In less than two years, America will mark the 40th anniversary of one of its historic nightmares ? the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the urban unrest that followed. The University of Baltimore plans a major retrospective, complete with scholarly assessments and academic analyses. Other institutions will no doubt follow suit.
So what happened?
Within days of Dr. King?s death, 125 U.S. cities exploded in an orgy of looting and burning. Baltimore emerged from the four days and three nights of disturbances relatively unscathed by the nationwide yardstick. Even so, six people died, 700 were injured, more than 1,000 businesses ransacked and destroyed, countless houses torched, and 5,000 people arrested as the National Guard and Army troops patrolled downtown.
In many ways, that destruction marked the lowest point of Baltimore?s contemporary history. White flight to the counties accelerated, downtown department stores closed one by one, and a crisis of confidence paralyzed the city. William Donald Schaefer, during his mayoral tenure, did his best to energize the city.
But a real turning point did not come until Martin O?Malley became mayor in 1999. He took office at the same time the real estate industry discovered the dispirited city. Developers pursued a feverish construction pace that continues today. Over that time property prices have skyrocketed to realms that sound unrealistically high to Baltimoreans who have experienced the past.
It?s great that Bill Struever is building a real campus town near Johns Hopkins. It?s wonderful that the moneyed and prominent contribute to the city?s tax base by snapping up glittering condos along the waterfront. But none of this is enough, as long as the lasting scars of the riots are not healed in nine neighborhood retail districts that were ruined by them and languish as ghost towns nearly four decades later.
So far, only three riot districts have shown potential to turn around. Among them is Lombard Street?s Corned Beef Row, now surrounded by handsome town houses marketed for their proximity to the harbor. The 800-1400 blocks of North Gay Street, the epicenter of rioting, also hold promise. The area sits on the path of a huge residential reconstruction project linked to the new Johns Hopkins biotech colossus underway in East Baltimore.
If revitalization finally takes place along 1100-1400 blocks of West Baltimore Street, the University of Maryland will be the incubator. It is building another biotech center, giving the area a shot in the arm.
In contrast, the 1300-1500 blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue remain on life support, despite tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on demolition and reconstruction. Yet that stretch looks positively inviting in comparison to the 1500-1700 blocks of Harford Road, which never recovered. The once-thriving retail and entertainment strip along the 1900-2000 blocks of Edmondson Avenue wallows in similarly sad shape, as do the 1200 and 2100 blocks of West North Avenue and the 2000-2200 blocks of Greenmount Avenue.
Surely we can ? and must ? do better than this!
Baltimore?s history over the past four decades has amply demonstrated that no real turnaround in neighborhoods is possible unless private investors have the vision and willingness to jump in the game. The city can support and facilitate revitalization, but it alone cannot successfully breathe life to stigmatized or dead areas.
Here is a modest proposal. Let?s demand that all candidates for mayor, City Council president and city comptroller in the upcoming elections address the future of the riot-torn areas. Each candidate should be asked to submit a detailed plan ? in writing as well as in public forums ? on how to end the decades-long footdragging and inaction in each of the nine corridors. Give us a game plan and a time table so that we can judge your leadership potential.
This is not asking too much of men and women who will raise money to vie for the city?s top elected offices. If they cannot provide specifics, we will know they have nothing to offer. And we have heard enough platitudes.
For nearly four decades, little or nothing has happened in the riot-torn commercial areas. Enough is enough. It?s time to get hustling.Antero Pietila is writing a book about how bigotry shaped the Baltimore metropolitan area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.