What’s the Matter With Downtown Baltimore?

There’s been a lot of talk in town recently about the paltry attendance figures at Camden Yards in 2016. Five weeks ago we wrote a detailed post about the many reasons we think attendance has suffered lately. Since then, the TV ratings numbers have been released, putting the Orioles in the top 5 in Major League Baseball, and indicating that all of the cities where ratings are highest are mid-sized cities comparable to Baltimore. We take this as further evidence that the team is failing to sell tickets despite a broad base of interest in the area.

One factor in Orioles attendance that we barely mentioned in that post, but which is often cited in O’s discussions is the reluctance, real or perceived, of suburbanites to visit downtown Baltimore. This is often brought up with respect to the aftermath of last year’s riots, in which the ballpark played a fairly significant role, especially on Saturday April 25, and the fear of city violence generally.

Violence in Baltimore is what sunshine is to Florida. It is omnipresent. It permeates everything it touches. It gets into your skin and it changes you. No matter what measures you take to avoid it or to insulate yourself from it, it will touch you at some point. You will feel its effects. Just like the Sun, violence touches everyone in Baltimore. The only question is the degree to which it will burn. This is a fact of life.

Because violence and crime in our city is a pervasive and permanent condition, we all have a need to reckon with it personally, and relate to it according to our own personal philosophies. So when it comes up in conversation those conversations, much like small talk about the sunny weather, usually don’t get very far.

Are Suburbanites scared of crime? We don’t know. You’d have to ask them about that, and get them to answer you honestly and in detail and find out how their feelings in the aggregate affect behaviors as a whole over time. But we don’t think they’re particularly scared of crime. No one leaves their house convinced they’re going to be a crime victim that day. It just doesn’t work that way no matter where you live, so maybe “scared” is the wrong way to think of things.

It’s also a mistake to think of Suburbanites as a wholly different breed of human from city-dwellers; a breed apart that’s less cultured, less tolerant, less hearty, etc etc. A very high percentage of households in Central Maryland are made up of ex-city dwellers. Even if our county neighbors never lived in the city, it is certain that many of them have some connection to the city, and have spent sufficient time in the city to have formed their own opinions about it, and have at the very least generational connections to the city. Our point is that people who live in the suburbs of Baltimore don’t base their opinions and actions just on headlines, they base them on their own lived experience. So being a city dweller and taking the opinion that ‘those hicks just don’t know what they’re missing out on’ is counterproductive and helps no one.



A phrase we’ve heard repeated often over the last month is that Downtown Baltimore is “relatively safe.” Whenever someone says that any part of Baltimore is “relatively safe” what they are relating it to is the ‘wings of the butterfly,’ that is, those parts of East and West Baltimore where drugs, crime, and violence are so pervasive that shootings happen literally several times a day. They’re relating Downtown to some of the most violent neighborhoods in America. By the standards of Oliver or Sandtown virtually everywhere in the world is relatively safe.

Downtown is not actually safe. It is an unsafe place. Period. An unbelievable amount of crime happens downtown every day. Just this week, a few blocks up Howard Street from the stadium some insist is perfectly safe someone ran over one of the guys who was trying to carjack him. There was also an armed robbery right in front of Miss Shirley’s on Pratt Street, which aside from the Harbor Promenade is about as ‘nice’ as downtown gets. These are just two examples. If you wanted to go and find police data on what crime is happening downtown, it’s out there. Reading through a week of it will make your head spin. But we’re not going to go deep into the numbers here because crime numbers are only a small part of a very broad story. For every crime that’s reported, there are many more unreported, and for all of those unreported crimes there are about a thousand little things that aren’t quite crimes, but which make downtown Baltimore a highly unpleasant environment.

