Everyone who loves Baltimore is well aware of the problems and challenges facing her citizens. We understand the terrible legacy that structural racism has inflicted on families and the social fabric. We are aware of the crime, the grime, the public schools struggling to meet kids’ multi-faceted needs. We know our taxes are higher than surrounding jurisdictions — and we know why, too.
Let’s not spend 2021 restating our problems and wringing our hands, however. With a thoughtful new mayor, a reinvigorated City Council, and a sane president heading to the White House, the basic building blocks are in place to make 2021 the year that Baltimore not only embarks on new and innovative solutions — which, admittedly, need time to take effect — but also the year we talk about what and who we are, not what we are not. In the coming year, we should talk up our assets, not just our deficits.
And what are those assets?
Some of them are intangible. For instance, it’s often said that Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. That is not a tired cliché, but a true asset. From Medfield to Marble Hill, Pigtown to Patterson Park, our neighborhoods are so rich and diverse in character that Live Baltimore has come up with 10 different classifications to describe them: artsy, by-the-water, close-knit, commuter-friendly, green, historic, kid-friendly, lively, quiet and walkable. This list alone reminds us that we innately possess the features that every great, livable city needs.
Another intangible asset is the grit, determination and dedication of so many people living in Baltimore, who spend all or most of their time trying to repair and strengthen the social fabric. All of them could go off and do something easier, or more lucrative, but they have not. Just to name a scant few: Return Home Baltimore, which connects individuals returning home from incarceration with a range of services to help them succeed, from housing and job training to legal aid and mental health services; Safe Alternative Foundation for Education, which helps transform the lives of Baltimore middle-schoolers; and the Black Yield Institute, a Pan-African institution finding creative ways to address what it calls food apartheid in the city.
Here is another asset worth noting: In November, near the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Baltimore was rated by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best places to live on the East Coast. Before COVID-19, in 2017, Smithsonian Magazine rated us the East Coast’s “next cool city.” The lesson: The pandemic has been terrible, it’s knocked us down, but we are not out. There is so much to build on here — still.
Among our tangible assets, especially of the brick-and-mortar variety, I believe that city leaders need to take a firmer hand with developers to ensure that residents’ priorities, including affordability and preserving neighborhood character, take precedence over lining developers’ pockets and handing out overly generous tax breaks. That said, our aging residential, retail and office infrastructure cannot rebuild itself. On balance, it’s a good sign that developers continue to want to invest in Baltimore, even after everything we’ve been through.
For example, the Howard Street corridor “Superblock” near Fayette and Lexington streets, and the Lexington Market itself, are finally getting the 21st century makeovers they deserve. And the historic Brown’s Arcade on North Charles Street is slated for a major renovation, including housing geared toward students. On top of that, Penn Station is getting an upgrade and so too, it appears, will the aging Baltimore Arena. After decades of neglect, the Old Town Mall site in old Jonestown, though admittedly still a work-in-progress, is slated for redevelopment, including new affordable housing.
As for the downtown core, while Harborplace is an outdated ghost town right now, that does not take away from the spectacular permanent assets downtown still offers, including the waterfront and its linked pedestrian bridges. The redesign of Rash Field now underway will bring more family-friendly green space to the waterfront and contribute, most likely, to a revitalized and re-imagined downtown core.
It can be hard to find a bright spot in Baltimore’s dismally weak public transportation system. However, in December, the Greater Washington Partnership released a new vision for a more seamless, integrated commuter rail network stretching from Perryville in the north to Richmond, Virginia, in the south. It’s not an ultimate solution to Baltimore’s transit woes, but it is an important step toward providing greater access to good jobs throughout the Delmarva region.
Finally, one of the most exciting new projects underway in Baltimore is the re-imagining of 11 miles of shoreline along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco, which will comprise a system of parks, trails, restored landscapes and public amenities that unite several long-underserved communities in South Baltimore, including Cherry Hill, Westport and Mt. Winans.
Yes, our city is full of heartache, suffering, and injustice. But there’s also an awful lot of water in that half-empty glass. In the coming year, let’s remember to drink from that well. Baltimore is not down-and-out. We are improving on our greatness.
Amy L. Bernstein is a writer who has lived in Baltimore City for more than 30 years. Follow her on Twitter @amylbernstein.