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Balancing the City’s Development

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake is right when she says the demands of the neighborhoods have to be balanced with demands of the city’s visible developments.

At the moment, says M. J. "Jay" Brodie, the city’s one-time housing and development chief, the balance is not there. And balance is important for the future of the city, he says. “I don’t think the problems of Baltimore are unique,” Brodie says, “but I think they are deep. I think it will require – unique is too big a word – but some rare political leadership is necessary to make a dent, a serious dent in these problems. But it’s possible.”

The big planning and highly visible Inner Harbor or Harbor East or Canton Crossing developments can lead to unhappiness in the neighborhoods – almost always. All the money’s being spent downtown, the people will say.

William Donald Schaefer, author or head cheerleader of the first modern Baltimore renaissance, lamented this outcry from the start of his long tenure as mayor. The mayors who followed him were not spared. It becomes the mayor’s job to show people the importance of downtown development – and to do as much as possible to illustrate concerns with new projects where needed in the neighborhoods.

That said, the now retired housing and development boss reckons that some city neighborhoods haven’t had much attention from City Hall in years.

Harlem Park resident Maurice Brown says the city has been negligent in caring for his neighborhood. Houses are literally falling down before the eyes of anyone passing by. “The money, whatever, the programs to get the houses but the city is not doing what they supposed to do. They moving people out in the county, people that’s tryin’  to stay in the city and become taxpayers...I [blame] it on the city,” he says.

These failures, Brown says, are making living in the neighborhoods difficult. “I have to stay on my son so he won’t lose hope and come out here and do something crazy,” Brown says. “I’m proud of him. He’s taking care of his kids; he has a nice wife and everything, right? But still the city, the administration, who’s in control. They not up front with a lot of things. Their agenda is not for the people.”

Brody listens to Brown’s lament with sympathy and alarm. There was a time, he says, when community groups and city officials worked together for change. Less so now, he says. “The gentleman we came across, he hasn’t seen and I haven’t either the kind of close relationship that used to exist between the planning department and housing department of the city,” he says.

There’s a vacuum of conversation with city residents across the board, Brodie says. But it’s true especially with impoverished neighborhoods. Neglect is obvious, he says. A falling-down house at the corner of S. Carey St. and Edmondson St. where we met Maurice Brown, he says, make his point.

“This obviously didn’t happen overnight. … It’s time for the city to come back to Harlem Park and pay its debt to the people who hung out here. The people who go to the churches. The kids who go to a whole bunch of schools a few blocks down from my right who are going to get new financing. Harlem Park hasn’t gone away as a neighborhood. The city has gone away,” he said.

Why a debt, he’s asked. “Because people like the gentleman you just spoke to have survived and haven’t given up. There are still people living here. There are blocks here that look pretty good. It has the makings of what could be a sound inner city neighborhood.”

Brodie believes as much as 50 percent of the city’s inner city housing is vacant and abandoned – a figure well above the figures usually cited. “The question is do we just sit by and let this continue to happen which would be a very sad outcome and probably the disappearance of Baltimore’s characteristic housing stock,” Brodie said.

Some cities – Cleveland and Detroit, for example – have given up, demolishing block after block of buildings like the one at Edmonson and Carey. Not so in Baltimore, says Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

“I don’t know how to give up,” she says. The issue, though, is what to do exactly. Mayor Rawlings-Blake says her Vacants-to-Value program demonstrates concern for Mr. Brown and others.  She says she and her administration are working on better communications with the neighborhoods.

Brodie says a much greater effort is needed to save hurting neighborhoods – something like a Superstorm Sandy cleanup. City planners, innovative thinkers and businessmen should be convened in something like a summit, he suggests. “People of good will and experience need to be brought together and I would say brought together by the mayor and city government to sit down and come up with the most creative answers that they can for some of these neighborhood problems,” he says.

The absence of a visible effort, a plan shared with people like Maurice Brown and his son is a grievous failure, Brodie says. “If you have a plan that’s implemented even incrementally, bit by bit, it gives people hope. They’re willing to stay in neighborhoods. They believe city government is on their side. The psychology is very important."

Just to make sure his point is made, Brodie invokes a higher authority: “The Bible says somewhere without vision the people perish.”