Pugh must improve city’s quality of life
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.