Baltimore: Governing Two Cities in ‘Crisis’

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderMadeleine Pill reports on findings from a second round of research in Baltimore  carried out as part of the collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network, and led by Prof. Jonathan Davies.

Baltimore exemplifies the US conception of ‘urban crisis’ – our focus on the crises of welfarism resonated with elites and citizen activists engaged in or seeking to change the city’s governance.  They cited the challenges the city faces in terms of its ‘fiscal squeeze’, compounded by population decline, poverty concentration and the resultant struggle to provide even basic services, aggravated by very high levels of public safety / police spending shrinking funding for other priorities such as education and job training.  But an underpinning narrative about Baltimore’s racial division and the resultant trauma was also clear – heightened by the ‘uprising’ in the city in April 2015.  This had disrupted the city’s governance, interrupting ‘business as usual’ – but did it herald change?   Looking at the spatial and institutional manifestations of the city’s divisions shows that whilst its governance has seen a degree of adjustment in style and tone, the goals and fixes largely remain the same.

Baltimore’s Spatial Governance

Evoking ‘a tale of two cities’ when talking about Baltimore is a cliché with good reason – it helps navigate the deep divisions so fundamental to understanding the city’s governance.  Lawrence Brown’s two Baltimores – the White L and the Black Butterfly – capture their most stark spatial expression.  Initial research found that the uprising after the death of a young black man following injuries sustained in police custody was perceived as a pivotal moment in seeking to overcome the city’s divisions.  The emphasis on social justice since the uprising was widely regarded as having increased but views differed on any meaningful changes in practice.  Many of the elites perceived the problem in terms of lack of resource and insufficient economic inclusion, with ‘workforce’ development measures regarded as a significant step.  But an advocacy organisation echoed the institutional racism cited by others, relating the uprising to:

‘[The] ton of unhappiness and dissatisfaction in the black community with the black leadership and the extent to which the black establishment has really been acting in the interest of black neighbourhoods, poor black residents’

 The two neighbourhoods talked about by nearly all those interviewed – Port Covington and Sandtown-Winchester – illustrate the persistence of ‘twin track’ Baltimore and demonstrate that in the ‘fiscally squeezed’ city, neighbourhoods only gain attention when they intersect with the priorities of city elites.

Port Covington is the city’s current waterfront megaproject.  The developer, Sagamore, is owned by Kevin Plank, CEO of “Under Armour” (a sportswear company) whose corporate headquarters will anchor the development.  It has received approvals for $660 million of tax increment financing, the biggest financing package in Baltimore’s history and subject to much city-wide debate, protest and advocacy.  Elites did acknowledge that the development raises ‘gentrification and race issues’.  It was also cited as an example of developers’ becoming more ‘socially conscious’ since the uprising.  Citizen activists and advocacy organisations in contrast were clear that the development was ‘tone deaf coming on the heels of the uprising’ and another example of where ‘we’re disinvesting from places that need it the most… and the benefits promised don’t materialise’.

The other space of the city most mentioned was Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore – Freddie Gray’s home neighbourhood and the epicentre of the uprising after his death.  It became the symbolic location for the launch of Project CORE, a State and City demolition initiative which counterpoints the Port Covington development by focusing at the other end of the spectrum – the city’s ‘stressed’ neighbourhoods with the highest levels of vacant and blighted properties. Elite and citizen activist perspectives on the initiative were unsurprisingly bifurcated.  A major non-profit saw it as an example of where there is now at least more ‘talking about listening to communities’ and other elites agreed it was not ‘business as usual’.  But community activists based in West Baltimore related it to practices of institutional racism, lack of community say, and saw it as a gentrification strategy clearing low income residents:

‘It’s insensitive of our community… not even considering the issues that gave us blocks and blocks of blighted properties… this is a low income neighbourhood so you’re proposing all this demolition to lure developers…. it’s a slow gentrification process’.

What about other neighbourhoods?  Some benefit from elite attention where they are able to gain leverage from the proximity of anchor institutions, notably Johns Hopkins university and medical system.  The Central Baltimore Partnership gains support and resource given its proximity to Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus and its Community Partners Initiative.  This encourages other resource flows (such as from the State’s neighbourhood initiative and foundation and bank support for its new development fund).  A focus of the city’s major community organising coalition, BUILD, on the east-side Oliver neighbourhood levers on its proximity to Eager Park (an earlier city megaproject), anchored by Hopkins’ hospital.  Some see such prioritisation as ‘common sense’, the path to pursue when resources are limited.  Others made explicit that neighbourhoods that don’t offer opportunities are ‘written off’ with a West Baltimore anchor institution official describing it as being located in a ‘containment area’.

Civil Society? Citizen activism and the ‘non-profit industrial complex’

The bifurcation between elite and citizen activist views of spatial governance priorities underscores the city’s institutional divisions as well as its exclusion of the citizen from governance.  Citizen activists contrasted their embedded work in communities with Baltimore’s ‘non-profit industrial complex’.  A government official agreed, critiquing the ‘whole infrastructure here of non-profits and others’ that ‘co-opt community voice and say, this is what the community wants’.  In stressing the importance of relationships with ‘key community leaders and activists’, a major non-profit alluded to its instrumental need for consensus by getting ‘diverse neighbourhoods to think collectively’.  Overall, the research revealed the stark schism between the city’s mostly white-led non-profit sector and its activist community, particularly its younger African American members.  The racial (and spatial) disconnect between larger, grant-receiving organisations and target communities was emphasised, undermining ‘the development of independent black institution building that’s so necessary for communities to actually have the power needed to address a lot of these problems’.  The role played by the city’s non-profit (and foundation) sector is imbued with the contestability and mutability of ‘civil society’ as a Tocquevillian counterbalance to, or Gramscian integrated part of, the state, one activist pithily explaining that ‘one of the biggest issues that we have in Baltimore… is a condensation of non-profit and foundation forces that then are allowed to produce policies’.

Most found some reasons to be hopeful about the city’s future.  Some stressed the need for consensus, ‘ways of partnering in a positive manner’, others stressed the need for transformational, systemic change.  What was clear was the growing voice of black, young activists ‘trained outside of the local non-profit formula’.

The two city analogy remains popular, activists envisaging ‘two parallel tracks’ – one ‘like Port Covington, a neoliberal city’, contrasted with their ability to produce a ‘parallel structure, a parallel narrative… [a] vision of community empowerment from the grassroots up, as opposed to seeing black folks as appendages of a neoliberal wave’.  Others alluded back to the uprising in stressing the need for improved police-community relations to redress trauma as a prerequisite for other change in the city.  In so doing the city’s divided spatial governance was reiterated:

‘Actual police reform… without change in the structure, the policies, the way they actually work in Sandtown… is the very first steps to actual change… even with this huge Sagamore and the TIF [Port Covington]… it gets diminished as soon as something happens with the Police Department’. 

The research – which has involved 40 interviews with city government officials and members, citizen activists and those in the city’s foundations, universities and non-profit sector – points to the critical need to reconcile divisions within the city as part of any transformative change in its governance as a response to crisis.

Dr Madeleine Pill is Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Sydney.

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