Census estimates suggesting that Baltimore has lost population have become a rite of spring for the last half-decade. But there is something particularly worrisome about this year’s edition as it estimates for the first time since before the 1918 flu outbreak that Charm City’s population has fallen below 600,000 — 593,490 as of last July 1 to be precise. Perhaps 600,000 is a psychological barrier. Baltimore is now smaller than Louisville and only slightly larger than Milwaukee. It may be dropping out of the top-30 when more official numbers are added up. The term, “Smalltimore,” used to be a way of describing the city’s small town charm; now, it seems just a more accurate way of describing its diminished size.
Before we hit the panic button, some perspective is required. First, let’s remember there are far more immediate and pressing issues with the coronavirus outbreak than to be fretting over population estimates which are subject to substantial revision as the actual U.S. Census is conducted this year. And second, the theoretical loss of 27,280 residents over the last decade represents a still-modest 4% shift at a time when Maryland is not exactly booming. The state has grown just over 5% over the same period ranking it middle-of-the-pack nationally and behind neighboring jurisdictions of Virginia, Delaware and D.C. Third, it should be acknowledged there’s a lot we don’t yet know about who is coming and who is leaving the city. How much of this is flight of longtime residents and how much is a lower birth rate or the Trump administration’s crackdown on new arrivals, for example? We need more than anecdotal evidence.
And finally, there’s another consideration: The city’s political boundaries are, at least to some degree, an arbitrary distinction. Someone who lives in the city one year but moves to White Marsh or Catonsville or Eldersburg the next is still part of the broader metropolitan area, still linked to the city, and might still be employed in it or shop in it or go to restaurants and tourist attractions in it. As a metropolitan statistical area, Baltimore-Columbia-Towson is doing reasonably well with estimated growth of more than 3% since the last census.
None of that is to deny Baltimore’s obvious problems, however. This is a bad sign, just not a new one. It’s clear that the same pattern of issues we have been banging the drum about for years continue to persist. Reducing the homicide rate, improving schools, creating jobs, upgrading public infrastructure and investment, creating affordable housing, and lowering the property tax rate should be high on the to-do list of whomever is elected mayor or to the City Council this year. And attacking the city’s concentrated poverty and its chronic substance abuse problems — the heart of so many of its shortcomings — deserves to be a top priority for the state and federal governments, too.
Yet there is hope. This year’s passage of the Kirwan Commission recommendations for education reform by the General Assembly raise the prospect of substantial new state investment in a school system that needs to do more for its disadvantage, often traumatized students. Gov. Larry Hogan has agreed to invest tens of millions of state dollars to upgrade the Howard Street Tunnel so that double-stacked rail cars can move freight from the Port of Baltimore to points north far more cost-effectively which will support hundreds of well-paid jobs at the port. Now, if someone can convince the governor that he needs to make a larger investment in Baltimore’s public transit systems to offset his choice to kill the $2.9 Red Line expansion five years ago and at least settle the legal battle over the $1.5 billion State Center redevelopment project so that something, anything, can move forward there, Baltimore might be looking at some serious economic momentum.
Make no mistake, the city’s greatest strength remains in its potential. Surveys show young people coming of age right now prefer to live in cities. They don’t want to drive, they want the convenience of public transit. Climate change demands a more energy efficient, less fossil-fuel dependent lifestyle, and cities are best positioned to deliver. With the growth of high-tech jobs, particularly in Northern Virginia, Baltimore’s future may be as much as a bedroom community conveniently linked by efficient passenger rail service to the D.C. area than as the industrial center it once was. Or it might be as a telecommuting center. That’s how fast work life is changing. But none of this transformation can happen through inaction. Baltimore needs bold leadership, it needs help from every quarter, and it needs a plan of action.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.