For those of us who live in the city, and who frankly don’t get out of it often enough, it can be easy to forget just how safe the rest of America is. Right now we’re in Jacksonville, where walking downtown is so clean and peaceful it’s shocking. Although Duval County has a longstanding reputation as the state’s murder capital, and people here love to clutch their pearls about murders, Jax had 96 murders last year spread over an area ten times bigger than Baltimore with a larger population. So to say “well crime is bad everywhere” just doesn’t wash. The murder rate here was 11.4 per 100k last year. Ours was 55. Jax, Raleigh, Richmond, Nashville, and dozens of other cities present a stark contrast to downtown Baltimore. This is nothing to do with city size, since Baltimore’s downtown core is small enough to compare to much smaller cities [we’re referring to the area bounded by President/Fallsway- MLK- Franklin Street and Lee Street] and since many larger cities manage to be much safer, cleaner and more pleasant. But one need look no further than the rest of Maryland to find safe urban cores. Annapolis, Frederick, Towson, Columbia are all orders of magnitude safer than Baltimore is, even adjusted for population.

It is our belief that downtown is dangerous in general, but that there is a specific threat associated with leaving the ballpark after Orioles games. Leaving among the crowd is all well and good, but much of that crowd parks in the stadium lots and nearby garages. If you walk more than about 3 blocks from the stadium in any direction that’s not due east toward the Inner Harbor, the character of the streets starts to change rapidly. It is on these fringes where criminals have been known to target Orioles fans specifically, where the crowd has fallen away, the orange shirts are easy to spot, and the wide expanse of West Baltimore provides a convenient maze in which to fade away after an attack. We have a friend who was robbed in this manner, and was beaten badly. We’ve heard many people (from both within and outside the city) say they were formerly in the habit of parking for free across MLK and no longer do so for that reason. Just as we said before that criminals target cyclists in specific locations, so too do they target Baseball fans in the same way. Here’s an example from 2014 that made the news, and it’s not the only one of its type in the news, but if you’re lucky enough not to get stabbed in the attack it won’t generate any press.

Since 2014 the problem of groups of teens robbing people has become much worse, with no improvement in sight. But don’t take our word for it, read what the police and State’s Attorney’s office had to say about the problem just this week. From the article:

“Robberies were up 12 percent this year through Sept. 24 compared with the same period last year, according to citywide crime data, reaching at least a six-year high. The increase has pushed overall violent crime up 5 percent, despite declines in other crimes, including homicides, rapes and arsons.

The spike in robberies is being led by carjackings, up 44 percent, and “miscellaneous” robberies — at schools, Metro stations and other semi-public locations — which are up 64 percent. Residential robberies are up 7 percent; street robberies are up 16 percent.

It’s worth noting that when anyone says “murders are down from last year” that last year was an all-time high in terms of murder rate, so we’re slightly below the all time high. And what are our city leaders doing while all of this is going on? The Mayor and the State’s Attorney are sniping at each other in the paper like the couple of incompetent prima donnas they are, the police union just chose one of two loudmouth racists as a president, and cops are saying on the record to a national audience that we “should get used to 300 murders a year.”

So the entire city of Baltimore is a very dangerous place and downtown is not immune from that.

But let’s put that aside for now. Let’s assume for a moment that you and your family can walk down any street in Baltimore and be assured that there is a zero percent chance you’ll experience or witness violent crime. Would you be eager to come downtown then?

Probably not. You might want to visit the Inner Harbor, which we will admit is a fine thing. We would go so far as to say that along with the stadiums themselves the Inner Harbor and the attractions immediately ringing the water are just about the only part of Downtown that don’t need a major overhaul. Which is probably why myopic city leaders are so damn eager to give it one. Of course the harbor would be a hell of a lot nicer if we stopped dumping tens of millions of gallons of sewage into it every year.


The Clusterfuck.

Aside from these attractions Downtown is a fucking mess. Earlier this week the Sun’s Colin Campbell shined a light on the problem of constant roadwork everywhere downtown. There are so many infrastructure failures, lane closures and private construction worksites that one can hardly turn a corner without being stifled by cones or having your ears assaulted by jackhammers. The problem is no more pleasant for pedestrians and cyclists than it is for drivers. And while the story just appeared this week, the problem has been ongoing for least 2-3 years and is not limited to downtown. Likewise the City Paper wrote its feature this week on the ongoing sinkhole boondoggles plaguing Baltimore’s streets. As a writer and a Baltimorean, CP’s Woods is pretty dense. He thinks Lexington Market is “vibrant” and violent gang members are ‘community activists’ (some later indicted for violent charges like good ole Meech and the latest one, indicted just this week). So when someone like him starts using phrases like “alien hellscape” it’s pretty clear we’ve got a big problem. If people who live in the very near suburbs are requiring over an hour to drive home from work as the Sun article says, they are goddamn sure not going to get back in the car and show up for a 7:05 Orioles game.

