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Our Baltimore: Alec MacGillis on the need for tough love and explaining ‘The Tragedy of Baltimore’

On New Year’s Day a few years ago, I ran into then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at a holiday party. We got to chatting and I told her how happy my family and I were to have moved back to Baltimore some months earlier after spending seven years in the Washington area.

My enthusiasm must have been more intense than I realized. A day or two later, I received an e-mail from a mayoral aide asking if I might sit for a promotional video about Baltimore. I responded politely that, as a journalist, I couldn’t sit for promo videos, even for a city I loved.

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The fact was, I was already doing plenty of Baltimore promo and would continue to do so through the years. I wrote a piece advertising the low-cost high culture available in Baltimore, and another one pushing back against anti-Baltimore condescension in the Washington Post. Put simply, I was a pretty shameless local booster.

Fast forward to 2019. In March, ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine co-published an article I had spent a year working on. Its tenor was different than my earlier writing on the city. The magazine cover headline was: “The Tragedy of Baltimore: How an American City Falls Apart.”

It's not any mystery how I got from Point A to Point B. Like countless others, I had grown bewildered by the unraveling that had followed the April 2015 unrest after Freddie Gray’s death: above all the unrelenting surge of violence, but also the astonishing corruption and dysfunction in the police department, and the leadership void in City Hall.

I wanted to make sense of this unraveling. It bothered me that there had been so little accountability for it — that key officials had faced so little scrutiny for highly consequential decisions. It bothered me that the unraveling was getting so little notice nationally — world media had come for the 2015 unrest, but left the city to its own devices to deal with the subsequent turmoil and loss of life.

As much as I felt the story needed to be told, I was of course ambivalent about putting the city in a harsh light. I braced myself for inevitable attacks from fellow residents: How dare you make us look bad?

It took no time for those attacks to come. Just hours after the piece appeared, then-Mayor Catherine Pugh called to berate me for portraying the city as still struggling under her leadership. A week later, on a segment of WYPR “Midday” dedicated to rebutting the piece, Downtown Partnership president Kirby Fowler suggested that national media portrayed Baltimore critically because the city is majority-black. (Mr. Fowler is white.)

Such critiques got new life after President Trump launched his racist barrage against the city. As one local activist put it on Twitter, my article “reinforced a false and damaging narrative about Baltimore that Trump has embraced.”

I reject this notion. The fact that Baltimore has suffered an extraordinary breakdown of public safety and governance over the past four years is not a “narrative” — it is reality, a reality that has caused profound pain for many hundreds and has heightened daily fear for thousands more.

I believe that the city can recover because it has a decent economic foundation and because I am constantly reminded, in my reporting and in my volunteering efforts around town, how committed so many of its residents are. But it can only do so if it can be honest about its troubles and hold those in authority to higher standards.

Too often, the tough questions have gone unasked. Why did Gov. Larry Hogan kill the Red Line in 2015, and why did city officials and legislators not push harder for the project? Why did crucial cooperation between police and the state Department of Parole and Probation fall away in recent years? What, exactly, is the state’s attorney’s office doing to combat the rise in violence? Why did so many power brokers, from business leaders to Johns Hopkins University leaders, keep backing Catherine Pugh until the Healthy Holly scandal, positioning her for re-election despite ample signs of failed leadership?

Such questions are a far cry from President Trump’s crude barrage. What made that onslaught so offensive was not that it contained slights, but that it came from someone doing nothing to help the city despite having all the power in the world to do so.

The best retort is not to gloss over reality but to hold leaders, from Washington to Annapolis to City Hall, accountable for addressing it. Only then will reality improve, and with it, the narrative.

Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica (alec.macgillis@propublica.org) worked for The Sun from 2000-2005. He lives in Baltimore.

Editor’s note: This op-ed is part of an occasional series of essays about “Our Baltimore” from prominent Baltimoreans.

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