July 31, 2011

Power of Home

Baltimore's untapped strategy:
The power of HOME
Two homes hanging on, next to two boarded-up wrecks. This might be a result of bad planning, but the residents can cope anyway, invoking the "power of home". 

Many people won't touch Baltimore with a ten mile pole. Many others cling to their personal comfort zone, wherever in the city that might be. Meanwhile, our city leaders seem to be intent to constantly pour more and more money into a few key high-visibility institutions like the Convention Center, Inner Harbor and Howard Street retail district until they finally get them right, which they insist are "critical" to saving Baltimore, while claiming their diversion of attention from elsewhere is only temporary.

When something terrible happens, like the recent Fourth of July violence in the Inner Harbor, municipal apologists like the Sun claim it is just a slight blip on the statistical radar. As if there aren't enough decades of solid statistics to prove that something is seriously wrong with the trends of Baltimore's population, economy, abandoned housing and school drop-out rates. Crime is but the tip of an iceberg.

But Baltimore still somehow has plenty of beautifully maintained houses, even next to some in chronic decay, regardless of whether they happen to be part of a government "program". There are still plenty of Baltimoreans who have learned the secret of survival amid the chaos.

Home versus escape

The case of Jasmine Hogan is very instructive. She recently presented her story in the Sun on the page opposite one of their tiresome crime editorials. Ms. Hogan has the privilege to attend and graduate from Peabody Conservatory, one of Baltimore's institutional jewels. But she described herself as a "prisoner of the city" and downtown as her "urban prison". She resented her encounters with Baltimore's natives and was "eat-my-teeth-out jealous" of her classmates who escaped from the prison for the summer. Not the kind of language city leaders would want to hear.

Maybe it's a Baltimore version of the Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe like Patty "Tanya" Hearst, she began to identify with those she felt had imprisoned her. But instead of fighting the city in which she felt imprisoned, she finally embraced it. As Ms. Hogan says:

"...I started walking everywhere. From downtown (my urban 'prison') to Federal Hill, Patterson Park, Fells Point, Station North, Charles Village and many more neighborhoods. I began to see my summer adventures as mini-destination traveling."

And she saw the same people she had previously resented, but now she learned to "understand the vibe of each mini-galaxy, in the now not-so-small universe of Baltimore."

Our city leaders could learn from Ms. Hogan

Our city leaders have been acting in the same kind of confined "urban prison" that Jasmine Hogan did, before her epiphany. Our leaders look at our perfectly nice downtown convention center and hotels, into which they have already poured more and more money over the past three decades, claiming each expansion would finally make it successful, and now they still want to spend a billion dollars more. Our leaders look at the Inner Harbor, long lauded as Baltimore's catalyst for rebirth, and now they want to change it from a civic space to a theme park. They also want to take the rest of the waterfront eastward to Fells Point and Canton, already renewed, and add a multi-billion dollar rail transit line hugging the shoreline while the rest of the city's transit system languishes in neglect. The city's other transit answer is to spend precious city tax dollars to run their free Charm City Circulator in an area that already has MTA bus service provided by the state.

Just as Jasmine Hogan got beyond her original attraction to Baltimore focused only on the Peabody Conservatory, our city leaders must get beyond their own limited views of what constitutes Baltimore. There are hundreds of thousands of Baltimoreans who have dedicated their lives to their own "mini galaxy", and our leaders have let them down by not considering the city as a whole.

If its not the Stockholm Syndrome, maybe its the Lake Woebegone Syndrome. We all like to think that our own children or our own neighborhoods is "above average". That's a powerful thought. It's the power to allow us to believe that our own neighborhood is safe, even while the rest of the city is going to hell in a handcart.

City surveys have borne this out. In an October 16, 2009 editorial, the Sun quotes a survey that states that 93% of all city residents feel safe or very safe in their own neighborhood during the day, and 68% at night, but 87% also felt that violent crime is a serious problem in the city as a whole. They feel that problems are worse elsewhere in the city than in their own home base. This still causes angst. Nearly 40% felt likely to move out of the city soon.

That parallels how our so-called leaders seem to feel about it. They share the same human nature to feel more comfortable in their own universe than in someone else's, no matter what it is. Our city leaders want to upgrade the convention center yet again simply because that's their universe. It's what they know. When they stray outside of it, they're like bulls in a china shop, such as in the scorched earth approach to renewal north of Hopkins Hospital or the $475,000 rehabs in otherwise burnt-out sections of Johnston Square.

Yes, tourism has become big business in Baltimore, but that's just because so many other economic sectors have become gutted.
Our leaders simply don't put themselves in a position to consider roles in the city as a whole. Yes, the Inner Harbor is important. It's our front yard. But it's far more important as an integral piece of our urban geography than as this-or-that attraction or retail establishment. Looking at the whole city, the Inner Harbor is Baltimore's fulcrum - the place you go to get from east to west, north to south, or (even more so) from southeast to south. And it's wide open - a stunning contrast to its urban surroundings. That should dictate what it needs. The waterfront promenade has been a fantastic success because it embraces its geography. Literally. Unlike a Ferris Wheel. And creating a successful bikeway and transit-way would work with the geography the same way, taking advantage of the spaciousness of the waterfront rather than being plagued by driveway conflicts as is the bikeway, or expensively and redundantly buried underground as the Red Line is proposed.

The "power of home" is the antidote to angst and adrenaline

Baltimoreans who love the city do so simply because it's our home. It took awhile for Jasmine Hogan, but she came around. It's an acquired taste. Many thousands of others are driven out or under by social, economic or emotional needs, before they can finally feel comfortable. It's a different home for each of us, and some people never find it.

Of course, a few of us are eccentric rich folks who can buy their way to personal urban fulfillment, like Stephen King buying up Ritz Carlton waterfront penthouses. Unfortunately, some of those with access to big money are spending OUR money on convention centers, subways, etc. They're always looking for that next mega-project to try to transform Baltimore into something it isn't, never was, and never will be. 

Let's just make Baltimore a city that works, so that each of us can be free to find our own home in a way that works for us.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed entirely! The vitality of a city starts from the health of the social soil it grows in, and that is neglected to the detriment of the entire city. To make those megaprojects work, people have to be engaged with Baltimore and love being Baltimorean. That takes leadership that thinks the same and doesn't just take from London or DC.