The greater metro region is one of the wealthiest anywhere. Here are some bold ideas to break down the city's barriers.
he march of floats, fire trucks, and drum and bugle corps drew some 30,000 spectators to stoops and sidewalks from Falls Road to Keswick Road. Lottie Carnell, just 17, was named “queen” of the massive parade, and the teenager and her court led a nearly two-hour romp through Hampden’s balloon-filled “jubilant streets,” according to press accounts. Afterward, there was public dancing late into the night on the closed-off streets of Elm and Hickory, just off The Avenue.
The twilight fete, including a bonfire, in the summer of 1948, capped off three days of celebration. Not to commemorate the end of a war, the community’s founding, or even an Orioles championship—the O’s were still a minor league club then—but, wait for it, the 60th anniversary of Hampden and Woodberry’s annexation from Baltimore County into Baltimore City. Hooray, indeed. Who could imagine Charm City today without those neighborhoods’ vital commercial districts, repurposed mills, and quirky “Hey, hon” vibe?
Less than five months later, an overlooked referendum—written by a Baltimore County politician at the behest of the local Democratic party machine—ensured there would be no more Hampdens and Woodberrys annexed into the City of Baltimore. Or for that matter, any other Highlandtowns, Lauravilles, Violetvilles, Ashburtons, Howard Parks, or Roland Parks. All those neighborhoods, among others, had been annexed from Baltimore County and into Baltimore City (along with roughly 50 square miles of Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties) decades before the Hampden-Woodberry-Baltimore City lovefest.
The change to the state constitution may have appeared innocuous. It merely required that a majority of residents living within the annexation area approve annexation. In fact, it was not. There had been a decade-long fight prior to the massive 1918 annexation, which, like previous annexations, enabled Baltimore’s jurisdictional reach to follow commercial and residential development as it inevitably expanded over the city line. Baltimore County powers behind the 1948 referendum intended to close the gates around the city, one of the densest in the U.S. at the time. The passage of the measure, as intended, meant the commercial growth, new schools, and residential property taxes in the booming ring of post-WWII suburbs and towns—subsidized by state and federal tax dollars as well as racially discriminatory housing practices and G.I. Bill and FHA lending policies—would forever remain beyond the city/county partition.
It is no coincidence that Baltimore City’s population topped out two years later in the 1950 census and has been shrinking ever since. Subsequently, it has become one of the smallest major cities in terms of square miles. The closing of the city border was part of an even broader political effort that George Romney—the father of the Utah Senator Mitt Romney and Richard Nixon’s first Housing and Urban Development secretary—once characterized as a “high-income white noose” placed around the nation’s urban core. Romney had seen it play out in Detroit when he served as governor of Michigan.
The Baltimore Metropolitan Area, among the wealthiest in the country, continues to see growth—at the exclusion of the city itself.
From the approval of the ’48 referendum to the end of the last century, Baltimore County quadrupled its population and surpassed the city. (The restrictive 1924 Immigration Act, which plummented immigration to historic lows until the 1970s, didn’t help cities like Baltimore replace its losses, either.) Not surprisingly, the income gap—virtually nonexistent between the city and county in 1950—widened exponentially. Entire neighborhoods of low-income families were boxed in by segregated public housing that lacked effective public transportation and access to livable wage jobs, which were departing to the county as well, but also for the non-union Sun Belt and later to Mexico and China.
If you wanted to create a city plagued by segregation, you could not have planned it better. By 1993, in his seminal work, Cities Without Suburbs, urban expert and former Albuquerque Mayor David Rusk described Baltimore and other “inelastic” Rust Belt legacy cities, including Cleveland, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Newark, and Camden, as beyond the point of return without dramatic restructuring and regional governance. Targeted “urban” programs such as empowerment zones—no matter how well-intentioned—would never move the needle. Three decades later, the book—and its 1995 follow up, Baltimore Unbound—remains prescient. There were six Baltimore City census tracts where poverty was above 60 percent in 1990; that number had not budged by 2015, the year of Freddie Gray’s death and the subsequent riot and uprising.
Meanwhile, thriving “elastic” cities such as Charlotte, Jacksonville, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Nashville, Austin, Houston, Columbus, Madison, and Albuquerque expanded their footprints anywhere from more than 250 percent to 2,000-plus percent from 1950 to 1990. Baltimore football fans will recall Charlotte and Jacksonville beat them out for NFL expansion franchises in 1993.
