Guided by History: Race, Class and Neighborhood Choice in Baltimore City

Disclaimer: This post talks about race and racial issues and might make some readers uncomfortable. If you have fixed ideas about race and class that you don’t like to have challenged you may want to click away now. Also, the amount of historical research involved was minimal- not much more than looking up a date or two and finding a couple of maps. The rest of this post was written entirely from memory and local knowledge. So if we’re slightly off on something or have omitted a fact here or there try not to dwell on it. Our intention is to write a blog post and not a book, and we believe this post is accurate enough to get at the spirit of what we mean to say. Feature image is Baltimore as it appeared in the mid-1700′s and came to us through mesda.org.

Recently we were lucky enough to be in attendance for a panel discussion at Red Emma’s, the topic of which was Looking Back, Thinking Forward: Organizing to Breach Baltimore’s Racial Divide. It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to be in the same room and get to listen to some of the city’s brightest and most progressive thinkers. While the voices of people like Marc Steiner and Paul Coates are inspiring and encouraging, there was something about the panel’s words last week that left us with a heavy heart as well. We think it’s fair to say that the entire panel and virtually all of the audience would agree that when it comes to organizing urban neighborhoods we can identify some of our major problems, but solutions are debatable at best and mysterious at worst. With development and displacement increasingly in the news in Baltimore these issues are beginning to feel increasingly urgent.

Today we’d like to touch on a problem of neighborhood organizing that was not discussed last week. It’s a nationwide problem, but is as acute in Baltimore as it is anywhere. A large part or the problem facing would-be organizers, neighborhood groups, civic boosters and the rest is this: people are becoming completely disconnected from their neighborhoods. Lifelong loyalties are almost entirely a thing of the past.

Last Friday the Baltimore Sun’s website published an eye-rollingly insipid quiz asking ‘Which Baltimore Neighborhood Should You Call Home?’ While not explicitly offensive, many Twitter users (including the Chop) found this quiz to be in extremely poor taste. There are a number of things we find troubling in the quiz itself, not the least of which is the editorial decision-making process behind it. Someone was assigned (or at least allowed) to spend time and resources in writing it and coming up with the scoring mechanism, and it was published around lunch hour on a Friday in order to attract the attention of bored office workers and insure maximum shareability via social media.

But what troubles us the most isn’t that, it’s the dog-whistle nature of the question itself. This quiz was produced for a very specific type of person: Mid-twenties, college graduate, not from here, working downtown, no kids, and possessed of ‘good taste’ in food, drink and pop-culture. It’s for Yuppies.

But let’s take a step back here. Let’s put aside yuppies. Let’s also put aside those folks in public housing or the lowest-rent neighborhoods who have virtually no choice in where to move. Let’s talk about what makes working class and middle class Baltimoreans choose the neighborhoods they do. In order to do this we’ve got to go back a bit further than you might think. In order to really understand the matter we’ve got to go all the way back to the founding of Baltimore.

Baltimore Town was founded in 1729 and it was small. It was even less acreage than what we think of as downtown proper today. There weren’t a whole hell of a lot of people or any neighborhoods- just about two churches and a handful of incredibly rich families who’d been given a shitload of land by the king of England. (After all, Baltimore was not in the United States at the time- it was part of an English colony.) The town was situated in the midst of a handful of other incredibly rich people who’d been given land nearby; the Carroll family, John Eager Howard, The Joneses, Admiral Fell, Charles Gorsuch, the Garretts, etc. Then as now, the rich had a tendency to get richer. If they could have kept to themselves in their mansions and estates that would have been just fine with them. But goddamn it fields won’t plow themselves and ships won’t unload themselves and factories won’t make widgets all on their own.

The rich needed labor.

So Baltimore Town began to fill up with Germans and Irish and Italians and Polish and a bunch of other people who weren’t Noble English. Back then it wasn’t a question of which neighborhood you wanted to live in, but which town offered work. Baltimore, the Port of Baltimore, Fell’s Point, etc were all separate towns.

Fast forward to after the Revolution and the beginning of Industrialization. Without the largesse of king and Nobility to lean on the city’s Elite decided it was time to stop fucking around and really get rich. Business was booming around the waterfront from Canton to Locust Point, and the Garretts had decided to build the B & O railroad, industrializing Pigtown. These areas started filling up with working people living in what we’d think of today as slum conditions- tarpaper shacks and the like. The Rich were loathe to live among the people and started marching up Charles Street, outside the city to what is now Mount Vernon. Using their great fortunes they constructed a monument to General Washington and encircled it with mansions and cultural institutions like the Peabody conservatory, Pratt Library, Walters Museum, etc. Ostensibly these were great Democratic institutions for the benefit of the city but come on… how many shipyard workers were slathering tar on hulls all day and then walking from Locust Point to Mount Vernon? Not too fucking many we’d wager.

As the rich and Elite were fleeing the rabble, poor people were sorting themselves out. Germans stayed downtown and in Otterbein, Italians built a church and a neighborhood around it. Polish did the same in Fell’s Point, Jews stuck together around the current location of the Jewish Museum, Irish, Eastern Europeans and the rest all did likewise. At this point blacks fit between the cracks not living in proper neighborhoods. Slavery was still going strong.

There was an incredibly disjointed system of surveying and subdividing land and developing blocks a few at a time. (Although the rich never really did part with their land and even today the city is straddled with a completely fucked up system of ground rent in which homeowners pay rents to massively rich investors for the ground their house sits on. Many of these institutional investors are foundations who trace their roots to the city’s great plutocratic fortunes going back to the Gilded Age and beyond.) Years pass. Slavery and the Civil War end. Jim Crow neighborhoods form in earnest around what is today Old Town and Druid Hill Ave. Manufacturing starts to boom. The city continues to annex territory and the rich continue to expand into areas like Old Goucher and Bolton Hill while the poor stretch out east to west.

