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The 2020 census is a wake-up call for Baltimore | GUEST COMMENTARY

The population of the Mount Vernon neighborhood in Baltimore, shown here during the 2019 holiday Monument Lighting, grew by 17% between 2010 and 2020.
The population of the Mount Vernon neighborhood in Baltimore, shown here during the 2019 holiday Monument Lighting, grew by 17% between 2010 and 2020. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

One of the easiest ways to tell whether a city is a good place is to see whether people want to live there. If people want to live somewhere, the population usually grows. If the population declines, the reverse is usually true.

By that easy measure, the 2020 census had bad news for Baltimore. The city lost 35,000 people, nearly 6% of its population, between 2010 and 2020. That certainly looked bad, particularly by comparison with Philadelphia, which grew by 5%, and Richmond, which grew by 6%. We should be doing at least as well as Philadelphia and Richmond. They are not boom towns like Washington. They are cities like Baltimore, with slow-growing economies, rowhouses, and many challenges.

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That’s why the 2020 census is a wake-up call for us. If people prefer Philadelphia and Richmond, those cities are probably doing things that we should try to learn from. And the census is particularly disturbing because it shows Baltimore falling short of its potential. In December 2020, the best urban analysts in the country, Zimmerman Volk Associates, reported in a study commissioned by Live Baltimore that the city could grow by 44,000 people per year if we did the right things.

But many Baltimore neighborhoods are doing the right things. Detailed census data show that dozens of Baltimore neighborhoods are doing very well — and not just neighborhoods near the waterfront. And they are doing well by maintaining and growing a diverse population. In fact, most of Baltimore’s successful neighborhoods gained both Black residents and non-Black residents.

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One of the greatest lessons we can learn from our own successful neighborhoods is that people of all races appreciate racial and ethnic diversity. In Mount Vernon, where the population grew by a very healthy 17%, the Black population grew by exactly the same amount. In Hampden, which grew by 5%, the Black population grew slightly faster.

A second lesson is that sustained city commitment and professional nonprofit community development organizations can make a great difference. In Johnston Square, which lost a catastrophic 30% of its people between 2000 and 2010, years of sustained city action, strong resident leaders and a competent nonprofit developer called Rebuild Metro are reversing decline. Johnston Square grew by 4.6% between 2010 and 2020, almost as fast as Philadelphia, and the neighborhood remained 93% Black.

If Baltimore City had grown as fast as Johnston Square, the city would have gained 28,500 people.

Results were even better in the 10 neighborhoods of Central Baltimore, where the Central Baltimore Partnership has been coordinating the work of residents and organizations like Jubilee Baltimore for more than a decade. Central Baltimore grew by 6%, as fast as Richmond, while remaining majority-minority and may be the most diverse group of neighborhoods in the city. Leading the pack was Greenmount West, which grew by a whopping 25% while maintaining both its Black population and income diversity.

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If Baltimore City had grown as fast as Central Baltimore, the city would have gained 37,000 people.

Here are five things that Baltimore could do to see this success replicated in other neighborhoods:

  1. Aim for growth and success and work for it.
  2. Invest in nonprofit community development organizations, both place-based, like the Central Baltimore Partnership, and citywide, like Live Baltimore and Healthy Neighborhoods.
  3. Invest wisely in neighborhoods that are interested in growth and strategically use the state and city resources that focus on revitalization.
  4. Grow inclusively, listening to residents, protecting long-term residents and working for income and racial diversity.
  5. And, of course, make neighborhoods safe and clean.

Growing the population of Baltimore over the next decade is both possible and critical to the city’s future. We need people to support local businesses and pay the taxes for vital services. To make this happen, our city and state governments and foundations need to work together to follow the example of these successful neighborhoods. We have seen how it can be done. If we work together and expand our efforts, by 2030 the list of successful neighborhoods will be much longer. If Philadelphia and Richmond can do it, so can Baltimore.

Charles Duff (charlie@jubileebaltimore.org) is president of Jubilee Baltimore and a board member of Central Baltimore Partnership. Fred Lazarus (flazarus@mica.edu) is president emeritus of MICA and a board member of Central Baltimore Partnership.

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