All of this work is just routine maintenance. None of it is the kind of radical redesign that is truly necessary downtown. So many of our major streets, Lombard in particular, are 3-5 lane speedways designed to power through as fast as you possibly can and were fit to make into a literal Indy Car race track in a  tourism gambit that was an epic failure so bad we don’t even have to link to it. To fix downtown, to make it the kind of place that people truly desire to spend time (and money!) means to adopt radical measures like a full redesign, banning private vehicles from the dead center of town, and eliminating the circulator entirely in favor of making transit options downtown free of charge. We haven’t got the time, money or political inclination to accomplish that for ten generations and everyone knows it. Upcoming improvements like the Maryland Avenue Cycletrack are just piecemeal offerings that will allow the city to claim Progressivism while pissing off drivers en masse and serving cyclists unsatisfactorily. The recent examples of Roland Avenue, Fallsway, the JFT and the ‘alien hellscape’ that is the patched-up crime ridden miles of Guilford Avenue show that this has been and will continue to be the city’s approach to non-car infrastructure.


Public Safety Beyond Crime.

Even if a visitor could make himself immune to crime, he can still never know when the next sinkhole will open under his feet or the next water main will burst, the next building will crumble, or the next car will crash without the cops even bothering to show up. The Howard Street Rail tunnel dates to the Civil War and has been known to alternately flood and derail trains and catch on fire for days at a time. Despite losing a federal grant to modernize it the folks in charge are dead certain that big payday is right around the corner. There is no good outcome here. If they don’t get it, maybe Howard Street collapses the same way 26th Street did. If they get it, it’s another major downtown street closed for several blocks for 2-3 years. You get a cone! And you get a cone! And you get a cone!!!

There’s also the matter of the people who make downtown an undesirable place to be. If you come up President Street or MLK it’s hard to find an intersection without a homeless guy begging, aggressive squeegee kids or both. Both sides of downtown are now host to permanent homeless encampments, which the city has demonstrated it has neither the will nor the ability to deal with adequately. Junkies, dirt bikers, roaming bands of teenagers numbering as many as 200, political demonstrations, predatory tow truck drivers, meter maids and traffic cops; these are all people you’re likely to find in downtown Baltimore and while you may think one or all of them are just fine, most regular folks would like to limit their exposure to these people as much as possible, which means that as long as downtown is given over to them visitors will be discouraged from spending more time than is necessary downtown.

Businesses of all types downtown have been suffering badly since at least the time of last year’s riots. This is another fact so commonly accepted as to not necessitate a link. Receipts are down so much that even the most eager boosters of downtown have had trouble spinning the situation publicly. This fact alone is strong evidence that a reluctance to be downtown is at least a part of what’s dragging down attendance at Camden Yards. It seems very unlikely the Orioles would be the only business unaffected by a widespread general trend.

But we believe, for all the reasons just stated, those people who do come downtown for any reason; work, sports, to visit an attraction, run an errand, or even just pass through are unlikely to spend any more time than is necessary there. This means that people who work downtown aren’t popping over to happy hour and then going to the game, the people who are going to the game aren’t walking over to Power Plant Live afterward, and people going to the theater aren’t dining beforehand, etc. In this way downtown is not integrally connected to itself. People go there to do what they need to do, and nothing more.


What is Downtown?

Perhaps this is a good time to take a look at Downtown. What is it made of? Downtown is many things to many people, but what is it block by block?

Let’s say there’s 100 square city blocks downtown. We’re not sure what the exact number is but the area bounded by the streets we named above is roughly 10 x ten blocks. An area of about 3 x 3 blocks is water, 17 blocks are taken up by the major attractions around the harbor and Camden Yards itself. Some of these major attractions (the convention center and arena in particular) need updating to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, money which is not about to materialize any time soon. That leaves 74. We count 16 blocks occupied entirely by University of MD Hospital and its related buildings, as well as Mercy. So we’re down to 58. We estimate about 12 blocks dominated by government buildings, including the Holocaust memorial and the useless BCCC building. 46 left.

