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Op-ed

Urban expert saw the opportunity in Baltimore: It’s ‘open to everybody’ | GUEST COMMENTARY

It’s probably no coincidence that Alex Garvin, America’s foremost urban expert, loved Baltimore. Alex loved cities, and Baltimore is one. But he also saw things in Baltimore that no one else in my experience has seen, and he made me see Baltimore in some new and wonderful ways.

Although Alex paid some attention to Baltimore for decades, and wrote about it from time to time, his real Baltimore adventures began on a cold Feb. night a few years ago when he and I wandered through the second Light City beside the Inner Harbor. “Where did you get all these millennials?” he exclaimed. “Something’s going on here. I’m going to have to get a hotel room here and stay for a week and see what it is.” He did that, the next summer, and put us under his normal intensive scrutiny.

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He walked a lot and drove a lot. He met with developers, architects, city officials, neighborhood activists, all kinds of ordinary and extraordinary people. And he liked what he found. “I can’t think of any city that has more different kinds of neighborhoods. There’s something here for everybody.”

Those were magic words for Alex. He knew more about planning and making cities than anyone in the country, but the object of the game for Alex was never just buildings or sidewalks. It was people.

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And not just one kind of people, or two or three. Great cities, he said, had to be “open to everybody.” He spent a long and busy life trying to understand how to make cities that were open to everybody, and then actually making them.

Alex was 100% a New Yorker, and he knew everything you could know about his hometown. But, unlike many New Yorkers, he took the rest of the world seriously. Ask him a question about Singapore or Barcelona, and he would say: “I wrote about that in such-and-such chapter of this-or-that book.”

Unlike most people who write books, even good books, Alex was intensely practical. His greatest book has the simplest title in the business: The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t.

I called Alex “the urban MRI” because he could look at cities from more angles than anyone. He started as an architect, then studied city planning, then ran New York City’s affordable housing programs, then made money as a private developer, then oversaw the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan after 9/11, then ran New York’s 2012 Olympics bid. Along the way, he wrote the best book ever written about American cities and taught at Yale for 50 years or so. Oh — and he thought his greatest achievement was creating a giant regional park, the Belt Line, in Atlanta.

Alex died last month at the age of 80. He’ll never again see anything that I’d never noticed or say anything that I’d never heard before. He’ll never work on connecting Druid Hill Park to the neighborhoods around it, something that jumped out at him as a major civic need for Baltimore.

As we all try to envision and build the next Baltimore, I wish he could help us. And maybe he can. His books should be required reading, and I can pass on one little story that may be useful.

One day in the spring of 2016, he took me out to a part of Queens that I didn’t know and showed me an apartment building that he’d developed during his private developer phase. It was a Saturday afternoon in the spring, and people of all kinds were everywhere. Queens is probably the most diverse patch of ground on earth. After a while, he stopped, looked at me, and asked: “Why do you think I wanted to invest my money here?”

“Ethnic diversity,” I replied.

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“Right,” he said. And then he said words that we Baltimoreans should take to heart. “If your neighborhood has only one kind of people, you’re going to lose them sooner or later. But if you’ve got everybody, you can always get somebody.”

Thank you, Alex. Let’s build a city that’s got everybody.

Charles B. Duff (charlie@jubileebaltimore.org) is president of Jubilee Baltimore.


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