Pugh must im­prove city’s qual­ity of life

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Christo­pher Mul­dor Christo­pher Mul­dor (cmul­dor@gmail.com) is a Bal­ti­more free­lance edi­tor who fre­quently writes on pub­lic pol­icy is­sues.

Bal­ti­more Mayor-elect Cather­ine Pugh has said that she is ded­i­cated to tak­ing the city for­ward. This sen­ti­ment, how­ever sin­cere, will amount to lit­tle more than a po­lit­i­cal plat­i­tude if she is not able to change the tra­jec­tory of a city whose qual­ity of life has been per­sis­tently de­fi­cient in many crit­i­cal ar­eas.

For sev­eral decades, Bal­ti­more has been cel­e­brat­ing and brag­ging about a dizzy­ing va­ri­ety of ephemeral ac­tiv­i­ties. None of th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties — the Pride of Bal­ti­more, slo­gans on benches, the Grand Prix, the Flow­erMart, the Ravens’ Su­per Bowl vic­to­ries, Light City Bal­ti­more — have any real con­nec­tion with the city’s ma­jor prob­lems.

Most peo­ple know about Bal­ti­more’s high mur­der rate, even if they aren’t aware that the rate is seven times that of the im­pov­er­ished Bronx. But con­sider the state of three other im­por­tant func­tional ar­eas: trans­porta­tion, lit­er­acy and re­tail sales.

Al­most ev­ery trans­porta­tion in­di­ca­tor in Bal­ti­more is neg­a­tive. Gov. Larry Ho­gan has been pil­lo­ried by city lead­ers for his de­ci­sion to can­cel the Red Line. Th­ese crit­ics fail to re­al­ize that in­vest­ing a huge sum in a new light-rail sys­tem might not be pru­dent given the dis­ap­point­ing record of the ex­ist­ing line. Av­er­age daily week­day board­ings on Bal­ti­more light rail are among the low­est in the coun­try. Den­ver, Port­land and St. Louis all have much stronger rid­er­ship; even Salt Lake City, with a pop­u­la­tion of just 191,000, has three times more light rail rid­er­ship.

Heavy-rail rid­er­ship isn’t any bet­ter. How many peo­ple here are aware that At­lanta, with a pop­u­la­tion of 464,000, has over five times the rid­er­ship of Bal­ti­more? Com­mut­ing times here are as long as they are in Chicago, which is four times larger. Mean­while, in the All­state sur­vey of Amer­ica’s Best Driv­ers, Bal­ti­more comes in at 198 in a sur­vey of 200 lo­cal­i­ties.

Re­mem­ber the slo­gan “The City that Reads” that once adorned benches and mu­nic­i­pal ve­hi­cles? The city brags about the yearly Bal­ti­more Book Fes­ti­val, and Carla Hay­den, the long-serv­ing di­rec­tor of the Enoch Pratt Free Li­brary, re­cently was cho­sen to head the Li­brary of Congress.

If you think all this sug­gests a high level of read­ing, think again. When the Amer­i­can Li­brary As­so­ci­a­tion last con­ducted a full sta­tis­ti­cal sur­vey in 2011, Bal­ti­more came in dead last among the na­tion’s 25 largest cities in per-capita pub­lic li­brary cir­cu­la­tion. In ad­di­tion, the city ranked first, by a con­sid­er­able mar­gin, in the per­cent­age of li­brary branches closed since the late 1980s. (Could th­ese two statis­tics be re­lated?)

If the fig­ures on the pub­lic li­brary are ter­ri­ble, those on re­tail sales are shock­ing. The me­dian house­hold in­come in Pitts­burgh ($40,009) is slightly lower than that of Bal­ti­more ($41,819). Yet re­tail sales per capita in Pitts­burgh, at $13,413, are over twice those of Bal­ti­more, at $5,871. In­cred­i­bly, Cleve­land, with its ex­tremely low me­dian house­hold in­come of $26,179, has a 20 per­cent higher level of per-capita re­tail sales.

Th­ese facts in­di­cate that the city’s os­ten­si­ble re­nais­sance has un­folded in a con­stricted and un­bal­anced man­ner. This sit­u­a­tion was fore­shad­owed in the 1970s and1980s, when Bal­ti­more’s res­i­den­tial tax base plum­meted at the very time the city was brag­ging about its trans­formed im­age.

Im­proved out­comes will re­quire more ef­fec­tive poli­cies. First, how­ever, a frame of ref­er­ence that for too long has glo­ri­fied fes­ti­vals and the­atrics over fun­da­men­tals will need to change.

Talk of how a three-day auto race will “change the way the whole world sees Bal­ti­more” or how a Su­per Bowl vic­tory en­ables the city to “over­come its in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex” and gain “re­spect” needs to be dis­cour­aged — and ridiculed. Such talk is si­mul­ta­ne­ously inane and im­moral, as it re­in­forces the no­tion that putting on a false front to the world is more im­por­tant than meet­ing the day-to-day needs of city res­i­dents.

While no city of­fers magic so­lu­tions, some ac­com­plish­ments are note­wor­thy. Re­gional bal­lot mea­sures to raise sales taxes that fund mass-tran­sit projects give po­ten­tial users skin in the game and in­crease the prob­a­bil­ity of strong rid­er­ship. Den­ver is an ex­am­ple of a city that has used this ap­proach suc­cess­fully. St. Louis, de­spite its strug­gles with poverty and crime, strongly in­creased its li­brary cir­cu­la­tion fol­low­ing an ag­gres­sive cam­paign.

The promis­ing lo­cal health ini­tia­tive, Healthy Bal­ti­more 2020, has set out rig­or­ous, quan­ti­ta­tive tar­gets and spe­cific time frames for their ac­com­plish­ment. Such an ap­proach can serve as a tem­plate for pro­grams to in­crease tran­sit use, li­brary cir­cu­la­tion and re­tail sales, and de­crease auto ac­ci­dents. Civic or­ga­ni­za­tions and the me­dia will need to mon­i­tor and dis­sem­i­nate re­sults. Goethe’s great dic­tum, “Things which mat­ter most must never be at the mercy of things which mat­ter least,” should al­ways be the guid­ing prin­ci­ple in the ef­fort to cre­ate a more vi­able civic cul­ture in Bal­ti­more.

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