Friday, June 12, 2009

Something We're Doing Right: University of Baltimore

Let's focus on something we're doing right to improve the future prospects of the city: The University of Baltimore. The current expansions and development at UB in the Mount Vernon/Midtown-Belvedere neighborhoods of the city are exactly the kind of change Baltimore needs to move out of its schizophrenic doldrums of half slum/half viable city.

College, when you boil it down, is a chance to prove yourself. A chance to prove that you can work within a system. A chance to prove that you can meet deadlines. A chance to prove that you can consistently show up on time. A chance to show that you care. Now hopefully those that attend also gain some knowledge in the process to prepare them for a more enlightened career in the work force. But we all know that what you learn in the real world and what you learn in college, while not mututally exclusive, are often very different. But the fact remains employers want to know their prospective employees for higher paying jobs are reliable people when they walk in for a job interview. Requiring a college degree or above for the position helps to ensure that.

Unfortunately much of the disadvantaged population of Baltimore is written off very early. The prospect of simply driving through the West Side is too much for some of the more easily frightened area residents - so I have to assume the thought of hiring someone from there is even more terrifying. Thinking that we can rid ourselves of this sort of institutionalized racism overnight is naive. But these attitudes can be overcome in a positive way that changes our urban culture for the better; by going to college.

Fortunately this is the same way that folks who are not from the West Side or other distressed neighborhoods have to prove themselves - and is therefore at least somewhat fair. What's not fair is that a disadvantaged student will not be able to attend the area's best schools unless they absolutely excel enough to get a large scholarship. But while UB may not be Johns Hopkins, it is a start, and a fine place for students to prove they're ready to achieve the next level or responsibility and pay in the work force.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Baltimore Infill Survey Proposal: Vertical Farm/Arabber Stable

The Baltimore Infill Survey is an inspired initiative from the Baltimore Office of Promotion and Arts soliciting ideas for what to do with all the vacant space in the city via images uploaded onto its Flickr photostream. The survey is completely democratic, in that anyone who sends an idea in the form of an image to the project's coordinator, Gary Kachadourian, will get it onto the web page, adding to the discussion. However, images must adhere to the format, adapting the "stock image" available on the Flickr page by adding their proposal for future development onto a vacant lot, between rowhomes.

My fanciful Baltimore Infill Survey proposal is for a Vertical Farm/Arabber stable. The poorest Baltimoreans desperately need access to better diet options. When you drive through the most economically challenged areas of the city, one of the things that sticks out the most is the lack of businesses. Poverty, crime and drugs have tragically scared many of even the most essential shops like grocery stores out of the neighborhoods on the east and west sides. The few corner stores that remain often sell only junk food, alcohol and soda turning a bad nutrition situation into a nightmare. Plus the carry out restaurants in these neighborhoods generally sell low nutrition, high fat foods like Fried Chicken and Lake Trout. Not surprisingly, the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore - with the worst access to health care - also have the highest rates of diabetes, obesity, hypertension and heart disease.

The good news is we already have all the necessary factors to grow healthy fruits and vegetables right in our neighborhoods: sunlight, water, either from rainfall or a city water system capable of servicing a million residents in a city of 650,000, and land in the form of the vacant lots and buildings those 350,000 departed left behind. Another positive is that we still have the traditional profession of Arabbing, horse drawn produce peddlers for you non-Baltimoreans out there, who wander the city streets selling fruits and vegetables off the backs of their carts in these very same neighborhoods. Why not just combine the two while making use of some of that vacant property which currently does little more than play host to junkies and rats?