It’s at this point, some time in the decades before 1900 when the Civil War has caused mass migration that we’ve got to really start dealing with race and segregation. From here on out, blacks and whites are not going to live together in Baltimore. Here is a US census map describing racial lines in present day Baltimore. Green Dots are white people and blue dots are African Americans.

baltimore

The contrast has been no less stark at any time in the last 130 years. It’s around 1870 that what we’ve come to think of as some of our most “charming” and ‘historic’ neighborhoods are beginning to take on what’s more or less their current form. This is about when many surviving rowhouses in Fell’s Point and South Baltimore are being built. The Great Fire happens in 1904 and Downtown is entirely rebuilt from the ground up. Mills are open several miles up the Jones Falls and new towns like Remington, Hampden and Mount Washington are being built around them. Villages are sprouting along dirt roads that lead to Pennsylvania along what’s now Greenmount Ave and Park Heights Ave. Although it’s bigger than it’s ever been, the city is still relatively small. People live in houses that allow them to walk to work, whether they work in a shipyard, brewery, factory or law office.

It’s just after the time of the fire’s reconstruction that two revolutionary changes allow people to live further than a mile or two from their jobs, and enables new neighborhoods to be developed on a large scale. The first is the perfection of Baltimore’s streetcar lines. These lines had been in place for some years, but at this time private companies were competing to run very efficient all-rail routes with the only other traffic in the streets being horses and carts. For the first half of the 20th century Baltimore’s development went hand in glove with its streetcar system. The second revolutionary change was the invention of the Model T, which had as much impact on Baltimore as it did on every American city and allowed the first real suburbanization to begin in earnest. When we went Googling for maps, right before we began typing the sentence you’re reading right now, it didn’t take us long to find this page in which a Hopkins student surprises himself by learning what most natives already know: that streetcars formed the city and that suburbanization began earlier and closer to downtown than most people imagine. (Incidentally, arcane streetcar lines form the basis for our current mass transit system which is a big part of the reason why the entire bus system is confusing and dysfunctional.) Here is what Baltimore looked like as it developed between 1818 and 1918: (credit)

Figure3

1918 Was also the year that Baltimore undertook its final expansion to where its current borders lie. Like most cities in the country though, it was expanding with an eye toward further growth and suburbanization and the outer areas of the map of Baltimore were still largely empty farms and green space. Why do you think they decided to build Pimlico where they did (in 1870)? Because the area was full of horse farms, of course. Even today when traveling through Northeast and Northwest Baltimore a sharp eye can pick out a 150 year old farmhouse tucked into a much newer neighborhood. There’s one at the end of our block as a matter of fact.

There are some other important things happening right around the end of the First World War that we have to mention here. The rich and professional classes continued their creep northward, and the Roland Park Company had by now recently developed brand new neighborhoods around Roland Park and Guilford, which are significant nationally as some of the first planned suburbs in the country. At the same time production was near all-time highs in the steel mill at Sparrows Point, thanks in part to the war effort. Bethlehem Steel formed a company to copycat the development that was taking place in Roland Park in a more democratic form in Dundalk. Old Dundalk was then developed as a company town among farmlands.

The 1910′s is also when the Chop’s own grandparents were growing up as kids in downtown Baltimore. Our great-grandparents on both sides were part of this first wave of suburbanization, with one set moving from Saratoga Street downtown to a brand new house in the great wide expanse of… West Lanvale Street. The other set went from S. Castle St. to Old Dundalk, close to work at Sparrows Point. But as a recent City Paper story points out, even our earliest suburbs and company towns were segregated by race and remain so today. By the time our grandparents were coming of age Baltimore’s working class neighborhoods from Carroll Park to Highlandtown and across the water to the south had long developed their own character.

At this point neighborhoods are becoming truly inter-generational. In the rowhouse neighborhoods of East, West and South Baltimore adult children are buying houses near their families and near the friends they’ve grown up with all their lives. Your neighbors aren’t just your neighbors; they’re your cousins and co-workers and fellow parishioners at church. People throughout the 20th century would inherit rowhouses after deaths and see them not as an asset to be liquidated but a family home to be kept in the family. When we talk about a ‘close-knit’ neighborhood, this is what ‘close-knit’ really means. It’s more than just organizing a block party or helping your neighbor shovel snow: it takes generations to accomplish. Courtney Speed, the community leader in the City Paper story, has lived in Turner Station for fifty years.

None of our blue-collar neighborhoods would have ever inspired this kind of generational loyalty if it weren’t for two simple yet abstract concepts that apply equally to black and white and are all but completely vanished from the inner-city today: Catching On and Making Good.

In a close-knit neighborhood in the 20th century there was no Linked-In and no networking events. There weren’t even resumes. Anyone who wanted a job didn’t have to go any further than the corner bar (or Speed’s barber shop) to hear about who was hiring. Once you heard it was just a matter of going down to the Point or Crown Cork and Seal or CSX and getting hired on.

Now, wherever you ended up you might not like it- so you’d go on to the next one until eventually you find a job that suits you and you catch on. Once you’ve caught on you put in your time and pay your dues and eventually you make good by improving your skills and moving up the ladder a bit. For new generations of workers at this time access to jobs was not directly dictating where they lived, but it was certainly a major factor in the decision.

Here we reach a paradox. Among today’s urban planners and civic-minded intellectuals and even Progressive city residents there is fairly widespread support for the neighborhood-as-a-village model of revitalization and marketing. Many would like to try to re-create the ‘close-knit’ feel of yesteryear. But whether it’s the dockside heritage of Fell’s Point or the pride and history of Pennsylvania Avenue, you don’t arrive at ‘close-knit’ without a lot of racial prejudice and quite a bit of class delineation.

Housing issues in Baltimore have always been overtly racist. Let’s repeat that for emphasis: Racist with a capital R. Here’s a few examples off the top of our head:

    The physical barriers that even today stop traffic along streets like Greenmount and Fairmount Avenues. For miles at a stretch large curbs and planters and other artificial impediments block motor traffic and separate black neighborhoods from white ones.