“It’s hard to think, looking back, of any single public decision that’s proved to be more important to Baltimore City than that question in the 1948 election,” former City Councilman and current Abell Foundation president Robert Embry told Baltimore years ago. “It was a very shortsighted decision.”
n hindsight, there was frustratingly little coverage of the 1948 anti-annexation referendum. The Truman-Dewey presidential race and 22 other ballot questions—including funding for Memorial Stadium, a term limit for Maryland governors, and a Red Scare measure forbidding officeholders who advocated the violent overthrow of the government—overshadowed the proposal. That said, alert city activists, leaders, and The Sun’s editorial writers recognized the referendum spelled trouble. A sharp, opinionated gadfly known as “Mrs. B,” a thorn in the side of a half-century of City Hall administrations, called the annexation referendum “ridiculous.” Famous for her election-eve broadcasts, Mrs. B (real name: Marie Oehl von Hattersheim Bauernschmidt) correctly declared passage would “prevent the development of the city.” “Suppose,” she said, “annexation [into the city] had been unlawful and our boundary line would’ve been 25th St.?”
City residents agreed. They voted against the measure by a large count. Baltimore County, however, in what seems a suspiciously high 93 percent turnout looking back, voted in favor by more than 5 to 1. The huge numbers out of the county overrode the city tally and were enough to carry the measure statewide.
Ironically, up until 1853, the city and county had essentially been a single political entity. Initially, it was the city that seceded because of its diverging needs as a burgeoning urban center. By 1952, four years after the approval of the referendum, folks like then City Councilman Frank Flynn were already highlighting that the county was becoming less rural and more suburban and urban. Whatever the distinctions that previously existed, Flynn said, the political boundaries between the two jurisdictions—given their shared geography, economy, and infrastructure—no longer made sense. He noted, as many do today, that county residents took advantage of their proximity to the metro region’s economic and cultural engine, but without paying a fair share of the tax burden. Almost 70 years ago, Flynn proposed considering, if not more annexation into the city, then an even bolder idea—formal reconsolidation.
What if the city had added Catonsville, Rosedale, and Pikesville, local historian Gilbert Sandler once asked. And it had annexed Towson in 1960?
Legendary former state comptroller Louie Goldstein floated the same idea in reverse. He suggested the county annex the city. Needless to say, neither plan took root. The subsequent construction of the Baltimore Beltway and the urban expressways of I-83 and I-170, aka The Road to Nowhere, exacerbated existing problems in a way that Councilman Flynn and Mrs. B could not have envisioned.
Baltimore, a mid-century economic giant, losing a third of its population? Unimaginable in 1948. Also, not inevitable. Taken together, the city and county would comprise the eighth largest city in the country today. What’s more, the city's problems would be less concentrated and more manageable. Rusk’s research found areas that created metro governments through consolidation were less segregated by race and class, more fiscally sound, and economically healthier. A plan to reduce school segregation could be worked out if the two systems combined efforts.
Consider if Baltimore had continued to annex parts of the county and maintained its status as a top 10 U.S. city. What if, in the 1950s, as beloved city historian Gilbert Sandler once asked, it had added Catonsville, Rosedale, and Pikesville? Annexed Towson in 1960? What if those light rail stops past Woodberry—Lutherville, Timonium, and Hunt Valley—were in the city? What would it mean to Baltimore’s clout in Annapolis and ability to attract Fortune 500 companies?
Of course, more annexation, or even merging the city and county completely, would not have alleviated all of Baltimore’s problems. But it would’ve had a strong palliative effect. Obviously, neither is politically feasible at the moment. Although there have been relatively recent mergers, most of the last big city/county mergers in the U.S. took place in the 1960s. There’s too much entrenched division now. Also, the metro area has expanded—Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford, Howard, and Queen Anne’s are part of the equation. But as the recent COVID-19 crisis and its economic fallout demonstrates—along with issues like globalization and climate change—the city’s fate is inextricably linked to the wider world. It’s all the more evidence that Baltimore can’t go it alone in tackling its big problems. We need to act as one metro region if the next half century is going to be different than the last.