So why a tower, you ask? Can't we just grow food on the ground? Well, we can of course. But for one thing, those same junkies and rats would probably do something to foul up any urban farming initiative that took place out in the open. Just because we start an idealistic green garden doesn't mean that the real world is going to cooperate. So, as always on the east and west side, security is a major concern and could be afforded by a smartly designed, enclosed vertical tower that is staffed. But a vertical farm has other pluses in that crops could be grown all year long, instead of just during the warm months, due to its greenhouse design and smart water distribution hooked into the city water system. Perhaps even more importantly, having residents of the city's roughest neighborhoods and those who travel through them see something like a gleaming agriculture tower being built for once in such areas might even start to change some attitudes. It won't be easy. But showing people you actually care about them in terms of development can go a long way in neighborhoods that have been left off the map for over a generation now.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Where Even the Simplest Answer Gets Complicated

Even the simplest answer to the enormous drug problem that plagues Baltimore is, of course, bound to get complicated. This should come as no surprise to those who have wrapped their heads around just how big a part of the regional economy the drug "industry" accounts for. If we take for gospel truth the vague estimate that there are 50,000 heroin addicts in the City, then the reach of the local drug economy starts to become frighteningly clear.

So let's fantasize a bit and say our society actually finds a way - like a cashless society - to seriously curtail drug activity . What are those who had previously worked in the drug trade going to do for a living? These are overwhelmingly not college graduates or even high school graduates we're talking about. Many have violent backgrounds stemming from the violent world they've participated in. Removing their sole source of income could cause all sorts of other problems if not managed properly; and might turn the streets of our city into robbery and kidnapping zones more closely resembling the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo or the slums of Mexico City.

This is where society needs to get smart and coordinate policy from different angles. Should we have the good fortune to find a way to phase down the drug trade in this city, educational and social services need to be in place to reform those exiting that world of criminality and easing their assimilation back into productive society. It will not be easy by any means. But if it is not done, then we could find ourselves with a whole new set of problems replacing those of yesterday.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Simplest Answer to the Drug Problem

The simplest answer to the enormous drug problem which envelopes our city will probably not happen anytime soon, but it deserves consideration and discussion nonetheless. Let's start off by agreeing, as most conscious Americans have for over two decades now, that the "War on Drugs" is an absolute failure. Our national strategy towards stamping out drug use has had virtually no effect on what goes on in the real world. We have neither the manpower, resources, nor prison space to stop the drug trade by using aggressive police enforcement. It's not like we haven't tried; America has more people locked up in prison than any other country on Earth, and the plurality (the most of any category of crime) of those prisoners are being held for drug related offenses. But the drug trade continues, unabated, with the hits it takes from law enforcement just part of the cost of doing business - especially in Baltimore. What we need to truly combat this problem is a gamechanger, something that will throw all the cards up in the air and let them fall, hopefully in the stack of a more functional society. The quickest and most effective way to achieve this is a cashless society.

Why do we still have cash? The information technology networks that allow virtually everyone to use "credit or debit" at virtually every retail business in America are now fully developed. We all know people who voluntarily choose to rarely use cash simply as a matter of convenience, so they don't have to make that extra step trip to the ATM machine. Large purchases, such as houses, business to business transactions etc have not used cash for decades or even centuries because of security concerns over the risk of currency notes being robbed. Person to person transactions on monies owed can easily be accomplished through bank transfers or PayPal. So why are we still using this stuff? So some restaurants, bars and nightclubs and their employees can cheat on their taxes? So we can continue to pay illegal immigrants off the books? To keep a drug trade alive that relies on cash transactions?

Now typically when you hear this idea brought up, a standard reply heard is "Somebody will just figure out a way to do it without cash.” I have no doubt someone will. But I do doubt that person will be Dave the Dopefiend or Sam the Smack Dealer. Now it’s worth mentioning that in our current drug economy people further up the ladder have found a way to launder their cash and turn it into real income that can be used for large purchases such as houses, cars, investments etc. A cashless economy would push this need for money laundering further down the totem pole however, onto street level dealers and more importantly, run of the mill drug users who are not exactly known for their information technology prowess when it comes to covering up electronic trails. The results would be apocalyptic for the drug trade as we know it, and while it most likely would not eliminate it entirely, it would push drug dealers off the street corners (where you can’t use debit card machines) and into cyberspace, a realm that would be frankly much easier to investigate and prosecute than the current guerilla warfare set up of law enforcement we have on the east and west sides of Charm City.

