Laslo Boyd: Who'll Stop the Rain

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The last few months have been particularly stormy in Baltimore.   It’s almost as if the death of Freddie Gray in police custody followed by rioting in the streets tore a scab off the City’s psyche. 

The fundamental problems that have been caught in a bright spotlight in recent weeks are far from new and the solutions are far from evident.  Even if we could agree on the correct public policies and were willing to commit the necessary resources—two propositions that are shaky at best—finding the political will to move forward would remain an enormous challenge.

Crime that often seems out of control, public schools that have some bright sides but fail far too many students, and a sluggish economy that leaves too many residents without jobs or a means of achieving self-sufficiency are the very visible problems that have lingered for decades without solution.  But, in a sense, these problems are really only the tip of the iceberg.

More basic to Baltimore’s dilemma is deep-seated, multi-generational poverty   concentrated within the borders of the City.  Add the racial overlay that largely corresponds with that concentrated poverty and you are left to wonder why the explosion this summer hadn’t come earlier or with more intensity.

I recently read a biography of Richard Nixon that included a description of his Administration’s secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.  As many observed when news of the bombing became public, it was certainly not a secret to the Cambodians. 

Similarly, poverty, bad relationships with the police, and racial prejudice have not been a secret to the residents of inner city Baltimore, yet many of the recent news stories treat those realities as a new discovery. 

Now, to add insult to injury, Baltimore has become a national symbol of a city that is failing, a city that has no response to the problems that seem to be overwhelming it.   The coverage of the riots by cable news networks was bad enough.  More recently, there has been a growing narrative in more reputable news outlets that Baltimore’s quirks really aren’t all that charming and that the City is losing the battle to remain viable.

A week and a half ago, the New York Times, in its Sunday Review section, published an article entitled “A Moveable Hangover” by Tim Kreider.   It was largely a boozy recollection by the author of his time in Baltimore, a story that had no news value and certainly didn’t belong on page one of the Sunday Review.  The Times apparently concluded that it was okay to kick Baltimore when it was down because no one would care enough to object.

Then, last week, Reuters ran a blog with the provocative title “Baltimore: It’s so much worse than you think.”  The article highlighted the spike in murders, the history of “rough rides” in police vans, the surge in drugs on the streets, and the squabbling among elected officials.    The last sentence quoted a city resident that “God is weeping for Baltimore.”

Baltimore has replaced Detroit and Newark as the poster child for urban problems.  Its current image is far worse than anything that arose from “The Wire.”   And still the rain keeps falling.

There are, however, a few patches of sunlight.  The 300 Men March last Saturday is a reminder that there are grassroots efforts underway to turn the City in a different direction.  Baltimore Lift has a Facebook page devoted to telling the positive story of everyday citizens working for a better future.  There are lots of other examples, and they are all significant as part of a solution to what ails the City.

But, by themselves, those efforts aren’t enough.  Political leadership and institutional commitments are also critical.  If Baltimore is to achieve economic growth that is shared by a substantial portion of its citizens, it will require significant changes in public policy that include public investment and reassurances to the private sector that Baltimore has a positive future.

The recent Supreme Court decision affirming an obligation under the 1968 Fair Housing Act to disperse housing for the poor may become an important tool, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the political resistance that any such effort will encounter. 

We are told that “Maryland is Open for Business” but I’m still waiting to see any evidence that Secretary of Business and Economic Development Mike Gill has any initiatives intended to help Baltimore. 

The Hogan Administration brushed off the Red Line as the wrong solution for Baltimore’s transportation needs, but hasn’t offered any version of the right solution nor any other steps that would help the economy of the city and the region.

The metropolitan area includes a number of relatively prosperous jurisdictions which increasingly act as if what happens in Baltimore has no effect on them.  It would be encouraging to see local county executives step up and take leadership in developing collaborative regional solutions to issues that face the City and their jurisdictions.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s goal of attracting 10,000 new residents to the City was never ambitious enough nor specific enough in how it would be accomplished.  Now it seems totally out of touch, yet we hear nothing more from the Mayor than a general pronouncement that we need to do better. 

Rawlings-Blake’s response to the most recent crime epidemic was to fire the police chief.   Then this week she announced the establishment of a City War Room to coordinate the efforts of all city agencies.  As she has in the past, the Mayor yet again described the situation as requiring “all hands on deck”.

However, if you think the City’s image is bad now, contemplate the national reaction if the next mayor is someone who was forced to resign from office for abusing the public trust by taking gift cards that were intended for the poor.   Baltimore deserves a better choice than between a mayor who can’t figure out how to lead publicly and a former mayor who is ethically challenged.

And for anyone who doubts the importance of the City’s image, think about companies making decisions about where to locate, conventions determining whether to bring their business here, and families considering where to buy a home. 

Why the Governor, the Mayor, leaders of the General Assembly, and county executives in the Baltimore region haven’t come together to agree on a unified approach to the issues facing the area is something of a mystery to me.  Of course, some of the explanation is petty political differences, but that explanation comes perilously close to governmental malpractice. 

At times, I find myself wondering what Baltimore greatest mayor, Don Schaefer, would do in this current situation.  While I won’t pretend to have an exact answer, I’m pretty sure I know what some of the elements would be.  For one, he would recognize that part of the challenge, while we wait to implement concrete action, would be to restore confidence in the city and its future.   He would find ways to bring citizens together in support of the city.

He would also focus on getting some “big” projects going.  Seeing visible activity, like giant cranes on the skyline, is one of the ways to show progress.  That’s another reason why cancelling the Red Line was such a lost opportunity and a gigantic mistake.

And, even if he couldn’t stand being in the same room with a governor who didn’t seem to care about his beloved city, he would have found a way to engage that governor for the benefit of the city and state’s residents.   My guess is that his efforts would have included working closely with the General Assembly’s leadership to make sure the State was part of any City revitalization effort.

And Schaefer would have realized that leadership is desperately needed in the short term to counter the increasingly negative portrayal of the City.  In this area, all we hear from elected officials is the sound of silence, a giant vacuum. 

What’s particularly disheartening is that average Baltimore citizens are showing their commitment and determination in ways that are lacking among elected leaders who need to be bold, public and courageous.  

As the deluge of bad publicity and difficult problems continue to rain down on Baltimore, no one has shown the ability or the will to stop the downpour.  

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.