Let’s assume ten blocks are given over to nothing but parking garages. There are more garages than 10, and some sites have garages built in, but we’d guess about 10 blocks is just parking, leaving 36 blocks.

Roughly 20 of those blocks are north of Fayette and west of Liberty (Cathedral) Street, not including a couple UM buildings already counted. This area includes Lexington Market, which is a shithole that visitors in general do not like at all with the possible exception of Faidley’s, the giant empty acres of disused government buildings at the end of the highway to nowhere, and the long blighted and crumbling Light Rail corridor. One of the better blocks in this area is 200 Saratoga Street, which was profiled in detail by WYPR’s Out of the Blocks program. It’s a sympathetic portrayal, but the life described by the residents of that block in their own words is pretty rough. An immigrant shopkeeper talks about having been robbed repeatedly and having no recourse. Virtually everyone who is there is there because the rent is dirt cheap and for no other reason. Our own great grandparents used to own a store in that block. They fled it about a hundred years ago.

So we’re down to 16 blocks. One of those blocks is The Block, 400 East Baltimore street, which despite the nostalgia factor has outlived its usefulness and is to our mind a net negative for downtown. In the fifteen blocks that remain there are an outsized number of churches. While the churches are typically well-kept and historical in character (think Old Otterbein, Zion Lutheran, Basilica, etc) we’re not sure how much they fill the pews these days and excepting Poe’s grave they are not tourist attractions in their own right. Let’s say, conservatively, that churches occupy 3 blocks. That means the rest of downtown, the part where locals are wont to live, work and seek recreation, are limited to 12 blocks. Those dozen blocks contain their own fair share of eye sores, like the site of the former Mechanic Theater, but are in the main dominated by hotels, of which there is approximately a metric fuckton downtown, and offices, many of which have had significant trouble leasing space since Harbor East came into its own, becoming effectively a second, much nicer downtown sitting right at the edge of the crappy, gross, dangerous real downtown.

Office space is in so little demand in downtown Baltimore that the conversion of offices to luxury apartments continues apace. It is safe to say that the only people interested in renting these apartments are out-of towers who don’t know any better, and who have never taken a block-by-block look at downtown such as we just laid out. The Kirby Fowlers of the world are quick to point out that downtown is “in the middle of everything” but if those new arrivals decide to stay in town permanently most of them will eventually move to either the county, or to one of the actual harbor neighborhoods that they wanted to be close to in the first place. The positives, the actual amenities for locals that exist downtown can be counted on your fingers. Power Plant Live and Port Discovery are okay for their clientele, the Everyman, Hippodrome, the Main Library, and the newly opened Shakespeare theater are pretty nice. There’s maybe half a dozen decent restaurants that cater to locals and about two decent bars and a couple of coffee shops. That’s it.


The Importance of Being Connected.

But no discussion of what Downtown is can be complete without acknowledging that it’s a transit hub.

Our transit system, the buses in particular, are completely fucked up. That’s not just our own opinion, it’s the finding of a recent study which ranked Baltimore 24th out of 25 cities rated by transit time. That study provided the lede of a story in the current issue of Baltimore Magazine, which draws a pretty complete picture of the current state of transit downtown. It also mentions that unlike some other cities, Baltimore has the very highest income disparity between transit riders and non-riders.

We could crunch numbers all day long but what this means at street level is the bus is full of poor people. Regular readers of this site will recall that we recently lived four years without a car in inner-city Baltimore, (more total, rest assured) and we can tell you from firsthand experience that while the low quality of service makes for an unpleasant ride, the people on the bus make the experience even less pleasant. We won’t go into detail now because we already did two years ago. (Ironically, the ferry dock featured in that post as an example of a nice thing downtown suddenly collapsed into the water a year and a half ago and will probably never be rebuilt. It’s now just another example of a lack of public safety on a catastrophic level.)