Two interesting case studies that parallel what I’m talking about are the prostitution and pornography businesses. Both of these businesses have largely and voluntarily gone electronic since the mass adoption of the Internet in the mid 1990’s. The result is that you rarely see a street walking prostitute in a major city anymore, whereas pre-Internet they were everywhere. It’s also increasingly hard to find Red Light districts littered with sex shops when people can simply find pornography and erotic products online. Even The Block, Baltimore’s own Mecca of sleaze , is a skeleton of its former self due to the migration of its business onto the web. The introduction, at long last, of a cashless economy would push drugs off the streets as well, minimize their sale to transactions between only the most enterprising and electronically savvy dealers and buyers, and make it much, much easier to detect drug activity and prosecute it through the use of the electronic trail.

There will be business practices and aspects of our lives that change in a cashless America, of course. Marijuana users, for instance, are going to be pissed that the coke and heroin dealers fucked it up for everyone else by necessitating on the books transactions. But perhaps this will allow for a more real democracy. If people really want to smoke pot, then they should vote for candidates that push to legalize it. As it is now, we have entire shadow portions of our economy that never come up for consideration in the public square, simply because it's easier to pursue them off the books with cash money.

So why won’t it happen? People are stuck in their ways for one and despite voting Barack Obama President during a financial crisis, are resistant to major change at a base level. We all know that if a cashless society was seriously proposed by a politician, the blowhards would come out in full force, with some conservative prick saying it would be government taking away our “freedoms” or some liberal prick saying that government would pry too much into our lives without the shield of $100 or $200 worth of paper in each of our pockets to save us. But putting these knee jerk reactions aside, a cashless society would go a long way toward preventing and disabling the drug trade and myriad other crimes from taking place. It should be given serious consideration. Preferably after a walk around the West Side of Baltimore.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Problems: This Commercial

We already knew WBFF Fox 45 had no shame. Apparently they have no decency either (and no money for production value).

Monday, May 11, 2009

Who Wants to Live in Baltimore?

One of the most obvious issues affecting the very survival of the city itself is the loss of residents it has steadily experienced since the height of its population in the 1950's. During World War II, people flocked in droves to industrial centers like Baltimore, stretching infrastructure and overcrowding neighborhoods, with no relief throughout the War due to the moratorium on new building put in place by FDR's Administration to ensure all resources and labor went directly to the war effort. The result for Baltimore was a population in 1950 just shy of 1 Million people.

Since that peak the growth of the city's population has declined decade after decade, with the possible exception (hints are often given off by officials in the press that the stats are being juked) of the current decade we're living in. Today the population of the city according to census estimates is around 637,000 residents, a 32% drop from 1950. The reasons are simple enough:

  • The tense racial situation alone in the city scares the shit out of many residents.
  • The city school system is generally considered an unmitigated disaster, necessitating the common big city expenditure for private school for those who want to both remain in the city and provide their kids with a good education.
  • The erosion of much of the tax base of the city over the past 50+ years has made for jaw dropping property taxes, over double those found in the neighboring County, which, by the way, provide for worse social services than those found in Baltimore County.
  • "Did you know we have high crime?" as the waitress at Matthew's Pizza told a new doe-eyed transplant from Boston, in a glorious Baltimore accent.
So who would want to live in Baltimore given these conditions? Let's make a list:
  • Young people, in their 20's and 30's, with no kids yet, who rent apartments (no property taxes) and want to be near Big City cultural venues and the social and romantic opportunities afforded by urban nightlife.
  • College students.
  • Gays and Lesbians who look to the city for a more tolerant attitude toward their lifestyle. The city has done a poor job in reaching out to this community however, making neighboring Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York all more attractive options.
  • Rich people who send their kids to Gilman or Boys' Latin, could frankly give a damn about property taxes, get in a huff about people taking their park away but not about sky high murder rates and live in a world resembling an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel in Roland Park or Guilford.
  • People who don't know any better. Take a walk around Hampden and you'll find plenty. Many of whom are in their teens and can be seen pushing baby carriages, smoking and getting into domestic quarrels on The Avenue.
  • Resident physicians at city hospitals who fear they'll fall asleep at the wheel if they opt to commute in from the County.
  • Drug dealers who enjoy and profit off the easy access to the area's many junkies.
  • Junkies who enjoy the easy access to the area's many drug dealers.
  • People who can't afford to move.
  • People who really, really love the city.
Have any to add to the list? Post them in the comments section.