    The construction of High-Rise public housing towers.

    The displacement of black neighborhoods along route 40 in West Baltimore for highway construction.

    The generation-long systematic practice of Block-busting undertaken by developers and Realtors about which books have been written.

    And last but not least the widespread practice of banks and mortgage lenders secretly “redlining” the city according to race and refusing to issue mortgages or other loans to entire swaths of the city based on race and class.

The Baltimore Brew has an interesting review of one of the books mentioned above that discusses block-busting and red-lining in more detail. Below is a 1937 map from that post showing how a mortgage company delineated neighborhoods for the purpose of loan making. It provides many interesting comparisons and contrasts to the census map above. For example, Greenmount Avenue is still a stark dividing line, but waterfront neighborhoods have completely transformed. Any bank today would be glad to lend money to build a roof deck on a Canton rowhouse.

redline-map1

To suggest that the city is not still affected dramatically by all of this and more over our very long history is either naive, disingenuous, or both. If there’s a silver lining it’s that today’s planners and intellectuals and residents at least value the idea of diversity more than ever and are willing to try to reconcile it in a way our parents’ generation never did.

Speaking of our parents’ generation let’s talk about the Baby-Boomers. Specifically let’s talk about the Chop’s own parents and aunts and uncles. Every one of them Caught On somewhere, and all of them Made Good eventually, with most of them buying their own houses around Dundalk. But they were the first generation who’d truly grown up with cars. Eisenhower came along in the 50′s and built 95, 83, 97 and 695. Fast forward again to 1993 and NAFTA. Our whole family had Made Good, but there was no one coming up behind them. Sparrows Point had hit the skids and would never recover. Every industrial concern that was employing Neighborhood Folks was right behind it. Downtown industrial buildings were being demolished and stadiums were taking their place. Houses in south and southeast Baltimore start falling one at a time into the hands of landlords and speculators.

Boomers were the first generation who ever accepted a car commute as a fact of life. For them and their White Flight mentality a 90 minute commute each day was perfectly acceptable. Our own parents couldn’t wait to ditch a house at the edge of the city for a newer house and a bigger yard, and landowners and developers were happy to oblige them. By the time we moved to Bel Air in the mid 90′s we found very few kids at school who were born in Harford County. A typical lunch table in the cafeteria might have had one kid from Bel Air, two kids from Dundalk, one from Essex, one from Rosedale and one from Fullerton. Of course, we all thought the Suburbs were terribly boring and couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.

And Bel Air was boring in 1995. Even then most of Baltimore’s outer suburbs from Harford to Hunt Valley to Carroll County hadn’t been built yet. Their growth would be exponential from that point on and last until the housing crash of 2007.

By 2007 your Chop has Caught On somewhere and has been renting houses around the city, finding we had to move uptown after being priced out of one of the smallest houses on one of the narrowest streets in Fell’s Point. We’re starting to think about buying a house of our own. When you go to sea and have no kids there’s no commute and no concern for school districts, so two of the main reasons why people live where they do didn’t apply to us. We might have gone back to Dundalk Ave, but why? There’s nothing left there for us anymore. We would have liked to move anywhere between Fell’s Point and Bayview, but we’re pretty much priced out of that part of the city we’ve always known and loved. So we cast a wide net. We drove by thousands of houses, and toured dozens of them from Pigtown to Greektown to Remington to New Northwood always constrained by price, wanting to be at least somewhat central and not too far into the margins of drug and gang territory. In the end we bought in Waverly. Every house that made our buying short list was in a marginal neighborhood. If we hadn’t ended up here we would have ended up in Remington or somewhere along East Baltimore Street.

Buying here was an intensely personal and incredibly important decision, but also one that was practically made for us by 300 years of history, which is of no consequence because we’ll probably move sometime after getting married anyway. We’re committed to living in Baltimore, but we’ve got no reason at all to commit to any particular neighborhood beyond a fleeting affinity for it.

We’re certainly not alone in that. For our own generation and especially anyone younger than us it’s difficult to commit to one city for life, let alone a neighborhood. For anyone under 40 moving to the city from outside, gentrification isn’t an aberration, it’s the expectation.

What makes one neighborhood more ripe for gentrification than another? Water views? Sure, that doesn’t hurt.

But let’s be honest here- so far it’s only historically white neighborhoods that developers have seen fit to gentrify. It’s why the gentrification of Federal Hill spread south to Riverside but not west to Sharp-Leadenhall. It’s why the gentrification of Canton is poised to reach into Greektown but never made it more than one block north of Patterson Park. It’s why small businesses are falling all over themselves to open in Hampden but Belvedere Square is continually a work in progress. It’s why Bolton Hill is an impressive historic neighborhood and Marble Hall is a collection of dangerous abandoned buildings. It’s why young families flock to Lauraville and not to Bel-Air Edison. It’s why everyone rides the light rail and no one rides the subway.

To choose a neighborhood in Baltimore first means to choose across race lines. Then to choose across class lines. Then to pretend that choosing a neighborhood is as easy as choosing between Doc Martens and Top Siders and that race and class have fuck all to do with it. That is what we find so distasteful in the Sun’s quiz.

It’s the same thing that many Baltimoreans found extremely distasteful about a certain rant on Medium a few months ago. Yes. We’re going to beat that very dead horse some more. We don’t have anything against Tracey Halvorsen personally and we’d bet she’s probably a pretty nice person in real life, but that post was just Godawful.

It sounded the dog-whistle tone of race louder than most things that ever see the light of day on any website. The only person who doesn’t want to admit that it has racial overtones is its author. Much has been made of that post since, but it’s worth addressing here because even though it reads as a rant about crime it is essentially the personal epiphany of a gentrifier without a deep connection to her city or her neighborhood.

