How it goes in Baltimore: Someone tells a story (about a carjacking or trash dumping or suburbanites no longer patronizing a downtown restaurant) and it leaves you feeling grim. An hour later, someone else tells a story (about an amazing teacher or a cop who handled a bad situation with heroic poise or about a Hopkins startup that just scored millions in funding) and you absolutely soar into a state of contained optimism.
You can feel depressed one minute, excited the next. In Baltimore, that happens a lot. You see failure here, future there.
A few weeks ago, I was in my car in West Baltimore, having just visited one of the many people dedicated to making Our City of Perpetual Recovery a better place. It’s an endless struggle, trying to achieve success in the midst of many problems, human and systemic. But a lot of people are committed to Baltimore and, after you hear about their projects, you feel almost hopeful.
So I was at the traffic light, in the 1800 block of N. Fulton Avenue, and I was in a good mood. I looked to my left and saw four brick rowhouses, two stories each, with curved fronts, marble steps, handsome keystone arches, and plywood where there should have been windows and doors. Window panes on the second floor of three of the houses had been shattered.
Now, I have seen hundreds of vacant houses; there are about 16,000 across the city. But, for some reason, I became fixated on these sad four, and, before the light turned green, I found myself imagining the families that had lived there and what the block might have been like after 1920, when the houses were built. I looked for records on North Fulton Avenue and found that the first residents were white — not surprising in a city racially segregated by ordinance. By the 1950s and 1960s, the push toward integration drove white families away from the city. The big Baltimore narrative also includes anti-semitism and neighborhood covenants, blockbusting, and the rapid growth of the suburbs. The city lost 300,000 people over the last 50 years.
That story is familiar by now. Still, I sometimes find myself awed by that crushing fact — one third of the 1970 population gone, in large measure because of race.
As time went on, others lived in those four North Fulton houses. Perhaps there were Jewish families for a time. Black families likely came and went over the last several decades. There’s nothing there now but ghosts.
The late playwright August Wilson ventured into the region of ghosts in his Pittsburgh cycle of plays. His 10th and final play, “Radio Golf,” is currently at Everyman Theater, and this story of 1990s urban redevelopment, class and politics comes with the same haunting sense of loss. An old house, slated for demolition to make way for a new development, becomes the subject of dispute. The house is at 1839 Wylie Avenue, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the home of Aunt Ester, the spiritual center of Wilson’s stories over time. Saving the old house becomes the cause of the developer, who discovers his soul in the process. Tearing it down remains the priority of his business partner, who puts profits over preserving the past. The relevance to 2019 Baltimore is right there on stage.
So I’m back at the traffic light again, fixated on those Fulton Avenue houses, and realizing that what matters now is not what happened in the past but what happens next.
Baltimore needs to become a much safer city, first and foremost. It needs a mayor focused on education, too. Beyond that, the city needs to grow, and to grow it needs to appeal to a new generation of men and women who want an affordable home in a racially diverse city. The shiny, new buildings are great, but it’s the rowhouses that give Baltimore neighborhoods their special character. Demolition is necessary, but the city should save as many old houses as possible and provide even more incentives to people willing to fix them.
We could declare a special zone, where vacants are particularly dense, and cut in half the property taxes on all houses in the zone for five years; developers would have to provide affordable housing in the mix.
We could look up all those families that moved away, conduct a national call-out for their descendants, black and white, millennials and younger, and summon them to their roots: Live in the city where your ancestors lived, get a homecoming tax break and help build a culturally richer Baltimore of about 700,000 by, say, 2040.
Those are some crazy ideas I had while fixated on those sad, old rowhouses at the traffic light on Fulton Avenue.
Note: In a previous column about a startup created by some Baltimore squeegee kids, I incorrectly stated the name of a partner organization in the annual Baltimore Thinkathon. It is the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.