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Why I believe in Baltimore

Roughly 15 years ago, a movement sprang up in our city. It was encapsulated in a single word plastered on billboards, printed on bumper stickers and etched into our mayor's lapel pin. Despite all the big city problems we were facing, it asked each and every one of us with a stake in Baltimore to do one simple thing: believe.

Believe we could be a safe city again. Believe we could turn around a troubled education system. Believe we could reverse decades of population decline. Believe that we could regain our rightful place as a bastion of industry, innovation, business and tourism. The campaign meant something different to everyone. But no matter how we chose to embrace it, it required each and every one of us to put faith in front of mounting evidence that Baltimore really wasn't what we saw on "Homicide" or "The Wire." We had to believe — despite overwhelming data and metrics that told us not to.

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I and many others maintained that faith in ensuing years that saw progress, backslides, steps forward and steps back. We knew what Baltimore had been in the past and what it could be in the future — and we dedicated ourselves to the vision we shared of a vibrant, modern city capable of success in and beyond the 21st century.

For me, that faith was shaken for the first time last spring. In the wake of the riots, fires and unrest that shook our city to its core, one of our team members, Mike Smith, was shot and killed on North Pulaski Street. Mike was a service manager with our company, Continental Realty Corporation, and I came to know and respect him through his involvement with our leadership development program. He was a loving husband and father, and a respected member of our team. During the same week, a woman I have known very well for eight years lost her only son; he was murdered while taking money from an ATM in Baltimore City.

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These two tragic deaths — along with the killings of 40 others in May, at the time the city's deadliest month since August 1990 (though since surpassed) — struck me particularly hard because they served as a metaphor for Baltimore in the spring of 2015. So much pride, caring and potential had been extinguished in its prime. Just when real reasons to believe were beginning to take shape, they were robbed from us by the same seemingly unsolvable problems that have held us back for more than a generation.

But despite that deep sense of personal and community loss, I am now beginning to believe again — and not just because of blind faith in the countless Baltimore citizens who share my sense of leadership, compassion and responsibility. The horrors of this spring forced me to look for tangible signs that my belief in Baltimore was still justified. I was surprised by what I found. You may be too.

As a leading housing provider in Baltimore, I knew that we were beginning to stem the flow of population out of the city. Four of the last six years have seen population growth and a net gain of nearly 2,500 residents. I know these aren't huge numbers, but it is a start. Amazingly, we are now having a debate about if there are too many new apartment buildings being constructed in downtown rather than about how we convince someone to build just one.

Falling home prices were a source of concern; but after a little digging, my team and I found that the drop is due primarily to stalled foreclosure sales that are finally moving through the system. Excluding distressed sales, housing prices in the metro region are actually up 2 percent year over year.

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Other economic indicators provide reason to believe to as well. Not only are we home to major employers like Under Armour, T. Rowe Price, CareFirst, and Johns Hopkins, but companies like Pandora and First National Bank have relocated to the city. We maintain a cost of living 5.6 percent less than the national average, and CNN Money recently listed Baltimore as the No. 10 city in which to launch a small business.

I looked at education in the city and saw a reason for optimism. As a member of the Board of Trustees at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, I get to see firsthand how innovative approaches to teaching and curriculum are empowering the next generation of Baltimore leaders and providing a template by which urban education can thrive. One of the kids I got to know at Cristo Rey, Darius Sanders, has gone on to graduate from college and now is getting a master of social work degree from NYU. I know we have a long way to go to provide better education for all of our city's children, but there are models that are working that give me hope.

And as a lifelong Baltimore area resident, born at Sinai Hospital before spending four years living on West Lanvale Street in Bolton Hill, I looked at crime rates since 2001 and saw a steady decline of nearly 30 percent between 2001 and 2013. The events of last spring and the crime that has followed almost unabated have made 2015 the deadliest in our recent history, but that shouldn't discourage the hundreds of thousands of people who continue to invest time, resources, money and their futures in a city still capable of writing a truly remarkable comeback story. We all need to do more to provide opportunity to those who feel like they have none.

When my great-great-grandparents landed in Locust Point from Europe on a ship filled with refugees in the early 1900s, they believed that Baltimore offered them a chance for a better life. We need to make sure we embrace what is great about Baltimore City, fix what needs to be improved, and make our city residents feel like they have that same chance at a better life.

There is still much work ahead, but the strides we've made together have made a difference that can't be erased by fires, riots, or media reports that focus more on what's wrong with Baltimore than what's right.

That's why I still believe in our city — and why I believe that you should too.

J.M. Schapiro (jmschapiro.com) is the CEO of Continental Realty Corporation and a 5th generation resident of Baltimore.

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