Approaching middle age, Halvorsen says she now realizes that the place she lives is more the result of circumstance than of deliberate choice, and her circumstances are pretty favorable. Let’s have a look at what we imagine those circumstances might have looked like: come to Maryland from outside after college to get a graduate degree at a ridiculously expensive art college. Live near MICA during and for some time after grad school, probably in Mount Vernon or Bolton Hill. Get a job, get a better job. Look toward being president of a company. Decide it’s time to invest in a house.

If we work backwards we can determine how Halvorsen wound up in Butcher’s Hill. Her office is near downtown and she didn’t want to be a commuter. She probably wanted a house of a certain size, with a bit of yard space for a dog so much of Fell’s, Canton, and South Baltimore was ruled out. They would have been ruled out also because people over 30 often don’t want to live too close to the bars. However, she has got expensive taste in restaurants and doesn’t want to be too far from her favorites. It’s also likely she sees herself as someone who values the idea of diversity, and wanted some sort of historical character in her house. A late edit in the post reveals she’s looking for that ‘close-knit’ that doesn’t really exist anymore and gives her idea of the ideal neighborhood:

“clean and litter free, people outside talking, neighbors saying hello to each other, homes and sidewalks that look cared for, and people who want to know you, engage with you, and care about the neighborhood. That doesn’t mean affluent, white, or privileged — to me. And if you were to really know Butcher’s Hill, you would know it’s full of all kinds of people with different income levels, backgrounds and opinions.”

Now for a large house with park access about 20 minutes or less to downtown she could have bought a house on Union Square, or in Reservoir Hill or somewhere along Parkside Drive or Gwynn’s Falls Parkway or even in Ednor Gardens Lakeside. But that was never going to happen. There was 0% chance of that ever happening. It was preordained that when Halvorsen bought her first house it would either be in Butcher’s Hill, Barre Circle/Otterbein or Little Italy. Not all strictly white neighborhoods, but all white enough. She chose to buy first within race lines, then within class lines as most people do, even then in a very particular type of neighborhood- one with a certain sort of cachet. We do know Butcher’s Hill, and we know that ‘diverse’ isn’t really the mot juste for it. Marginal might be a better choice. For someone who claims to love Baltimore’s history, we get the distinct impression that Halvorsen hasn’t dug into it very deeply.

So Tracey Halvorsen bought into a marginal neighborhood and is now running right up against some very uncomfortable feelings. Fine. But something that affected many readers the beyond the dog-whistle tone of her post was the whiny and entitled nature of it. It’s as if everyone in city hall should answer to her personally. As if all city residents should count our blessings to have someone as concerned and educated and neighborly as Halvorsen living in our midst. Because if she leaves and takes all of the TEDx Talk set with her and fucks off into the mountains in an Atlas Shrugged style form of protest we’d all be fucked and the city would collapse in no time.

Balls.

We say go ahead, Tracey. There’s the door. When you leave you’ll want top dollar for your house, and the person who buys it will be not terribly different from you. Probably working at Hopkins with an advanced degree of their own and on the young side of middle age. Make your home wherever you see fit, but do it as a personal choice and not as a political statement. The lines of race and class have been in place for a long time now and no amount of hand wringing on Medium is going to change them. We’re sorry your neighborhood wasn’t everything you hoped it would be but nobody gets to live on Sesame Street. If it makes you feel any better there’s plenty of violence up here in our marginal neighborhood, too.

Now that that’s off our chest, let’s say something that hasn’t been said yet in the big blustery reaction to Halvorsen’s post. Perhaps the thing in it that caused the most angst and anxiety in the hearts of well meaning liberals is the fact that there but for the grace of God go us. Sure, few of us can fit our foot that far into our mouth, but for ‘middle class’ people of all races who choose to call the city home we do it by dint of what is a mostly superficial choice. We do it because we like nice restaurants, too. Or we live here because we don’t want to commute or for whatever reason. Without that base of blue collar jobs the city is just another type of county. Deep down a lot of us don’t want to admit that we’re all Looking Out For Number One and that a commitment to the city that we feel is deep could be dredged to the surface pretty easily. An attractive job offer or a four year old who needs to start kindergarten or a close call with violent crime or a raise in rent could push anyone out of their neighborhood or out of the city quickly, and you can’t really blame them for going. For our generation, none of us have roots as deep as Courtney Speed, and few of us ever will.

At the founding of Baltimore the Elite controlled the waterfront and used it to bring in Big Money, creating jobs along the way. The rest of us fit in as best we could. The Elite still control the waterfront, but now instead of making Big Money on steel and shipping and canning they’re making Big Money on Condos in Locust Point, Hotels in Harbor East, and suburban style big box sprawl in Canton. Those who can afford it buy into a fantasy lifestyle, and the rest of us get in where we fit in, same as ever.

So what will change those lines? At the end of the day how do we organize city neighborhoods across racial lines for the good of all? It seems to us that the first step is admitting those lines are real, and that they are as old as the city itself. Preferable to organizing across them would be finally wiping them out once and for all.

How do we do that? Gee, we wish we knew. We’d be happy to tell you.

A good start might be ending predatory practices like sub-prime mortgages and payday lending and insuring credit is available wherever it’s worthy. Creating a critical mass of living wage blue collar jobs and job training options would help as well. In the days of Catching On and Making Good employers invested in their own employees. Now even the most basic entry level job often requires applicants to have invested heavily in their own training, either through colleges or other learning institutions. Oh and if we could find a few billion to invest in the school system that wouldn’t hurt either. Unfortunately erasing the lines isn’t as easy as simply crumpling up the map.

In any particular organizing case or campaign; from the Red Line to the cargo-rail terminal at Morrell Park to Harbor Point to the EBDI project and beyond, it’s important to make people understand that what’s in their own narrow personal interest isn’t necessarily what’s best for the city. Likewise what’s in the interest of the area’s modern plutocrats like Peter Angelos, The Rouse Company, Michael Beatty and John Paterakis. Often neighborhood issues are in fact citywide issues, but city residents will never speak with one voice. It’s hard to push back against the forces of history, and impossible if we don’t know what those forces are. Our neighborhoods didn’t fall from the sky fully formed exactly as they are today. We are all here by circumstance. Whether a person’s circumstance has allowed them to choose a luxury waterfront condo, a rowhouse in SoWeBo, a mansion in Roland Park or whether it’s left them little choice at all that person will continue to act in their own self-interest first. Even if it ‘breaks their heart.’

