Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Reflections on Baltimore and a City’s Identity

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
-Winston Churchill

What gives a city its soul?  What gives a collection of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people a collective identity?  What does it mean to be “from” Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, or New York?  How does this identity shape our actions, our perceptions, and our buildings?  Why does the general attitude of a San Francisco native differ so dramatically from someone raised in Detroit?  And are these differences real, or are they just our perceptions, the labels we place on others in order to make sense of our scrambled, complex, incomprehensible world?

For the past two weeks, I have been in Baltimore.  In many ways, Baltimore immediately struck me as being similar to St. Louis: huge disparities between the haves (mostly white) and the have-nots (mostly blacks), widespread post-industrial decay, and beautiful early 20th century buildings now crumbling from neglect.  Yet Baltimore is very different from St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, or other post-industrial rust belt Midwest cities.  It was, and to a lesser degree, remains, a major port on the Eastern Seaboard.  Baltimore’s Harbor remains central to its identity, and residents here seem keenly aware of their connection to larger Chesapeake Bay. 

So what makes Baltimore “Bmore,” “The Charm City,” or the self-proclaimed “America’s Greatest City?”  How do Baltimorians come together to form a collective self-image?  And is there even a singular image for the city?  After all, Baltimore has 212 unique self-identified neighborhoods.  Perhaps in this city of 637,000, there is no identity, and the neighborhood reigns supreme.

In some places in the city, you can immediately tell exactly where one neighborhood changes into another neighborhood.  While some large swathes of Baltimore are poor and other areas are rich, a rich neighborhood may be located adjacent to a poor neighborhood and abruptly transition.  While riding my bike home from BNEC headquarters in Clifton Park (a relatively poor, mostly black neighborhood), I pass through CHM (aka, Coldstream, Homestead, and Montebello).  This neighborhood is even poorer than Clifton Park, as evidenced by decaying homes, litter in the streets, and shoddily constructed traffic lights.  Going up the Alameda, a main thoroughfare in Baltimore, I pass through two more neighborhoods, with conditions slightly better than CHM.

Yet, when I cross over from the Woodbourne-McCabe neighborhood into Homeland, the difference is dramatic.  Immediately, trees appear, houses are better up-kept, and the faces change from black to white.  After I enter into the gated, town-home community in which I have been staying, I can see no sign of the grit or poverty of Baltimore.  With this immediate context, I could be somewhere in my hometown of Schaumburg in the Chicago suburbs.

Another setting: on Saturday night, I ventured with my hosts to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the City’s main tourist attraction.  The Inner Harbor was once Baltimore’s busiest shipping dock, and now features restaurants, shopping, a science center, the Museum of Industry, and the famous Baltimore National Aquarium.  When Harbor Place, the first attraction of the Inner Harbor, opened in 1980, it helped spur the revitalization of downtown Baltimore.  After trying a crab-cake sandwich for dinner and sampling some Rita’s Italian Ice, I felt quite satisfied and happy to be in the Baltimore.  But is the Inner Harbor really Baltimore?  Is a city defined by its tourist destinations?
Last weekend, I attended a Baltimore Orioles game with a Wash U friend who lives in Baltimore County.  Like my friend and me, most of the fans attending the game were not from Baltimore City proper.  Many were from Baltimore County or in other suburban counties.  Other fans might currently live in Baltimore but did not grow up in the city.  Are these fans, who embody the image of Baltimore as “Birdland,” emblematic of the City of Baltimore?   After all, most are not from the city.  Yet, to the outside world, the Orioles are one of the main images of Baltimore.  Is this then a false perception, a mask of the “real” Baltimore?

During my time spent with BNEC, I traveled through many Baltimore neighborhoods.  I saw many areas that were very poor, but also explored some middle and upper class neighborhoods.  I accompanied a canvassing trip to a middle class residential neighborhood, went on a home visit to a poor woman’s row home in CHM, and listened to parents and teachers at a tabling event at Highlandtown Elementary.  In addition, I ran and biked through the luxurious neighborhoods surrounding Johns Hopkins University, where old homes of brick lined streets with extravagant ponds and well-groomed trees.  All of this diversity is contained within the city limits of Baltimore.  So, which of these neighborhoods holds the “true” identity of the city?

Perhaps this search for a Baltimore identity is just a matter of semantics.  Obviously, the idea of Baltimore is different for different people.  For a member of the perpetually poor black underclass, Baltimore will mean something completely different from the wealthy professor at Johns Hopkins.  But I do feel that the City of Baltimore, as with any other American city, does have a strong sense of place.  This summer, I hope to observe this sense of local identity and try to understand how hundreds of thousands of people can come together to create a shared purpose for a city.

This contemplation is not merely for my own amusement.  I believe that understanding place-making, and particularly understanding what makes a city thrive, is essential for our society’s future well-being.  We face tremendous challenges: climate destabilization, soon to be chronic water shortages, rapidly increasing inequalities, continued segregation and oppression of racial minorities, and still burgeoning demands for energy.  If we do not intentionally design our cities in ways that our conducive to our own human well-being, I say no way for us to deal with any of these monumental challenges.  And local culture plays a huge role in the dynamics of place; paraphrasing Winston Churchill, we shape the built environment, but then our buildings go on to shape us.

Baltimore, with all of its problems, is still managing to make progress and to improve.  The city has a developed a comprehensive sustainability plan and has an Office of Sustainability permanently located within the Planning Department.  The City has also managed to leverage partnerships between key community foundations, non-profits, and research institutions to provide services that simultaneously lift people out of poverty and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  I am not sure if this success is due to the determination of Baltimore citizens, charismatic leaders, or innovative non-profits, but I believe that all of these factors are necessary for a city to move forward. Can we learn something from Baltimore’s actions and apply its approach to cities nationwide?

I do not have the arrogance to think that my summer of traveling will yield any answers to the questions I have posed.  People have dreamt of utopian place-making since the dawn of civilization, yet very few cities manage to even satisfactorily meet all of its residents’ basic needs.  However, I do believe that the lessons of the past, as well as the lessons of the present, must serve as guideposts in our struggle to create a better future. 

So Baltimore, whether your identity rests in the decaying houses of CHM or the shiny, somewhat phony facades of the Inner Harbor, thank you for having me.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and I hope that the knowledge you have provided me over the past two weeks will serve me well in the future.

1 comment:

  1. I really loved this - I'm really interested in cities and they're "feel" so to speak. What makes Chicago different than DC, Baltimore, Cairo, Amman? I have a lot of the same questions that you posed! Who or what determines the soul of a city?

    Awesome post!