Bal­ti­more’s big prob­lem is that it’s a small is­land

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By M. Hirsh Gold­berg

Not all cities are created equal. And Bal­ti­more may be one of the most un­equally created ma­jor cities in the United States.

I am re­fer­ring to two fac­tors that are likely among the key rea­sons caus­ing Bal­ti­more’s cur­rent prob­lems.

One is the small phys­i­cal size of the city: It is only 81 square miles in area, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau — one of the smallest ma­jor cities in the na­tion.

Se­condly, the city has the un­usual po­lit­i­cal and ge­o­graph­i­cal sta­tus of not be­ing in a county. Bal­ti­more City is ba­si­cally a small is­land in the sea of Mary­land, stand­ing alone amid 23 coun­ties as “an in­de­pen­dent city.” St. Louis and Car­son City, Ne­vada, are the only other ma­jor cities with this sta­tus to­day. (Vir­ginia’s 38 cities are all in­de­pen­dent be­cause that state’s con­sti­tu­tion re­quires it.)

Over time, a num­ber of smaller cities else­where, once in­de­pen­dent, have been made part of coun­ties. For Bal­ti­more, while be­ing in­de­pen­dent had ben­e­fits in the past, to­day it means less rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the state leg­is­la­ture and an in­abil­ity to draw on the re­sources of a coun­ty­wide gov­ern­ment.

Much of this ex­o­dus of city res­i­dents is re­flected in a move­ment across the city’s small bound­aries into sur­round­ing coun­ties where taxes are lower and schools are per­ceived as bet­ter.

Dur­ing its his­tory, Bal­ti­more has ex­pe­ri­enced three expansions to reach its 81 square miles. The last ex­pan­sion oc­curred in 1918 when the leg­is­la­ture au­tho­rized an­nex­a­tion of ad­join­ing land in Bal­ti­more and Anne Arun­del coun­ties. No other changes have been made in Bal­ti­more’s size in 100 years.

Many U.S. cities have been en­larged through an­nex­a­tion or were orig­i­nally es­tab­lished on large tracts of land. New York City, first in pop­u­la­tion (8 mil­lion), is the re­sult of a se­ries of an­nex­a­tions and now sits astride 309 square miles. Los An­ge­les, sec­ond with 3.9 mil­lion, sprawls across 469 square miles. Amer­ica’s cur­rent sixth largest city, Phoenix, has 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple, but at 475 square miles, it has six times the area of Bal­ti­more.

Con­sider how Bal­ti­more is viewed com­pared with Jack­sonville, Florida, one of the na­tion’s fastest-grow­ing cities. The 2000 cen­sus listed Jack­sonville the 14thmost-pop­u­lated city in the United States with 735,617; by 2014, that city soared to 12th with a rise in res­i­dents to 853,382.

But Jack­sonville is the re­sult of an­nex­a­tions from 1970 to 1990 and now cov­ers 759 square miles. In fact, Jack­sonville is the largest city area-wise in the 48 con­tigu­ous states.

To put this in per­spec­tive, if Bal­ti­more City and Bal­ti­more County (pop­u­la­tion 754,000 on 589 square miles) were com­bined, the re­sult­ing area, though smaller than Jack­sonville’s, would rank Bal­ti­more City/ County as Amer­ica’s sixth-largest city — back where Bal­ti­more City stood in the 1960s.

Bal­ti­more alone may just be too small in area and too po­lit­i­cally iso­lated to ad­e­quately ad­dress its prob­lems. It needs to pro­duce more tax rev­enues, fix crum­bling neigh­bor­hoods, gen­er­ate job op­por­tu­ni­ties, re­tain busi­nesses, at­tract new in­vest­ment and cre­ate a safe, clean en­vi­ron­ment — prob­lems that many mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties face, but es­pe­cially in his­toric Bal­ti­more.

Po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties stand in the way of rec­ti­fy­ing the city’s sit­u­a­tion by ex­pand­ing its bor­ders again. How­ever, the gov­er­nor and the leg­is­la­ture, in the best in­ter­est of the state’s pri­mary city, as well as the fed­eral gov­ern­ment should rec­og­nize the spe­cial, de­bil­i­tat­ing po­si­tion in which Bal­ti­more has been placed. Such recog­ni­tion needs to be part of future plan­ning and al­lo­ca­tion of re­sources and projects.

For­tu­nately, some ac­tions are oc­cur­ring that will ben­e­fit Bal­ti­more. The re­cently con­cluded Kir­wan Com­mis­sion has called for — and the leg­is­la­ture is ex­pected to sup­port — a sig­nif­i­cant change in state fund­ing of schools, es­pe­cially in ar­eas of con­cen­trated poverty. This should have a ma­jor im­pact on the city’s future.

With a re­newed, vig­or­ous fo­cus on life-chang­ing mea­sures for Bal­ti­more, this city that was once Amer­ica’s third largest, that gave birth to our na­tional an­them, can have a re­vival and no longer be a small is­land drown­ing in ne­glect and in­dif­fer­ence.


Two peo­ple walk past va­cant row­houses on the 1800 block of Di­vi­sion St. in Bal­ti­more.

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