The True Cost of Owning vs. Renting in Baltimore

Last year we wrote a post on our frustration with living in Baltimore City, and declaring our desire to move to Towson. Since then when talking about city problems we sometimes get variations of the question “Don’t you live in Towson anyway?”

No, sadly we do not. Yet.

Last year’s post was about listing our house for sale. Even though it was listed for less than we paid, it failed to attract any offers in 90 days. We’re about to attempt to list it again, for even less this time. It would have been on the market weeks ago except that the city has closed our street for six weeks (at least) to dig it up and work on the water pipes. So in addition to all the frustrations we expressed in last year’s post we now live in the middle of a job site and wake up to jackhammering before 8 am every day.

In last year’s post, we intentionally skipped over the economics of our decision. Today we want to parse those economics in detail and examine the true cost of owning vs. renting in the city as we’ve experienced it firsthand.

A few notes before we get started:

    We live in our house alone. Philosophically, we don’t believe a full-grown adult should need a roommate to square the circle of affordability. Ours is only an average size rowhouse but at around 1350 square feet it’s much larger than we strictly need. After touring many apartments we’ve found that 650 sq ft is adequate and 800 is spacious for one person. We’re not concerned today with cost per square foot. It is our feeling that any tradeoff in square footage is more than offset by gains in location and neighborhood amenities between our own house and an apartment. If our own house does happen to be a deal square-footage-wise, rest assured that same deal doesn’t exist when shopping to buy in nicer neighborhoods.

    When comparing our house to an apartment, we’re mostly concerned with newer Class A buildings, of which there is currently a glut with more being built all the time. Older buildings are, of course, generally less expensive.

The conventional wisdom about Baltimore is that it’s a cheap place to live. Most longtime residents would balk at rents that approach (or exceed) $2000 a month, thinking that for that price you’d be better off moving to Manhattan. The conventional wisdom is that you can buy a rowhouse for around a thousand bucks a month and live happily ever after. We own such a house, and as we’ve detailed previously life on our block has been anything but happy. Our neighborhood continues to deteriorate. There are 16 houses between ours and the corner. Eight of them are currently unoccupied.

Our monthly payment may be about $1000, but after 7 1/2 years the true cost of ownership has been much higher. Assuming we were to sell this Spring for near our asking price, the numbers would be very similar to what follows. Beyond the mortgage our home has seen significant depreciation, and we would estimate we’ve spent well over $10,000 in maintenance. We don’t think this number is unusual. Our house has always been in generally good shape, but all city rowhouses are around a hundred years old (or more!) and they’ll all need maintenance. We spent over $7000 on maintenance last year alone, including a new roof. We pay $28 a month on our water bill just in taxes and fees. Even if apartment water were sub-metered we’d save at least this much. In many rentals water is paid by the landlord. These and the transactional costs of buying ($3850) and selling ($7000) are divided by the 90 months we’ve lived here, and other monthly expenses we’re including are the ground rent, cost of BGE above what it would cost in an apartment, and parking. We travel 6 months a year and leaving the car on the street for that time is impossible. The city would tow it. Garages run about $100 a month, so we’re averaging that out to $50 a month over the year. We’re also going to throw in $75, which is what it costs to belong to Merritt Clubs. Gyms are standard amenities in class A buildings now and outside Baltimore City most buildings include really nice pools too. Even the modest YMCA here in Waverly comes in at $50 a month. Here’s how those expenses add up over 90 months:

PITI: 1028
Buying cost 43
Selling cost 78
Ground Rent 6
Depreciation 97
Maintenance 115
BGE premium 35
Water fees 28
Off street parking 50
Gym/Pool 75
____________________________
Total cost $1555

This is the number which effectively represents what we could pay for an apartment with those amenities with zero additional financial strain over the long term. This is not enough to get you to the top of the market in Baltimore, but even at this price you can find a nice apartment in a much better, safer neighborhood than Waverly. You can, of course, spend hundreds less than this. Spending more should get you a very nice place. Using the real cost of a rowhouse in the $100k-150k range, it seems clear that renting will almost always be the better deal, and come with far fewer headaches and more flexibility.

$1555 Is plenty enough to get a Class A apartment in Towson, which we’d prefer to any Baltimore neighborhood at this point anyway, and in many other cities this number will be enough to let you take your pick among neighborhoods and apartments.

So there you have it. We’re paying a $500+ a month premium to own in a bad neighborhood when we could spend the same to rent virtually anywhere. There are plenty of people in this town who think that homeowners should cheerfully carry this burden for the good of the city. Balls. It would be objectively stupid for us to remain in this house, in this neighborhood. We do not have faith that the situation on the ground will improve in any meaningful way. Our experiment in Baltimore home ownership has been a complete failure, and we are eager to bring it to an end.

First Impressions of Baltimore’s Bike Share Program

When you live in Baltimore you hear a lot about potential. If you squint real hard and look at things in a certain light and just believe a little you can see how great everything is supposed to be… how great it is going to be in the very near future. And sometimes it is. Harborplace is pretty nice. Oriole Park didn’t always exist and now it’s impossible to imagine the city without it. But then other times all that potential amounts to nothing more than a canceled Red Line, a highway to nowhere or a Superblock.

Given our city’s history and the enormous dysfunction in city hall it feels like an honest-to-God miracle that Baltimore Bike Share exists. But it does! it really happened. You can go rent a bike right now and you should!

