A couple of weeks ago, a man named Smith wrote from Ellicott City to announce that he’s not going to the Inner Harbor anymore. In fact, he said, he’s going to avoid Baltimore altogether. It was a distressing letter to read.
Smith cited a column I’d written about the Memorial Day chaos at the harbor — teenagers in big numbers, some of them fighting, six arrested for destruction of property and disorderly conduct. A lot of people freaked out about that. So I asked what they thought should be done about it.
“Avoid the Inner Harbor,” was Smith’s idea. “And while I’m at it, avoid Fells Point. Avoid Camden Yards. Avoid Harbor East. Avoid Canton. Avoid the Walters Art Gallery. Avoid the Maryland Zoo. Avoid the Lyric. Avoid the Baltimore Museum of Art. Avoid all of Baltimore City.”
Wow. That’s a lot of avoidance.
But no one is under an obligation to come to Baltimore, Our City of Perpetual Recovery, even for medical treatment at one of the greatest hospitals in the world.
I often get letters like Smith’s, from people who seem to want the stability, relative homogeneity and free parking of the suburbs. Others are more irrational; they appear to think they’ll be shot as soon as they cross the city line.
“I don’t say this with any joy,” Smith went on. “I love all those places, and I have very fond memories of good times at each of them. It makes me sad that my kids won’t know the excitement of going into Baltimore.”
So why make such an extreme decision?
“I’m 52 years old, I live in Howard County, and I may never set foot in Baltimore again in my lifetime,” he wrote. “Sorry, but until the crime situation is fixed, there are a million other fun things to do in other places in Maryland that don’t involve the risk of me being robbed, assaulted, or worse.”
No doubt. There’s no getting around the grim reality of the last four years in Baltimore. Armed robberies per capita in 2017 were lower than they were in 1981, the year after Harborplace opened, but higher than they were just five years ago. Aggravated assaults per capita were down from the levels they reached in 2000, but higher than were in the 1980s. And the rate of homicides in 2017 was again horrible — at 55.7 per 100,000, twice the level of killings that took place in 1980, when Harborplace opened.
It’s terrible. It’s depressing. But keep in mind that, while there is always a risk of something bad happening to a visitor, most of the crime happens to people who live here, and in neighborhoods many blocks from the Inner Harbor. That’s no consolation, just perspective.
“I’ve also been told,” Smith added, “that you just need to know where to go, and what parts of the city to avoid. I feel like I shouldn’t be one wrong turn away from becoming a victim of crime.’”
But you could be one wrong turn from a car accident, one step away from drowning. At some point, fear of Baltimore becomes irrational, and destructive to the city’s recovery from a four-year run of bad.
“The sorry state of Baltimore City,” Smith went on, “is the result of many years of bad policies, poor leadership, bad choices, and large macroeconomic forces.”
Yes, the loss of unionized manufacturing jobs was a big blow to the region, and the city, in particular. Poor leadership? I’ll give you some of that. The recent episode involving the last elected (now former) mayor was another in a series of embarrassing failures.
But Smith might want to add massive white flight after school desegregation, the abandonment of thousands of houses, and utter disinvestment in large swaths of the city — including, most recently, the scrapping of the Red Line and State Center projects.
“When you see another downtown restaurant close,” Smith closed, “or another O’s game with a total attendance of 6,000, or a half-filled Ravens stadium, or when they finally shutter Harborplace, it’s my opinion that will be the result of people just like me who have very reluctantly decided to avoid Baltimore City.”
Restaurants close and open all the time. Orioles attendance has more to do with the quality of the team than anything else. Last season, NFL attendance across the country was at its lowest point in eight years; the Ravens were 12th out of 32 teams in average game attendance. Harborplace? It has suffered from terrible management over the last few years, and it has outlived its purpose.
Look, if the city offers nothing you find important or unique — the restaurants, the harbor, tall ships, the culture (Artscape is July 19-21) the promise of an encounter with someone new and maybe even eccentric, the peculiar entertainment of the rebuilding Orioles — then, to quote Jack Black in “High Fidelity” to a customer in the movie’s used-record shop: “Go to the mall.”
But for the rest of you — people, like Mr. Smith, who probably still care, at least enough to write a letter about it — the last thing the old city needs is more abandonment. Baltimore is still the central city. It is still the source of regional identity, and even pride. The last four years have been brutal. Baltimore has taken a beating. But the recovery — and there is going to be a recovery — is only made tougher by people who give up and stay away.