“I never seem to get to Baltimore as often as I’d like to.”

“I never seem to get to Baltimore as often as I’d like to” is a line from a Gilda Radner skit circa the late 1970’s/early 1980’s in which the comedienne cheekily uses it as an excuse not to visit someone on the other end of the telephone—one that was attached to the wall, had a cord and probably was rotary. Remember those? What she was more than likely referencing was the undesirable changes associated with the great decline into post-industrial poverty. The latter part of the 20th Century saw a nationwide decline in the manufacturing sector.

Steel was brought to the City with the construction of a steel mill and shipyard by the Pennsylvania Steel Company in 1893, and came to dominate the local economy following the company’s acquisition by Bethlehem Steel in 1916.   

Along with the plant, the company established a residential community called Sparrow Point. Workers from rural Maryland and Pennsylvania and the South, of Welsh, Irish, German, Russian, Hungarian and African-American descent, were attracted to the promise of high pay of industrial employment, and many came to live in the company town. There, they enjoyed low rent (between $4 – $14 a month for a nine room house) and free home maintenance, company-subsidized churches and schools, easy access to credit, and a strong sense of community.   

The company segregated residents by race and by rank, which determined the size and location of houses. Not much has changed in terms of segregated living patterns. This irony is not lost in the fact the I’m here attending the National Fair Housing Alliance Annual Meeting and In-Service. 

Community high schools prepared steelworkers’ sons for jobs at the mill, reserving training in skilled jobs for whites. Still, steel work offered new opportunities for advancement to families of all backgrounds; the first school for African-American children, the Bragg School, produced many black business leaders and educators who grew up in Sparrow Point. 

During World War II, the steel industry underwent a production boom. Bethlehem’s mill at Sparrow Point, which built cargo and transport ships, expanded quickly to meet supply needs. The mill reached its peak employment in 1959, with 35,000 workers. Second- or third-generation steelworkers earning union wages could achieve financial independence with middle-class living standards, save for the future, and afford higher education for their children to prepare them for employment beyond the steel mill.   

As mentioned earlier, the latter part of the 20th Century saw a nationwide decline in the manufacturing sector, and Bethlehem Steel was no exception to this trend. In 1971, when Sparrows Point was the largest steel mill in the country, a surge in steel imports led to massive layoffs among domestic producers. Three thousand workers at Sparrow Point lost their jobs that year, followed by another 7,000 in 1975.   

By the late 1980s, the workforce had dwindled to 8,000, accompanied by a decline in wages and benefits as the union conceded on many pay and benefits issues. Baltimore workers could no longer look to steel as a source of middle-class wages and job security. 

The story of Bethlehem’s steel mill at Sparrows Point is a microcosm of economic changes that profoundly affected Baltimore and other “rust belt” cities across the US during this period. The manufacturing industries, having long been the economic base for employment and output for nearly a century, dwindled and disappeared.

Baltimore lost over 100,000 manufacturing jobs between 1950 and 1995, 75% of its industrial employment — not to mention most of the jobs with union representation. Currently, only 6% of all jobs in the City are in manufacturing. The collapse of industry led to a number of changes in the demographic makeup of the City and the surrounding region, contributing to a crisis in urban poverty that lingers today. Indeed, I have seen more toothless and homeless people wandering the streets here than any other urban area of the country. 

As factories bled manufacturing jobs, Baltimore bled residents: nearly one-third of its population left between 1950 and 2000. Businesses fled the City, followed by workers, and Baltimore began to lose its stature as the economic hub of central Maryland. Contributing to the suburbanization of the central Maryland region were changes in the racial makeup of the City’s population and the phenomenon of “white flight.”   

Beginning in the early 20th Century, African-Americans from the rural South, many with sharecropping backgrounds, began moving north in great numbers. Baltimore became a major destination for southern blacks fleeing poverty and Jim Crow, seeking jobs and a better place to raise their children.   

Northern migration transformed the makeup of Baltimore’s population. Prior to 1900, predominantly African-American neighborhoods did not exist in Baltimore: black residents were spread throughout the City, and no single ward was more than one-third black. Between 1950 and 1970, Baltimore’s African-American population almost doubled, while whites moved away from the City. As a result, Baltimore had gone from less than one-quarter to nearly two-thirds black. 

Life was not easy for new residents. Black Baltimoreans continued to face discrimination, and were affected by poverty, unemployment, crime, and housing deterioration to a disproportionate degree compared to white residents. While the poverty rate for whites in the City was about 10% in 1960, it was roughly three times higher for blacks. Baltimore’s crime rate went up steadily through the 1960s, and by 1970, the City had one of the highest homicide rates in the country.   