The point is that rich people will never volunteer to ride buses with poor people. For a complete picture of transit segregation in Baltimore we’ll refer you to Alec MacGillis writing in Places Journal earlier this year. While the scores of buses jamming the streets of the choke-point hub are themselves unpleasant to visitors, the large crowds of very poor people waiting on bus stops are even more of an anathema to visitors and their tourist dollars. This is why they seldom stray far from the harbor, and why the area around Lexington Market is decidedly blacker than the rest of downtown. And it’s not as if the poor themselves are well-served by this arrangement. If you think they like being made to sit at the stop for half an hour or more, or go from stop to stop and mode to mode, they don’t. Downtown, more than any other part of the city is neutral territory- a place where you’ll find people of all races and incomes, and so too it’s among the parts of the city with the most social tension, which has been markedly increased since the death of Freddie Gray.

On Friday, a Twitter friend of ours, who is a new city homeowner and a true believer in Baltimore posted a detailed series of tweets describing the terrifying street harassment she’d faced on a bus downtown that morning. It was so bad it’s leading her to consider buying a car so that she won’t have to go through it again, which will certainly happen given enough future bus rides. Any person who can afford even a very basic used car would think and do likewise. This alone is a book-length topic.


Tone Deaf Leadership.

Baltimore’s own Keiffer Mitchell was astonished, just astonished! to hear this week that baseball fans don’t wanna hop on the bus and come out to the Yard. He even used that phrase again- “relatively safe.” When we were finally able to get a reply out of him all he had to say was “Don’t you live in Towson?” Which we found to be incredibly condescending. As much as we’d love to move out of the city today, our house failed to sell at a loss so we’re stuck here for the time being. Maybe this is a fine town when your family name is carved into the major downtown buildings, but when you can’t afford to sell your home and you and your friends are repeatedly crime victims it doesn’t look so rosy. But beside this, Keiffer misses the point. The point is that not enough people from outside the city are coming downtown and spending money. Which he should, you know, give a shit about if he weren’t too busy advising Larry Hogan on how to fuck up transit even worse.

Mitchell isn’t alone in believing that publicly saying downtown is safe can wish it into being. Councilman Eric Costello had a mini-freakout this week when local sportscaster Mark Vivano tweeted something sarcastic about downtown crime vis a vis the Orioles. We follow Costello. We’ve never seen him react so suddenly to news of an actual crime in his district of which the examples multiply daily, or turn up at the scene of a crime, or, goddamn it, do a single fucking thing to make downtown safer. Earlier this year an employee of the Downtown Partnership, one of the very people hired to make downtown clean and safe stabbed a homeless man in a fight. Where was Costello then? But let someone with a whopping 11,000 twitter followers even hint that downtown is unsafe and Costello will give that person his undivided attention, asking immediately to talk privately via DM.

At the very same moment Costello was tweeting at Viviano The Baltimore Sun was publishing the first installment of a blockbuster yearlong piece of investigative journalism on why gun violence in Baltimore is now more deadly than ever. It really is a landmark piece of journalism which will probably get Justin George a Pulitzer, and of course Costello is silent about it.

Some background on Eric Costello: He was head of one of the neighborhood associations around Federal Hill and was handpicked by incompetent grifter and council president Jack Young to be appointed to a vacant seat. So of course he can be counted on to never break with Young on anything. Costello’s district includes all of downtown, a large part of Mount Vernon, and neighborhoods Northwest of downtown but his main base of support is Fed Hill Yuppies and waterfront condo dwellers. We’d be surprised if you could find a dozen people in Upton who have ever heard of him. So far his major accomplishment in office has been saving the Circulator’s Banner Route from elimination, which is fitting because that route is the perfect example of duplicative service that is expensive to run and serves only to allow South Baltimore residents to get downtown and back without giving up a parking spot or getting on an MTA bus with all those nasty poors. So Costello has done his part to keep transit segregated.

Also at the very same moment Costello was panicked about a tiny bit of bad Twitter PR and the Sun was winning a probable Pulitzer, the Baltimore Brew published a story about Jack Young voiding a part of the city charter to allow him to solicit money to throw council members appreciation parties. This money can come from organizations with business before the council, and if that organization is charitable that money can be written off. This is graft and corruption, plain and simple.