One bold idea kicked around in the early years after the passage of the 1948 referendum was a proposal for a federated model of the Baltimore metro region government—with each existing jurisdiction keeping some internal autonomy. In other words, the city and the surrounding metro counties would form something like the consolidated working arrangement that exists in cities like Toronto, London, and New York—think of the five boroughs—as well as Portland, Oregon, and the Twin Cities. Currently, there is an organization, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which in theory oversees regional planning, but it avoids controversy and has little power. No doubt few readers have heard of it.
“Someday it will almost certainly be adopted here,” a Sun editorial said of the federated government model proposed in 1956. “The question is, when and how?”
Over the next six pages, we look at 12 bold ideas to move Baltimore forward in the 21st century after decades of segregation, isolation, and stagnation. Some are successfully employed elsewhere, some are new, and several are being explored. One worked here before. The overarching theme is Baltimore will remain stuck in place until its internal physical barriers and its city line—a de facto border wall—are torn down.
Big Idea: Urban Planning
Baltimore should turn the dangerous JFX into a grand city boulevard and connect downtown and Mt. Vernon with Oldtown and the Eastside.
or most of the country, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake is remembered because it occurred during the live pre-game broadcast of Game 3 of the World Series at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. But among public transportation wonks, it’s recalled as a turning point in the effort to undo damage created by two-plus generations of urban highway development. The California DOT intended to repair the busted-up Embarcadero Freeway after the earthquake, warning chronic congestion would ensue with its closure. Instead, then San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos offered a bold alternative: Level the rest of the elevated, 1968-built Embarcadero and replace it with a tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly boulevard and streetcar line. Support coalesced around Agnos’ plan, and the Embarcadero—along with several miles of the similarly damaged Central Freeway spur—was bulldozed. Traffic problems? They never materialized, and public transit trips in the area increased by 75 percent. The number of people living and working near the new Embarcadero boulevard jumped. Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s historic Ferry Terminal was reconnected to its surroundings by new development.
San Francisco is hardly alone today. A stretch of Boston’s I-93 has been buried under a series of parks, connecting downtown to the waterfront. In 2002, Milwaukee tore down a section of its 1960s-built Park East Highway.
Worried about the farmers’ market? There’d be less cramped space available up the street under the Orleans Viaduct.
Now consider I-83, a nearly 60-year-old concrete partition between City Hall and Mt. Vernon and Oldtown. It’s elevated for six blocks over its final stretch downtown before coming to ground-level at Fayette Street. In other cities, well-designed boulevards have increased use of public transit and are shown to be effective at moving JFX volumes of traffic. Liberal pie-in-the-sky? Jay Brodie, past president of the Baltimore Development Corporation, pitched knocking down the JFX in the Baltimore Business Journal several years ago—“Let’s plan now to demolish this elevated, archaic section of I-83”—citing a 2007 study showing the concept was viable.
problem: high city emissions
SOLUTION: car-free streets
Four months ago, a two-mile stretch of San Francisco’s busiest, most iconic artery went car-free, with automobiles banned in favor of pedestrians, bicyclists, taxis, and bus riders. “If there was a street synonymous with San Francisco, it’s Market Street,” Mayor London Breed said during the announcement, describing the historic thoroughfare as “the everyday backbone of the city.” It may seem counterintuitive, but as the Golden Gate City grew from 50,000 to 800,000 residents since Market Street’s construction, it became obsolete for personal automobiles, which take up too much space to transport one person.
Following the lead of European cities, New York banned cars on 14th Street—a major east-west thoroughfare—in October. The endeavor has gone so well it has been nicknamed ‘The Miracle on 14th Street.” Harbor East and Fells Point, which tried an inaugural car-free, al fresco dining night last summer, seem tailor-made for car-free weekends, which reduce emissions, promote public transit, and add to family-friendly walk- and bikeability. But in Baltimore, the game changer would be a Charles Street car ban, which City Councilman Ryan Dorsey suggested while retweeting a Bloomberg story earlier this year that highlighted successes in other cities. “Congestion disproportionately affects vulnerable communities,” Tilly Chang, head of San Francisco’s transportation authority, said in the piece. “Less traffic means improved travel times for public transit, which many people rely on, as well as improved air quality,” which then improves public health.
