access to capital apparently still believe in Baltimore. Some days — a lot of days, in fact — the city feels like a dysfunctional mess. (“Baltimore among top 10 worst cities for Amazon package thefts” was our most recent achievement.) You hear pessimistic talk all the time. But then, one morning, you’re driving along and construction cranes come into view and you say to yourself, “When did that happen?”

Then I check the latest homicide numbers.

That might sound like a macabre leap. But, when you’re Baltimore-brained, when you’re hanging on to see whether Our City of Perpetual Recovery grows again, these things are top of mind. Last year, during a visit to the Stadium Square development on the south side, I took in all the impressive views and suddenly said to the partners, “If we could just stop the homicides.”

A three-block-long complex in South Baltimore signs another office tenant and its developers say they will break ground on another building in coming months.

I am not the only one who thinks this way. Plenty of us wonder when this city will ever get into a groove — that is, a steady improvement in quality of life. You can measure Baltimore’s progress by building permits, but you have to factor in the other metrics — homicides and homelessness, drug addiction, the presence of panhandlers, the amount of trash in the streets, whether the schools are improving — to get a full picture.

I checked: Homicides are down, year over year. By the end of August 2017, there were 235 killings in the city. Eight months into 2018, there were 194. This month started with six homicides through the first eight days. So, while there’s still too much violence, the trend is a little better than last year, and the year before, and the year before — three years of more than 300 homicides, marking Baltimore, per capita, the deadliest city in the country.

We went through a terrible period like this before, in the 1990s. But we came out of it for a while. Martin O’Malley was mayor back then, and his administration instituted Citistat, a data-driven system of accountability for city agencies, and it focused hard on getting crime under control.

As another violent year dawns in Baltimore City, with almost a homicide a day, a much more all-encompassing and coordinated plan is needed to staunch the bleeding. I propose a public health approach, where we identify the vectors or root causes that lead to certain conditions and address them.

Peter Beilenson was health commissioner. I spoke to him recently, just before he left for a new job in California. I asked why he thought Baltimore had not been able to get in a groove of steady, general improvement. He mentioned a program that made a significant dent in crime, Operation Safe Kids.

“In 2002, we had 32 juvenile homicides,” Beilenson said. “We were number one in the country. Not in rate, in number.”


Beilenson put case managers to work on 100 teenage boys who had been involved with guns and drugs. They tracked the kids to keep them out of trouble; representatives of an array of city agencies provided the kids with whatever services they needed.

It worked. The operation showed a 43 percent drop in supervised kids getting into trouble between 2002 and 2005, with only one homicide among the boys who participated.

But here’s the thing: Operation Safe Kids didn’t last, and, says Beilenson, that points to one of the problems with Baltimore, why the city has been unable to find a groove: Strategies that work do not survive changes in administrations.

“With each change of mayoralty, for somewhat understandable reasons, you lose oftentimes the better program because it wasn’t that mayor’s program,” Beilenson says. “Mayors want to do things that have a quick hit, that bring them attention and bring them positive reviews in the first two, three, four years.”

The anti-violence program Roca begins its work in Baltimore this week: hounding some of the city's most dangerous young men in the hopes of creating relationships that will disrupt the city’s cycle of violence.

He thinks that a non-governmental organization needs to oversee city programs so that the good ones survive changes in City Hall. He mentioned the Greater Baltimore Committee, for instance, or the the United Way. “The United Way can be a convener,” Beilenson says. “It’s an ongoing entity that has long-serving board members who could hold people’s feet to the fire. The Association of Baltimore Area Grant Makers, or the major foundations — they all care deeply about these things. Because they have the long-term focus they can stay with things longer. ... There’s got to be some way to make sure the programs that are working, stay working.”