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Baltimore’s big problem: It’s a small island

Volunteers collected trash from alleys near Fulton Ave Monday morning, inspired by conservative activist Scott Presler.

Not all cities are created equal. And Baltimore may be one of the most unequally created major cities in the United States.

I am referring to two factors that are likely among the key reasons causing Baltimore’s current problems.

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One is the small physical size of the city: It is only 81 square miles in area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — one of the smallest major cities in the nation.

Secondly, the city has the unusual political and geographical status of not being in a county. Baltimore City is basically a small island in the sea of Maryland, standing alone amid 23 counties as “an independent city.” St. Louis, Mo., and Carson City, Nev., are the only other major cities with this status today. (Virginia’s 38 cities are all independent because that state’s constitution requires it.)

Over time, a number of smaller cities elsewhere, once independent, have been made part of counties. For Baltimore, while being independent had benefits in the past, today it means less representation in the state legislature and an inability to draw on the resources of a county-wide government.

Much of this exodus of city residents is reflected in a movement across the city’s small boundaries into surrounding counties where taxes are lower and schools are perceived as better.

During its history, Baltimore has experienced three expansions to reach its 81 square miles. The last expansion occurred in 1918 when the legislature authorized annexation of adjoining land in Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties. No other changes have been made in Baltimore’s size in 100 years.

Many U.S. cities have been enlarged through annexation or were originally established on large tracts of land. New York City, first in population (8 million), is the result of a series of annexations and now sits astride 309 square miles. Los Angeles, second with 3.9 million, sprawls across 469 square miles. America’s current sixth largest city, Phoenix, has 1.5 million people, but at 475 square miles, it has six times the area of Baltimore.

Consider how Baltimore is viewed compared with Jacksonville, Fla., one of the nation’s fastest growing cities. The 2000 census listed Jacksonville the 14th most populated city in the United States with 735,617; by 2014, that city soared to 12th with a rise in residents to 853,382.

Two people walk past vacant rowhouses on the 1800 block of Division Street in Baltimore.
Two people walk past vacant rowhouses on the 1800 block of Division Street in Baltimore. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

But Jacksonville is the result of annexations from 1970-1990 and now covers 759 sq. miles. In fact, Jacksonville is the largest city area-wise in the 48 contiguous states.

To put this in perspective, if Baltimore City and Baltimore County (population 754,000 on 589 sq. miles) were combined, the resulting area, though smaller than Jacksonville’s, would rank Baltimore City/ County as America’s 6th largest city — back where Baltimore City stood in the 1960s.

Baltimore alone may just be too small in area and too politically isolated to adequately address its problems. It needs to produce more tax revenues, fix crumbling neighborhoods, generate job opportunities, retain businesses, attract new investment and create a safe, clean environment — problems that many municipalities face, but especially in historic Baltimore.

Political realities stand in the way of rectifying the city’s situation by expanding its borders again. However, the governor and the legislature, in the best interest of the state’s primary city, as well as the federal government should recognize the special, debilitating position in which Baltimore has been placed. Such recognition needs to be part of future planning and allocation of resources and projects.

Fortunately, some actions are occurring that will benefit Baltimore. The recently concluded Kirwan Commission has called for — and the legislature is expected to support — a significant change in state funding of schools, especially in areas of concentrated poverty. This should have a major impact on the city’s future.

With a renewed, vigorous focus on life-changing measures for Baltimore, this city that was once America’s third largest, that gave birth to our national anthem, can have a revival and no longer be a small island drowning in neglect and indifference.

M. Hirsh Goldberg, a native of Baltimore and author of nine books, has served as press secretary and speech writer for a mayor of Baltimore and a governor of Maryland. His email is mhgoldberg@comcast.net.

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