Baltimore, riots and revitalization: distressed neighborhoods are more vulnerable to extraordinary shocks to the system
Fox News has a great article, "Riots rattle Baltimore homeowners, merchants key to urban revitalization" about the reaction of middle class residents living in various Baltimore neighborhoods in a variety of stages of revitalization to the riots and their willingness to stay the course. From the article:
The rioting and looting this week in Baltimore has homeowners and merchants crucial to the city's ongoing revitalization efforts worrying that the violence may have a chilling effect on future investments.Vacant properties, Reservoir Hill neighborhood, Baltimore.
For decades Baltimore has relied on newcomers willing to buy and rehabilitate dilapidated -- and often abandoned -- property to power the rebound of the city's more distressed neighborhoods.
But like in many mid-sized cities across America, the revival -- captured a decade ago with a simple one-word campaign, "Believe" -- is fragile.
What the issue is has to do with achieving a critical mass of people committed to, invested in, and capable of investing in revitalization, neighborhood by neighborhood.
DC uses a four stage typology to rate neighborhoods: distressed; emerging; transitioning; and healthy. Some cities use 6 or 7 stages, which I believe allows for more fine grade evaluation.
I used this model, but rating the commercial district separately from the residential area, to argue why the transportation investment in the Barracks Row commercial district of DC's Capitol Hill neighborhood seemingly had hyper velocity (see "Systematic neighborhood engagement").
But while at the time the Barracks Row commercial district significantly lagged the residential area, and was high emerging or low transitioning, the residential area was decidedly "healthy", hence speedy improvement of the commercial district, once the commitment to public investment was made. I also argue that you can rate places block by block, and apply specific interventions to improve those areas.
By contrast, most of the neighborhoods undergoing revitalization in Baltimore are at best emerging from the standpoint of the typology and therefore much more susceptible to changes in economic, social, and political conditions at the neighborhood, city, metropolitan, and state and national scales.
The Patterson Park Community Development Corporation engaged in portfolio investment, rehabbing a couple hundred properties, and either selling or renting them. But with the financial crisis of the 2008 financial crisis, they went belly up, and the neighborhood was wracked with foreclosures.
-- "Patterson Park, senators celebrate redevelopment of a city," Baltimore Sun, 1999
-- "MICA students moving to East Baltimore will face a mostly blank canvas," Baltimore Brew, 2010
-- "Unusual opportunity near Patterson Park," Baltimore Sun, 2009
Similarly, I was struck by a comment by an ANC commissioner in Anacostia quoted in a 2011 Washington Post article about changes in that neighborhood. I wrote about it in "Revitalization in stages: Anacostia." From the Post article:
Dasher and the community's other entrepreneurs are not without their critics. Anthony Muhammad, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member who is Muslim, was concerned that Uniontown would be serving alcohol and challenged Dasher's liquor license, delaying the restaurant's opening by several months.In a blog entry, I wrote this:
In an interview, Muhammad raised concerns that Dasher, who signed a 10-year lease, and some of the younger professionals who are moving into the area were not sufficiently committed to the area.
"We've seen people come and go before," Muhammad said. "I just would like to know how long she will be in this community . . . and whether this is the type of business, one that serves alcohol and is surrounded by four churches and a school, we need to embrace."
People do come and go.
Part of it has to do with the attainment of critical mass and the ability of a group of people to overcome the inertia and force of disinvestment. People leave when they don't feel these forces can be overcome. (The article discusses factors that have contributed to the development of critical mass, without using that term.) But not understanding what contributes to this ebb and flow [of change] is a failure in part of the leadership capacities of people like Mr. Muhammad.
Riots in Baltimore. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
In distressed and emerging neighborhoods, being "an urban pioneer" is really really hard.
It takes a lot out of you. You are likely to experience as many setbacks (be a victim of crimes etc.) and failures as successes, and success is in part a function of how many other people are trying to do the same thing. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Some people aren't cut out for it and leave, making it that much harder to achieve critical mass. It takes a long time.
In DC, it took about 40 years to reach the critical mass necessary for revitalization momentum to continue "on its own" with limited government investment. Malcolm Gladwell calls such points "tipping points" is his book on the subject of innovation diffusion.
It happened that point was reached coincident with other factors that significantly accelerated what had been a comparatively slow process.
Marion Barry no longer Mayor as of 1999, and the new Mayor focused on improving the quality of municipal services, and crime--which had hit record peaks in the mid-1990s, started to drop.
Outside "Central Perk," the coffee shop featured in the Friends tv show.
Another important change was that living trends began to support living in the center city, after many years favoring suburban choices. I believe this was stoked in part by television shows like Friends and Seinfeld showing living in the city as a cool thing.
The city's investment climate changed because of the election of Anthony Williams as mayor, and then with the big post 9/11 federal spending--although more in the region rather than in the city proper--the city got another economic charge.
Baltimore hasn't been so lucky. And so its improvement is much more subject to fits and starts, despite all its great assets