So, last Thursday morning I’m driving back into Baltimore on O’Donnell Street, having just attended the annual business showcase of the Dundalk Chamber of Commerce at the Best Western Plus. I’m westbound on O’Donnell. I pass Ponca Street, then Newkirk. I look to the left and suddenly I have a Shocking Baltimore Moment, or SBM.
This city has always been capable of producing SBMs.
Back in the day — as in the previous century — a Shocking Baltimore Moment occurred when you ran into a character from a John Waters movie, or someone like a character from a John Waters movie, or John Waters himself. John’s first book was called “Shock Value,” published in 1981. It was all about bad taste and eccentric people, and the book affectionately proclaimed Baltimore “the hairdo capital of the world.”
Nowadays, SBMs are different. They occur when you’re driving or walking along in the city, expecting nothing new or exciting or even good, and suddenly you see something completely incongruous with the bleak narrative about Baltimore being a total disaster.
In my case, the cause of shock was another huge apartment building on O’Donnell Street.
Pardon me if you’ve been there. I had not seen the Alta Brewers Hill project since it started rising enormously on a sprawling vacant lot at O’Donnell and Eaton. When finished, it will add another 371 apartments to a formerly industrial part of town where some old buildings, including breweries, already have been converted to living space.
How can this be? Isn’t Baltimore in collapse? The city lost more than 7,000 residents in a recent year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. We have had four years of 300-plus homicides, making Baltimore one of the deadliest cities per capita in the country, and this year, so far, isn’t looking much better. The company that owns Pimlico wants to move the Preakness to Laurel, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has cancelled its summer season, Harborplace is in receivership, and we just had another mayor leave office amidst scandal.
That’s on top of everything else, including the Maryland governor’s decision to kill the Red Line, a major transportation project across the city, and to pull the plug on a major redevelopment project, State Center. All of that has been to the city’s detriment.
But there’s another luxury apartment building going up in Brewers Hill, developed by Wood Partners of Atlanta, and it’s not the only new apartment building in the city. That’s shocking because it works against the narrative.
If Baltimore is losing population, why would anyone invest here? Aren’t people leaving because of crime?
It’s not that simple.
Yes, some people have left because of crime. But a lot more leave for other reasons, starting with lack of faith in the public schools. When whole families leave town, that shows up in the census figures, some years in a big way. Less noticed generally — or ignored in the narrative of the “tragedy of Baltimore” — is smaller household size, and that’s a national trend, not just a local one.
Peter Duvall, community revitalization coordinator for Strong City Baltimore, thinks the belief that crime drives down population is overemphasized. He wrote about this in an op-ed for the Sun in March. He has studied the trends for years, and he shared some of what he found with me.
Population loss, he says, has been driven by historic decreases in household size. In 1970, Baltimore averaged 3.07 persons per household. By 2010, the average was 2.38. But by last year, it was 2.23. That last drop in household size, he says, meant a loss of about 10,000 people per year. And that means the city has to add between 5,000 and 6,000 households annually just to hold population.
Given these recent trends, it’s not surprising that one-bedroom apartments are the most in demand in many parts of the city. It’s the case, for example, at the Nelson Kohl Apartments near Penn Station and in the new Alta Brewers Hill, where 70 percent of units will have one bedroom.
The trend of smaller household size, and falling population, has been a reality in a lot of cities, including some that are thriving. Duvall thinks that, even with smaller household size, if the current level of housing production continues here, Baltimore will start seeing population growth again within the next five years.
At the Brookings Institution, senior fellow William Frey says several cities that had been on the rise are now experiencing population loss or slower growth. “Young adult millennials,” he noted, “may be finally departing dense urban cores as they make a delayed entrance into marriage and the housing market.”
What does all this tell us?
It tells us something that has been evident for way too long — that the city has been losing households with children for years, and more so in recent years. If there’s any hope of reversing that trend it will come with a combination of things: A mayor who makes education the city’s top priority, inspiring a generation of parents who love and want urban life to remain committed to their neighborhood schools; more immigrant families and a system that addresses their needs; and increased resources from the state while the city’s population and tax base grows.
Baltimore attracts young people — it has been doing so for years — but the real break comes in convincing the current and coming generations of them to stay and raise families here.