We were eager to test drive the bikes and the system, and hit the streets as soon as we could yesterday. We’ve been hearing for several weeks now that October 28 was the launch date, but we were frustrated early when we woke up yesterday morning to see on social media that most of the stations slated to open did not have bikes on them. Where were the bikes? They were at city hall. Her honor the Mayor Not Standing For Reelection had staged hundreds of bikes there for a photo op timed to the noon news. It would have been quite sufficient to just use the bike stand already located at city hall and it’s inexcusable for the mayor to delay the rollout, and to make the contractor work that much harder on an already busy day.

Besides, the mayor has absolutely no leg to stand on in taking credit for this program. It should have been done six years ago! We’ve heard the figure $2.36 Million thrown around quite a bit as if it were expensive. This is a woman who hands out half million dollar consulting contracts by the dozen every time the BOE meets. Two and a half million is a bargain for a system of the size and quality we’re getting! And in six years six years! she hasn’t been able to find a title sponsor. But that is typical of SRB: fail in every way imaginable and when you succeed even a tiny little bit make sure there’s a ton of press there to brag in front of.

Dozens of bikes sit outside city hall hours after the mayor's photo op.

Dozens of bikes sit outside city hall hours after the mayor’s photo op.

There was a ton of press. At least what passes for a ton of press in this town in 2016. By the time we got to city hall around 2:30 there were still over 60 bikes there just sitting around doing nothing. We saw WJZ’s Pat Warren with a cameraman, who didn’t bother to say hello or ask if we’d like to be interviewed, but instead just stuck the goddamn camera in our face when we tried to rent a bicycle.

Here is how we know Pat Warren is a hack reporter. When we made it clear that we didn’t want to be interviewed but would be happy to chat off the record she became quite curt and literally turned her back on us. We’ve met some good reporters, like some of the ones the Sun is currently refusing to give raises, and it is true that good reporters want to learn as much as they can about the stories they’re covering. Given the chance to talk to a local who’s done quite a lot of cycling in Baltimore Pat Warren (and many others like her) are only interested in getting the requisite amount of footage and B-roll and getting back to the station. A story like this unfortunately requires no imagination and little effort. You just go through the checklist: a quote from the mayor or someone in the transportation department, a few questions for Liz Cornish, and maybe a smoking hot take from Doc Brown if you really want to spice it up. Nobody’s talked to the contractor or the founding members or people who live or work near stations. Nobody’s made a real comparison to other cities’ programs. Nobody really gives a shit. Here are three stories at the Brew, WBAL, and the BBJ. They all contain a HUGE factual error: Bike Share does not cost $2 per ride. It costs $2 per day. Two dollars buys you a pass that is good for unlimited 45 minute rides in a 24 hour period.

For years this blog has been limited in scope because we’ve purposefully shied away from doing reporting or anything that smacks of journalism. But we did do one thing that no reporter in this town thought to try and that’s ride the damn bike and tell you what it was like.

So what was it like? Well, we encountered some difficulty in actually getting our hands on a bike. Using the bike share website we got an error in processing our credit card and were unable to purchase a pass online. The iPhone app was even worse, as there were no selections to choose in the pass field, halting the whole transaction at that step. An email to their contact page was not immediately returned. We received an error message when we tried to buy a pass at city hall, and when we walked to West Shore Park we got a different error- which turned out to be that the machine did not take American Express. After trying again with a Visa, we got a day pass in the form of an RFID card, similar to a Charm Card.

Users can (theoretically) use the app to undock bikes, or use the pass. We’d like it a lot if the passes were merged with the Charm Card we already have instead of carrying a new card. We assume we’re meant to recharge the card the same way a Charm Card is done, as there is a panel for that on the machine, but as with many aspects of the program the vendor is unclear in the website and kiosk instructions. We imagine that for many users both locals and visitors this may be their first experience with a bike share, so more clarity and ease of use would go a long way. It’s also not clear why only some stations receive credit cards. It would be nice if they all did. The few other riders we encountered at stations seemed to be experiencing similar early-stage difficulties.

Once we had the pass, it was smooth sailing. You just tap it to the handlebars, take your bike and go.

The digital readout seen on this electric model is the same on the geared model but without the words 'electric pedal assist.' This is the view riding, making it impossible to see the wheel.

The digital readout seen on this electric model is the same on the geared model but without the words ‘electric pedal assist.’ This is the view riding, making it impossible to see the wheel.

These are indeed the nicest bike share bikes we’ve ever seen. They’re heavy, as all share bikes are, but they’re comfortable for us as a 6′ rider and we assume they’ll be comfortable for riders of all heights, ages and experience levels. We loved the digital display at the stem that alternates between a speedometer and a timer counting down the minutes you’ve got left. It also shows the battery charge and miles ridden which is good to know. We didn’t try the secondary lock feature, but if you want to make a trip to the store or run an errand each bike is equipped with a steel basket and an integrated cable lock to keep it from wandering off while you’re inside.

The basket placement is perhaps our biggest criticism of the bikes, in that it does not allow you to see where the front tire is going. These bikes have different size wheels, and the front tire is smaller than what many riders are used to. With the conditions of downtown’s streets and sidewalks being what they are, it could be quite dangerous not seeing whether your wheel is about to go into a pothole or miss it by two inches- go up the curb cut or run into a concrete lip, etc. It would also be a benefit to see what your turning circles are on the ground, particularly around pedestrians as all share bikes are difficult to maneuver at slow speeds.

Being brand new the bikes are all in mint condition. It will be interesting to see how well maintained they are at periodic intervals but today all the ones we rode were smooth and efficient. The non-electric models have seven speeds, which feels like a luxury and should be more than enough for getting from station to station. In 7th gear on Pratt Street we were able to clock a bike at 17.5 mph over flat ground. We’re also pleased to report that these things handle cobblestone streets like a champ. Being heavy and having beefy tires comes in handy there. Brakes worked well and safely as expected.