For many longtime residents, this decade — punctuated by the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King — was the turning point. Middle-class whites began moving further and further towards the edges of the City, and increasingly began to look outside the city for an enclave apart from black expansion and social unrest. While in 1950, almost two-thirds of the region’s white population lived in Baltimore, only 12.5% lived in the City by 1997. 

Exacerbating conditions was the subsequent flight from the City of middle-class African-Americans. Increasingly, Baltimore’s black middle class followed white Baltimoreans who had fled to the suburbs before them. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of African-Americans living in the City declined for the first time, while the most recent census report shows a decline in Baltimore’s black population roughly equal to that of its white population. Now, after decades of population drain, the characteristic that defines the City’s polarization from the suburbs is not race, but economic class. 

With the decline of manufacturing, the service sector came to be the dominant base of employment for Baltimore City residents. Today, service-providing jobs account for over 90% of all jobs in Baltimore City. Such jobs have a heavily minority workforce, and the vast majority of low-wage service workers in Baltimore City are African-American.. The greater Baltimore region today has a population of 2.6 million, with the city accounting for only 600,000, over 60% of which are African-American. 

As recently as two months ago, Baltimore was under a state of national emergency spurred by racial tensions and police brutality, a haunting reminder of the 1960’s. The National Guard was deployed in response to violence that erupted in the wake of the death of black man, injured in police custody. Violent clashes between police and protesters began just hours after the funeral of Freddie Gray, who died in a hospital in April after spending a week in a coma. 

Shops were looted and a community building and police vehicles were set on fire as police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse crowds. A week-long curfew had been imposed and public schools were closed. People filmed the police to help prevent them from using physical violence on residents.   

Baltimore’s chief prosecutor charged six police officers with a range of crimes including murder and manslaughter in the arrest and fatal injury of Gray, a striking and surprisingly swift turn in a case that has drawn national attention to police conduct. 

Gray’s death came in the wake of several police killings in the US which have sparked nationwide protest and debate about police officers’ use of deadly force, particularly on unarmed black men. And the swift action by the prosecutor seemed to some to mark a turning point after months of debate and demonstrations around the country over police violence. 

The racial tension in this majority minority city, along with media depictions of police brutality, and pop and rock stars writing songs about Baltimore and bailing out protesters, all make for a most troublesome and anxious backdrop for a harbor city trying to promote itself as a family tourist destination as well as an attractive site for conventions of all sorts.   

If one were dropped into the Inner Harbor with no knowledge of what has recently transpired in this urban waterfront and its surrounding, segregated neighborhoods, one would be oblivious. The waterfront consists of fancy boats, high-end housing, hotels, museums and restaurants. Tourists and locals alike wander along the concrete and brick walkways eating Italian ice, and dining al fresco at high-calorie chains like the Cheesecake Factory. Perhaps they can work off some of the calories by renting paddle boats shaped like dragons. 

The entire Inner Harbor area is something of a hodgepodge of amusement-park-like attractions, such as Ripley’s Believe it or Not, juxtaposed with Ritz-Carlton residences and high-end eateries like Ruth’s Chris and McCormick and Schmick’s. There is no continuity, especially with a university branch, National Aquarium and Baltimore World Trade Center (with a Marshall’s, CVS Pharmacy and Panera Bread across the street). Oh, and you can catch a baseball game if you’re so inclined. Trying to be something for everyone always ends up resulting in a shortfall of true cultural individuality. Other than crab cakes, what is there?   

Baltimore has an identity problem. With so many employed in the service industry, locals take the bus out of downtown, while tourists head back to their hotels.   

Mine is the Sheraton, and it a set of problems and an identity crisis all its own. Badly in need of a facelift, many of the staff are so friendly that you can’t help but want to tip them and hope they find a job in a better hotel. I’d never recommend a hotel that serves pre-fab lattes out of a machine and messes up a Sunday morning wake-up call by ringing my room at 6:00 a.m. instead of 8:00 a.m. Oh, and don’t bother to request someone to clean your room on your schedule. Trust me. I tried. Either they clean it when they want to, or it doesn’t happen. My email to the manager notifying her of the issues has so far gone unanswered.   

Overall, the waterfront of Baltimore can provide a diversion from the humdrum day-to-day routine back home for a very short day or two, but it’s not any place I would intentionally return to on a regular basis. The last time I was here was about 10 years ago (also for work), and not much has changed.   

Indeed, I DO get to Baltimore as often as I’d like to—twice in my lifetime and not by choice. Trust me, there are much better places to spend one’s travel budget than “The Land of Pleasant Living.” On the other hand, if you gave me one of the waterfront condos at the Ritz-Carlton Residences, I’d probably change my mind and enjoy a pleasant life. Until then, I hope that leisure and work-related travel calls on me to go to much more exciting destinations—ones that truly know and understand who they are, with a shared sense of pride. 



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