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Happy birthday Harborplace. Now what? | COMMENTARY

Harborplace, which has struggled with vacancies and management problems, opened 20 years ago this month.
Harborplace, which has struggled with vacancies and management problems, opened 20 years ago this month. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore’s renaissance supposedly began on July 2, 1980, with the opening of Harborplace. Four hundred thousand people attended the opening event of the shopping complex. In its first year of operation 18 million people visited the renovated Inner Harbor, more than the total number of people who went to Disney World. The New York Times called 1981, “the year of Baltimore.” Even in 2009, the Urban Land Institute described the Inner Harbor as “the model for postindustrial waterfront redevelopment around the world”

With four decades of hindsight, though, it’s clear that Harborplace didn’t turn Baltimore around. Instead, its story shows that privatization, over-policing, shopping and tourism can’t fix the problems of urban America.

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After World War II, shipping, shipbuilding, and manufacturing around the harbor quieted, shifting to other U.S. cities and overseas. The wharves and docks emptied. By the 1960s, the Greater Baltimore Committee began eyeing the Inner Harbor area for urban renewal, envisioning a complex of office buildings and cultural amenities like Charles Center. Once they won public approval, they cleared the 240-acre area, turning it into a grass-covered park in the late 1960s awaiting further development.

But locals didn’t want more development, voting down a bond issue in 1964. In 1978, Mayor William Donald Schaefer, leveraged his political capital and, perhaps, some shady tactics, including having Francis Knott, a local businessman, spearhead the effort for voter approval for Harborplace in exchange for low-interest government loans. Schaefer used the popularity of the tall ships event during the Bicentennial to convince real estate developer James Rouse of the viability of a shopping mall like the one he built in Faneuil Hall in Boston.

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If locals were angry at the loss of their park, many more people were aghast at the use of public money to benefit private corporations. Through public-private partnerships and tax breaks, the city government underwrote the development of Harborplace, while private developers like Rouse benefited. Little changed for regular folks.

According to historian Jon Teaford, from 1977-1982, while Harborplace was booming, downtown Baltimore lost nearly 29% of its retail jobs. Working-class residents were not profiting from Harborplace, even in its early days. Nevertheless, the city even today keeps using public money to spur dubious developments. Even now in the midst of an economic downturn, Baltimore plans to give the biggest tax breaks in its history to the Port Covington development.

Finally, spaces like the Inner Harbor and Harborplace often lead to over policing. These spaces are not intended for city residents. Of course, Baltimore residents can go there, but the real audience are tourists. Appealing to tourists means that the needs of residents are downplayed and that concerns over the image of public safety becomes paramount.

In the 1980s, Black teenagers involved in the growing hip hop scene used the Inner Harbor for break dancing. While break dancing could draw audiences, Schaefer was concerned that it might make other visitors feel unsafe. In 1981, according to historian Aaron Cowan, he contacted the police commissioner to complain that he’d personally seen people playing radios at loud volume and riding bikes on the promenade. He demanded that the police increase their presence so visitors would feel secure. The police added patrols and kiosks to the area.

Today, Baltimore budgets more than half a billion dollars for its police force. While policing Harborplace represents only a small fraction of that total, it shows the rise of broken windows policing theory, which makes quality of life issues like loud radios into crimes, pulling young men of color into the criminal justice system at alarming rates.

Harborplace’s continued existence is up in the air. It lost several stores last year and went into receivership. While it was heralded as part of the city’s renaissance, 40 years on, it shows what was wrong about using shopping malls for urban development. It makes consuming the focus of the city, rather than community. Urban planners still keep trying, though. Last year, New York’s Hudson Yards opened after receiving almost $6 billion in government assistance and tax breaks. The American dream mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey, cost five billion dollars. Closed for months due to the pandemic, its owners are having trouble paying their bills.

Shopping malls were never going to save cities, even before internet shopping and a pandemic. Harborplace’s problems have been clear for decades. The time is now to rethink the space from the ground up. This time, though, prioritize what Baltimore’s residents want.

Mary Rizzo (mary.rizzo@rutgers.edu) is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark who lives in Newark, New Jersey. She is the author of “Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire.”

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