The voters of course do not appreciate the council, which is why half of those motherfuckers are leaving office in the first place. This has been absolutely the worst council in living memory, and we don’t think there’s a credible voice inside the city who would disagree with that. In a subsequent report the Brew sought comment from current and presumptive councilmen and Costello’s name was one of many conspicuously absent. This is par for the course, inasmuch as Costello’s social media presence amounts to a constant PR stream aimed straight at South Baltimore to the point of using neighborhood accounts as campaign platforms and blocking anyone, even constituents, who are even slightly critical. He’ll probably block the Chop on Twitter for writing this.

But we want to know, Eric. Did you know about Jack Young’s party plans? And now that the story is out what do you have to say about them?

And what would you say to the woman who came downtown all the way from Delaware for a special event, Bike Party, and had a group of teens attack her and her friends when they fell behind the group and had their bikes stolen on Biddle Street in your own district! Just three hours after you freak out on Twitter, Councilman Costello, the very sort of visitors we so desperately need in our city come downtown and suffer violent crime immediately. What would you say to her? How much boosterism do you think it will take to get her to come back to downtown Baltimore again? There’s no amount of Facebook posting that will get her back. She’s likely done with Baltimore forever.


What Now?

None of this is meant to denigrate the people who live downtown. If you live there, or near there, and you genuinely like spending time in downtown Baltimore and are very happy with it the way it is that’s great. We’re happy for you and we wish there were more people like you. But to pretend that downtown Baltimore is objectively good or clean or safe or vibrant is disingenuous. It would require a massive amount of replacing, retrofitting and investment to make it what we would all like it to be. Now that our city has invested astronomical sums in Harbor East, Harbor Point, and Port Covington the renaissance needed in downtown is virtually guaranteed never to happen in our lifetimes. It will continue to be a space dominated by a few large institutions with the gaps between them either sitting idle for generations, as with the Superblock or the abandoned bus station, or various unremarkable businesses coming, going and barely subsisting, as with the 200 Block of Saratoga.

There are a few people whose entire job it is to sell the idea of downtown. The BOPA, Downtown Partnership, BDC, Visit Baltimore and their ilk make very high tax-generated salaries for planning events large and small, successful and not, for being (ahem) a liaison to anyone in the business community who hasn’t completely given up on downtown, and for getting quoted in the paper about how great it all is. The problem is that most of what’s great is all in some distant and misty future. The harbor will be swimmable by 2020 or the Superblock will be developed as soon as the lawsuits are settled or once we get a new arena- man oh man won’t that be great! The Hipsters are just about to turn the corner on Howard Street and the Bikeshare is going to open any day now and the Robicellis are going to save us all with cupcakes!

But we were told all that in 1980 when Harborplace opened and again in 1992 when the stadium opened and the light rail was completed. A full generation later is downtown any better off?

When we started this site, the intention was to be overwhelmingly positive. We wanted to highlight great things happening in Baltimore every single day. And for a few years we did- we wrote glowing things every day on topics and events in which we were genuinely interested. We used to post about shows at Sonar and the Talking Head. We used to go downtown to those shows but what happened? Both sides of that club got shut down and both owners were involved in major drug trafficking. Paradox just shut down too. No clubs ever last in Downtown Baltimore. There’s always some motherfucker shooting someone. Just last month it happened again. We used to go to ballgames all the time before they tripled in price. As time goes by there’s less to draw us downtown, and more to drive us away when we are there. We don’t like that we’ve become almost entirely negative all the time on this site and about the city in general, but what’s more important that what we like is saying what needs to be said and isn’t being said elsewhere, and being as honest as possible about a city we do still love. After all, if we just didn’t care we wouldn’t sit here tapping out five thousand words of angry negativity at a time. Someday we’ll live somewhere else. We’ll have the luxury of hoping for all the best for our hometown and its people and not paying too much attention to the details. But until that day comes we’re going to keep being critical as often as is necessary, because we know the people of Baltimore deserve better.