Thanks to The Real Estate Wonk...

I wanted to thank poster MCG for his rec and Jamie Smith Hopkins of The Baltimore Sun's The Real Estate Wonk blog for her recent shout out about us.

Apologies to those who have been following us. I've been busy traveling to other cities recently for work which has devoured most of my time. But I promise more to come...starting tonight.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Problems: Segregation

It's 2009. African-Americans are serving as both Mayor of Baltimore and President of the United States. Yet Baltimore is still a very segregated city, over 40 years after the Civil Rights and Fair Housing Acts were signed by Lyndon Johnson.

It's a problem that often dare not speak its name, at least loudly, in polite conversation around Charm City. But when it comes to where people live at least, there are very few neighborhoods in this city whose populations contain a substantial mix of white and African-American residents.

When looking for apartments around town last summer, my wife and I saw the issue, for once, when it could be most handily utilized by one landlord or another, pushed to the foreground. A friendly enough Roland Park resident who sought to rent us a nice apartment near Johns Hopkins University turned up the pressure with what he must have thought was the "light touch" after we told him we needed time to think about it:

"Well don't wait too long," he said, "because the way things work around here is that it's easy to rent an apartment in wintertime. But the closer you get to September, when all the college students come back, the harder it is to find a place. And pretty soon you're going to find yourself on Greenmount Ave, in the 'hood". (emphasis added)

To far too many of the white residents of the city, "Good neighborhoods" in Baltimore, are invariably white neighborhoods. Bad neighborhoods are invariably black or, now to a small but growing extent, Latino. These "definitions" provide easy to recognize visual cues for the supposed safety of a particular area: all you have to do is look out the window of your car and see what ethnic group surrounds you. These lazy simplifications do nothing to provide people any understanding of the social stratification taking place within the African-American community. Some black neighborhoods are wealthier and have much less crime than others, but many white residents of the city are unaware of this, choosing simply to look at the color of the neighborhood before making a sweeping judgment that it's not a place they want to be. Worse yet is that the connections needed to form a community that serves all of us, with institutions all of us can trust and rely on, are never made due to the fears and prejudgments of those who hold us back.

Yet despite the obviousness of the segregation that surrounds us every day, it is rarely if ever even talked about, let alone addressed in any substantive way that could bring about a more unified, integrated city. This needs to change.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Problems: Drugs

Perhaps the most obvious and urgent problem afflicting the City of Baltimore is its enormous heroin epidemic. The famous estimate that has stuck in the both the press and popular imagination is that there are approximately 50,000 full blown addicts in the city, or 1 out of every 10 adults. But there is no way of knowing whether this number is accurate, due to the fact that nobody has even done the legwork, aside from former Baltimore City Public Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein's estimate 3 years ago, to figure out what the true metrics and dimensions of the epidemic are. This is an unforgivable oversight in and of itself, but more on that later.

While we may not know the exact size of the drug problem confronting the city, the signs of it are everywhere. You cannot drive through either the east or west side of downtown without seeing numerous junkies, dealers, syringes on the pavement, drug addicted prostitutes soliciting, or all of the above. Beyond all these commonplace signs of a dysfunctional society is the violence and sky high murder rate that encircles a drug trade and culture where the only recourse for grievances, petty and otherwise, is gunfire.