There is a certain awkward unfamiliarity with the frame and style of bike but we’re sure that for even occasional riders that won’t be an issue after several rides. These things are also drawing a lot of looks, both at the stations and in motion. This isn’t a bad thing though. People had a very positive reaction in general. If you’re an early adopter of share bikes, you should be prepared to field a lot of questions, and for the success of the system we think it’s particularly important for those early adopters to be as genial and informative as possible, and to encourage as many people as possible to try these bikes. It’s two bucks. It should be an easy sale!

We had fun tooling around downtown and seeing each station slowly start to fill with bikes, but the real fun began when we got our hands on one of the electric models. From a distance they’re indistinguishable from the traditional geared models, but the electric ones are indicated on the display panel in small type. If you’re looking for one at a station the lack of a shifter on the right handlebar is a quick way to tell.

What’s it feel like to ride? It feels like you’re Mister Burns gliding along on the front end of a tandem bike while Smithers is behind you pedaling his ass off. It’s great. The electric boost kicks in after just about a third of a pedal revolution, and it kicks off again if you stop pedaling. We got it going to 21 mph on a slight downhill, but it topped out at 14.5 over the same flat stretch of Pratt Street where the geared bike did 17.5. We can say with confidence that you could run these things uphill all the way to Charles Village or Remington easily. It would take a fraction of the effort it takes to ride your own bike that far.

The stations are, for the most part, very well located. The more we talked to people during the rollout the more we got the sense that our bike share system is meant to be primarily a solution to the problem of last-mile transit. You can come off the subway or light rail and get right onto a bike and be at the next station very quickly with no bus or long walk involved. And there are enough stations that one is bound to be close to your destination. Station locations coincide well with clusters of restaurants, nightlife, and attractions, i.e. where people want to go. It could be that they are a little too clustered, but only time will tell. A few could eventually be moved if it came to that. It is unlikely we’re going to see stations more than about five or six miles from the center of town. That’s about the distance we live from downtown, and frankly while getting around on our own bike is easy enough, trying to utilize a share bike instead of a bus to go to, say, Oriole Park would be very impractical.

But if you live near a station this is a very convenient way of making short trips. Forty five minutes may not sound like a lot of time but even on a heavy bike like this it’s possible to cover several miles in that time. It would be nice- hell, it would be a miracle if everyone who owned a car and lived near downtown didn’t see this as ‘for tourists’ or ‘for the bike people’ or whatever. It’s not that. It’s for you! Don’t look at it as a couple parking spots missing from one particular block. Look at it as you getting to keep your parking space all weekend because you can now get across town in 15 minutes by bike for $2.

We can’t say enough how great the pricing is in this program, and we wish the media and the company had been better in clarifying. Aside from the $2 day pass there’s a $15 monthly pass, which pays for itself if you ride more than 7 days in a month, and the Founders’ Pass at $100 a year, which comes with longer rides, a Zipcar membership with driving credit, and a few other perks. It’s really an exceptional value and those passes have sold well.

All in all today’s rollout was… bad. There were the problems mentioned above, as well as some issues with the app giving wrong information about the number of bikes available at particular stations and other technical issues not worth getting in the weeds about. That said it wasn’t a disaster. The bikes are on the streets. Finally. If the city can get out of Bewegen’s way and let them do their jobs there is no reason why they can’t have every single issue ironed out by the time of full implementation in the Spring. When that time arrives there’s the potential these bikes will be widely adopted and adored by people in central Baltimore.

Bike share station with large construction site in the background. We almost ate shit at a patch of missing bricks where the cones are beyond the station.

Bike share station with large construction site in the background. We almost ate shit at a patch of missing bricks where the cones are beyond the station.

But before that potential can become a reality the city needs to get out of its own way. We wrote 3 weeks ago about the current sorry state of downtown. In those three weeks we’ve seen three downtown businesses either close or announce their intention to close, with all three owners citing the downtown environment and dealing with the city government as their entire reason for either closing or moving. There were also 3 shootings near Baltimore and Howard in a week. The preponderance of construction sites and road and utility maintenance going on all over the city, but especially downtown and in Fell’s Point/Harbor East will be a major obstacle to the wide adoption of bike share. While many users may be somewhat timid riders even under ideal conditions, the industrial hellscape and poor road conditions existing downtown are challenging to any cyclist, and we found them even harder to negotiate on a share bike.

We hear a lot about the potential of the coming bike infrastructure to transform the riding experience, but the city’s track record on that so far is poor. Beyond being unsafe from a crime perspective, they never did complete Guilford avenue, and have already torn out the traffic calming circles they installed there a few years ago, leaving the road surface much worse for wear. They likewise tore out freshly installed bike lanes on Fulton Avenue a few years ago. When they do get a “complete street” built such as next to Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus on Charles Street, the road bottlenecks and is confusing and practically invites people to drive in the bike lane. It’s a horrible thing to ride a bike through. Practically the only bike lane that’s even halfway pleasant and efficient is the one on Saint Paul Street (not without its own flaws) but even that one just ends abruptly in a chaotic mess of taxis and off-ramp traffic.

Too much of what this city calls bike lanes at this moment in 2016 are absolutely worse than nothing at all and are very dangerous. When we rode around Cathedral Street and down to Liberty Street there were cars driving in what’s supposed to be a protected two way lane, cars using the lane as a turn lane, cars turning where they’re no longer allowed to turn. These lanes are totally unprotected as of now and are ill marked even where they’re complete. Where they’re not complete they’re just a jumble of spray paint. These brown lanes on Pratt and Lombard are no better. People just drive all over those with impunity. And these are the very places where bike share stations were designed to go. It’s not hard to imagine someone picking up their first bike at Cathedral and Mulberry, running a gauntlet downhill and barely escaping with their lives, and ditching the bike at Hopkins Place in a fit of disgust. And they wouldn’t be wrong to do it, either.

Below are some pictures we took along our ride yesterday. It was a typical afternoon. There was no stadium traffic or water main break or anything. If you go riding downtown you will see all of what we saw today. These are just a select few images. The truth is that we saw construction in nearly every block and could have taken hundreds of photos. Also these are mostly from the eastern part of downtown. The sinkholes, construction, and general messes are even worse on the west side of downtown. If bike share is going to succeed, and we truly hope it does, it’s got to be in a better environment than this.

