A failed redevelopment and tax policy
Originally published in the Daily Record
For years, the tale of two Baltimores has been a story well-known to many locals. Now it has gone global. Members of the media from around the world visited our city to cover the heartbreaking riots, the peaceful protests, and their complex underlying causes. They saw Baltimore like they had never seen it before, and they relayed their impressions back to their home countries.
Federico Rampini, a correspondent for la Repubblica, one of Italy’s most famous newspapers, recently told his readers this: “Baltimore is, in reality, two cities light years apart. One is the Baltimore of renaissance … the Baltimore that has revitalized its harbor, enhancing tourism and developing luxury residences.”
Rampini, whom I suspect had never been to one of our impoverished neighborhoods before, then reported on the other Baltimore, where he “found it difficult to distinguish between the stores burned by the young rioters in the explosion of violence Monday night and those that had already been falling to pieces for many years.” Rampini seemed shocked to observe that many houses had been reduced to freestanding front walls. “Behind them there is nothing,” wrote the Italian journalist, “like an abandoned movie set transformed into a ghost town.”
With such grim descriptions circulating the entire planet, we are clearly in the midst of a worldwide public relations nightmare. “We’re going to have to tackle how the perception of the city suffered in the last few days,” lamented Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership.
Fowler is correct, but we Baltimoreans must understand that the image of Baltimore is nothing like the freestanding front walls of our dilapidated houses. Behind the perception, there is something: disturbing reality.
We have PR problems because they are often accurate reflections of our real problems — problems that have long caused real people to suffer in real ways. If foreign correspondents can’t tell the difference between riot damage and the ordinary condition of our communities, then the recent blow to our reputation is insignificant compared to the real harm done to our neighborhoods over the last several decades.
Of course, there are many causes of such harm, but one key source can no longer be neglected. Since before the 1968 riots, many of our civic leaders have placed PR above sound policymaking when crafting Baltimore’s redevelopment strategy. There has been a systemic effort to draw people’s attention away from the second Baltimore by revitalizing the first Baltimore and holding it up as an alleged depiction of the entire city.
In the first Baltimore, mainly downtown and along the waterfront, massive subsidies have been showered upon eye-catching, large-scale projects that look good for tourists and TV viewers. Additionally, private investment has been attracted with generous property tax breaks given to wealthy, politically connected developers. This formula has generated a renaissance in some of our neighborhoods, but the majority of the city has not even seen a trickledown from this very limited renewal.
It is time to admit that Baltimore’s redevelopment strategy has been too slow, too narrow, and too exclusive. A few weeks ago it was much easier to fool people into thinking that downtown and the waterfront made up the real Baltimore and that the image portrayed in The Wire was a grossly exaggerated fiction. Today there is no sense in using the first Baltimore as a façade anymore. The tragedy of the second Baltimore has been exposed to the world, and among the reforms that it calls for is an entirely new approach to revitalization.
The key to a new approach is understanding that the property tax rates paid by regular Baltimoreans are destructively high. Levels double those in every Maryland county are obscene, especially in contrast to the massive discounts given to select developers. A more equitable and effective redevelopment strategy demands no more tax breaks for the first Baltimore — just reasonable tax rates for all of Baltimore.
Let’s hope that our civic leaders quickly find fiscally responsible ways to significantly reduce the burden of our exorbitant property taxes. Without reform to our redevelopment strategy, the second Baltimore and the first Baltimore will remain, in Rampini’s words, “light years apart.” And when we finally take care of our reality, our image will take care of itself.
Louis Miserendino is director of the McMullen Scholars Program at Calvert Hall College High School and is a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.