Big Idea: Education
Magnet schools on the city/county line open to students in both districts can be a start.
lthough Baltimore was one of the first cities to desegregate its schools following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, hopes for an integrated school system evaporated as white families fled to the counties or enrolled their kids in private schools. What ensued we all know: a low-income, hyper-segregated, chronically underfunded system with a graduation rate roughly 20 percent lower than the metro region overall. Why does school integration matter? Students in integrated schools post significantly higher average test scores, are less likely to drop out, and are almost 70 percent more likely to attend a four-year college—even after students’ individual socioeconomic status is taken into account. The good news is the time for action may have arrived.
Baltimore City state senator Bill Ferguson, a former teacher and Annapolis’ new Senate president, has long sought to address the achievement gap created by school segregation. So how to do it?
In 2015, Ferguson authored legislation specifically intended to create diverse, socioeconomically integrated, multijurisdictional schools that would attract kids from the city and the surrounding county school districts. A proposal like that could at least start chipping away at the city’s concentration of hyper-segregated schools. Ideally, it would lead to fuller cooperation between school districts. There are steep political obstacles, of course, which is why the measure didn’t move five years ago. But the state’s new House leader, Del. Adrienne Jones, who is from Baltimore County, could prove a valuable Ferguson ally if she got on board. “More than 50 years of research affirms that poor and minority children perform best when they are not trapped in schools weighed down by concentrated poverty,” retired Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander wrote in a 2018 paper. The key to encouraging more families to move to and stay in the city, he adds, “is in growing the base of genuinely high-quality schools that look like all of Baltimore in their makeup.”
problem: too much mayoral power
SOLUTION: charter reforms
First things first. Among the slew of reform measures under consideration by the City Council is a charter amendment that would give the council the authority to oust a mayor for gross misconduct. But that’s just the start. Reform is needed of Baltimore’s so-called “strong mayor” system, which places more power in our top elected official than almost any mayor in the country. For example, only the mayor can make additions to the city budget during negotiations; City Council can merely seek cuts. In 2016, Councilman Bill Henry, currently running for comptroller, sponsored a change that would allow council members to make additions if the money was subtracted elsewhere. It was vetoed, not surprisingly, by former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Which brings us to another key reform—making it easier for the council to override vetoes. The current threshold requires three-fourths of the council, 12 of 15 members—a near-impossible margin for decades—to override. A two-thirds vote, the margin required in Congress, would require 10 votes. Also needed: the closing of a scheduling loophole that allows the mayor to avoid override votes entirely. Currently, a dozen-plus amendment bills have been introduced, but getting these three on the ballot in November is a must. Finally, the General Assembly must give Baltimore the right to implement a ranked-choice voting system. With more than 20 Democrats running for mayor, there’s every chance the next mayor will win the Democratic primary, and, for all intents and purposes, the city’s highest office, with less than 25 percent of the vote.
Big Idea: Urban Planning
The need for a transformative East-West line remains.
hortly after taking office, Gov. Larry Hogan quashed the city’s long-anticipated Red Line, the federally approved $2.9-billon east-west subway, without producing as much as a single formal review of the project. Hogan later spread the state’s share of the savings on various, and perhaps ethically questionable, highway projects. So, while roughly 30 percent of Baltimore households don’t have access to a vehicle, the city remains handicapped with a single subway track and single north-south light rail line that plods through downtown. Ultimately, building the Red Line is about more than just providing a way to get from West Baltimore to East Baltimore (and linking residents to thousands of jobs at the Social Security Administration and Johns Hopkins Bayview), critical as that is. It’s also central to connecting underserved city residents to more destinations in the broader regional transit network. Plus, it has the potential to spark creative investment in the Road to Nowhere corridor (see illustration), the long-since scrapped urban highway that was supposed to connect I-70 to downtown in the 1960s. “The Road to Nowhere broke up West Baltimore communities that are still trying to recover two generations later,” Glenn Smith, 71, vice president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition (BTEC), told Baltimore four years ago. “My family was one of those displaced. Those 19 stations along the Red Line would’ve brought considerable investment to the community.” Smith noted that studies show long mass-transit commute times are linked to unemployment in low-income neighborhoods.
The BTEC proposes that the state legislature create a regional transportation authority, similar to the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, the operator of the D.C. Metrorail system, which could raise fees, taxes, fines, bonds, and licensing as done in numerous regions around the country.