The toll goes even further than those lives taken in the drug violence or the zombie lives being led by those addicted to heroin. The neighborhoods most heavily affected by the drug trade have had most other forms of commerce move out, with sensible business owners deciding that the profit potentials in these areas are simply not worth the constant threat of violence and robbery.

What's notable about the drug and specifically heroin problem in Baltimore though is that the scope of it is much greater than almost any other city in the country. There are areas of blight in our neighbors DC, Philly and New York, but nothing to the extent of the devastation seen on the East and West sides of the City. Add to that the excruciating difficulty of getting heroin addicts off their drug of choice and the city becomes saddled with "The Crisis That Keeps on Giving" for generations into the foreseeable future, along with the crime and HIV rates that come part and parcel to the heroin epidemic. Finding some way to lessen or halt this ongoing human tragedy needs to be Job #1 in the City of Baltimore

The Problems

Obviously, Baltimore has plenty of problems, so in an effort to try to get our heads around some of them I'll present what I deem to be most difficult issues facing the city, one by one. Many of these problems overlap, racial issues beget poverty which begets a drug trade for example. But for the sake of simplicity I'll try to tackle them one at a time as best I can. Then it's on to some solutions...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

First Things First...

This thing needs to go, and it needs to go now.

Another day with this ill conceived statue, Male/Female by Jonathan Borofsky, standing in front of Penn Station is another day someone traveling to Baltimore for the very first time takes their first steps into the city and asks themself, "What the hell is that piece of shit? And what kind of city would allow it to stand in front of their train station?"

The criticism of the city is unfair, as virtually everyone I've spoken to about this monstrosity, from all walks of life, thinks the thing is a piece of crap that should be sold for scrap at the next auction. We are in a recession, after all, and the city could create a win/win situation by removing an eyesore while adding a couple grand to its budget.

This is not the first badly chosen piece of Baltimore public art and it won't be the last, in a town that has sunk a long way from the Washington Monument by Robert Mills in Mount Vernon. The statue is, however, one of the worst and, indisputably, the most prominent example of bad art in the city and needs to be done away with. Now.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Where We Are

It seems wherever you go in the City of Baltimore these days, there's a feeling of apathy and discouragement that envelopes Baltimorean's attitudes as to what is possible in their hometown. Former Baltimore Sun columnist Michael Olesker described it, in part, as a "civic inferiority complex" on a recent appearance on the Mark Steiner Show. But this only begins to touch on the problem.

"Baltimore's not really such a great place," a Harford County resident recently told me at the Bi-Annual Spaghetti and Ravioli Dinner at St. Leo's Church in Little Italy, before she told the tale of how her father, a shopkeeper who had run a business just east of Patterson Park for over half a Century, had called it quits after being held up with a shotgun in the 1990's.

A few weeks earlier at Matthew's Pizza in Highlandtown, I stood waiting for a takeout order with a crowd of patrons while a young woman in front of me at the counter told the cashier lady, "I just moved to Baltimore."

"Did you know we have high crime?", came the reply, to the nervous laughter of all those within earshot.

Indeed, it wasn't really all that funny. The crime that has consumed Baltimore City over recent decades has turned a once thriving Metropolis into a place where many longtime residents would simply rather not live anymore. It's not that they don't like the region, as the overwhelming majority simply relocate over the County line where property taxes are cheaper and schools are better. But the triple threat of crime, race issues and poverty have consumed the public mindset regarding the City.

But worse yet is that the response to these issues from both the city government and its citizenry has either been misguided or non-existent. It often seems as though the city simply cannot do anything right when it comes to dealing with, admittedly, enormous issues which threaten its very existence.

We can do better than this.

I've started this blog to help promote discussion and come up with ideas that will help improve the City of Baltimore. My hope is that it will be a place where intelligent, informed and frank dialogue can take place on a variety of important issues that people all too often ignore in Charm City. I invite you to take place in this discussion and hope that we collectively we can make this City - in which there is still, despite its tremendous problems, a great deal of pride - a better place.

- Patapsco Jones