Full disclosure: I’m writing this from the comfort and, more to the point, safety of my home in Howard County.
One of my fondest memories goes way back to when, as a little kid in Annapolis, my father, who grew up in Baltimore, would take me with him when he had to go into the city on business. I had my first kosher hot dog wrapped in grilled baloney in Baltimore. To this day, it’s one of my favorite indulgences, although not as often as I would like. Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my metabolism the most.
On one of those trips, he pulled up in front of a store, gave me some change and told me to go in, all by myself, and get the two of us snowballs. One cherry, one grape. At the time, I was a very tentative little person, but he assured me it would be OK. He was right, and that moment set me free. I still have pictures of him when he played football at Poly, offense and defense the whole game, wearing a helmet that was little more than a leather swim cap.
My mother, too, would take me to the city with her when she got dressed up to go shopping at the big department stores that used to be downtown. It was a very different time. Decades later, I still care about what happens to the city and its people.
Over the years, I’ve watched the city morph into its current mess, while administration after administration failed to curtail the crime for which Baltimore has become all too well known.
Time to state the obvious: Crime is not the root cause of itself. Crime is a manifestation of other, more fundamental societal issues. Fix those problems and crime goes away or at least declines to “acceptable levels.” Fail to address those underlying causes and all you’re doing is treading water until, eventually, you can’t.
In Baltimore during calendar 2019, before the pandemic, there were 46,375 crimes committed, according to police data published on the Open Baltimore website. Breathtaking, isn’t it? But not in a good way.
Crime is not homogeneous. Of the total 46,375 crimes, 15,559 were assaults and shootings, including 348 homicides. The other 30,816 crimes involved burglary, larceny, robbery and theft. These latter “economic crimes” are, for all intents and purposes, a cottage industry that employs the people who perpetrate them. Economic crimes are often related to violent crimes, but their nature suggests a different solution. Understandably, the number of homicides gets the attention of the media, but they are, however horrific, only a small portion of total crime in Baltimore.
The answer isn’t more or smarter policing. I’m sure the BPD is well aware of the extent and location of these economic crimes and is doing everything possible to respond when they occur. Unfortunately, paying attention isn’t a cure. Responding to crime is after the fact and not the same thing as preventing it.
What the city needs is a plan of historic proportions to encourage economic development — not downtown and not in the form of huge commercial projects, entertainment zones and “Superblocks.” These may be politically helpful projects, but they do little, if anything, to change the structure or trajectory of the city’s economy where it counts. The downtown and nearby waterfront are not the city of Baltimore. Those are postcard, brochure places for fewer and fewer people visiting the city on business or an occasional night out.
The new administration needs to be laser-focused on the urgent placement of essential commerce and employment that is compatible with the resident labor force in the city’s neighborhoods that are struggling.
Develop those neighborhood economies — not with the typical array of small-scale, do-good programs, but with a ferocity as if the very life of the city depended upon it — and watch what happens. Develop those neighborhood economies, not to displace the families that currently reside there, but for their benefit.
With the right mix of complementary social programs, incentives and rules, neighborhood economic development, for the current residents in the places where they live, will pull the rug out from under the 30,000-plus economic crimes that are choking the life out of the city.
In the process, neighborhood economic development will reduce Baltimore unemployment and underemployment and raise household incomes. Those are, after all, the primary objectives of the intensive neighborhood initiative I’m suggesting.
Les Cohen (Les@Writeaway.us) is a writer based in Columbia and has a Ph.D. in Urban and Regional Economics.