Midway between downtown and Fell's Point, which is bound to be one of the more popular riding routes.  Sign reads Share The Road. Imagine steering a fifty pound bike between the truck and the jersey wall.

Midway between downtown and Fell’s Point, which is bound to be one of the more popular riding routes. Sign reads Share The Road. Imagine steering a fifty pound bike between the truck and the jersey wall.

In search of one of the Fell's stations we followed a bike lane. It led us into a dead end parking lot surrounded by construction. The Bond Street station two blocks east fits nicely and works well.

In search of one of the Fell’s stations we followed a bike lane. It led us into a dead end parking lot surrounded by construction. The Bond Street station two blocks east fits nicely and works well.

This is what we found looking for the Baltimore Marketplace station on Center Street. It's barely possible to go west from here.

This is what we found looking for the Baltimore Marketplace station on Center Street. It’s barely possible to go west from here.

This is the state of the bike lane on President street, between two bike share stations. This was brand new just a couple years ago. Now, standing water, litter, potholes, leaves dirt and gravel. It did not occur to the city to improve this before introducing bike share.

This is the state of the bike lane on President street, between two bike share stations. This was brand new just a couple years ago. Now, standing water, litter, potholes, leaves dirt and gravel. It did not occur to the city to improve this before introducing bike share.

Another bike lane failure that combines poor design and road quality with treacherous construction.

Another bike lane failure that combines poor design and road quality with treacherous construction.

This is the bike lane on Cathedral. It's total chaos. bikes go in the opposite direction of both the lanes and parked cars, and how can this be protected if there's still parking on the other side?

This is the bike lane on Cathedral. It’s total chaos. bikes go in the opposite direction of both the lanes and parked cars, and how can this be protected if there’s still parking on the other side?

This is what you're met with when you take a bike from Hopkins Plaza and go east. It's not possible to use the sidewalk. It's difficult even to walk on the sidewalk. The street is completely impassable. Not pictured: the fourth and fifth buses also present in this block at this moment.

This is what you’re met with when you take a bike from Hopkins Plaza and go east. It’s not possible to use the sidewalk. It’s difficult even to walk on the sidewalk. The street is completely impassable. Not pictured: the fourth and fifth buses also present in this block at this moment.

Some dick parked in the bike lane on Central Avenue.

Some dick parked in the bike lane on Central Avenue.

Another dick parked in another bike lane. He knows he's doing wrong, but the city should demarcate this better. It looks as much like a parking lane as it does a bike lane. They also need to get rid of the meters and legal parking signs like yesterday. The little paper no parking sign is clearly ineffective.

Another dick parked in another bike lane. He knows he’s doing wrong, but the city should demarcate this better. It looks as much like a parking lane as it does a bike lane. They also need to get rid of the meters and legal parking signs like yesterday. The little paper no parking sign is clearly ineffective.

The first of a very long line of cars using a two way bike lane as a travel lane outside the central library.

The first of a very long line of cars using a two way bike lane as a travel lane outside the central library.

Cars cross several white lines to turn into the two way bike lane. It is inexcusable that this turnoff is not closed and this dangerous situation is allowed to exist.

Cars cross several white lines to turn into the two way bike lane. It is inexcusable that this turnoff is not closed and this dangerous situation is allowed to exist.

A dumpster left in the bike lane a block south of the previous photo.

A dumpster left in the bike lane a block south of the previous photo.

Another dumpster in the same bike lane a block south of the first dumpster.

Another dumpster in the same bike lane a block south of the first dumpster.

Maryland Million Day 2016 @ Laurel Park

Regular readers of this site will note that we don’t have the joie de vivre we once did for life in Baltimore. Lately we’ve been down on everything from music to politics, and we barely even enjoy a trip to Camden Yards anymore. But in 2016 there’s one thing we love more than ever and it’s thoroughbred horse racing… particularly Maryland racing.

And why not? It’s been a banner year. After last year’s historic Triple Crown win by American Pharoah we started out the Spring of 2016 with our first ever visit to a steeplechase meet at Fair Hill, which was a blast to watch and a great betting day. Triple Crown season saw us win enough money betting online we could start to claw back some actual cash profits from our advance wagering account. Throughout the Summer we paid visits to both of the Baltimore area’s brand new OTB locations at Horseshoe Casino and Timonium Fairgrounds. Both venues are clean, quiet and comfortable enough to stay all day and play a whole card easily. We even made a trip to Maryland’s fabled Riverboat on the Potomac which is a building on pilings located at a swimming beach, not a boat, and has a panoramic deck and full bar and restaurant. (It’s only technically in Maryland, adjacent to the lovely little town of Colonial Beach, Virginia.)

Of course, we made several visits in person to Laurel Park this Summer as well. With free admission, free parking, and even twilight racing in the Summer lasting all the way until sunset it’s clear that the Jockey Club has made a pleasant and effortless fan experience a priority in a way that the MLB and NFL can’t or won’t. Then there’s the multimillion dollar improvements continually being added. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every time we visit Laurel they’ve found a way to outdo themselves. Handles are up and the sport is healthier than it’s been in years. It may be sacrilege to say so, but it’s hard to buy into the annual hand-wringing over Pimlico when Laurel is transforming itself into a world-class facility right down the road.

As long as we’re blaspheming, we’ll add that for our money Maryland Million Day is the very best day of racing our state has to offer, including the Preakness and Black Eyed Susan. Our homegrown fields include horses with nationwide star quality like Ben’s Cat, Rockinn On Bye, and Phlash Phelps, and the atmosphere and fan experience on Maryland’s Day is the best you’ll find anywhere, in any sport.

We’re so excited for this weekend’s races we dove in early, did our homework (in advance, as any good handicapper should) and made our 2016 selections so we can enjoy Marylandia to the fullest. In a first on this site we’re going to publish those picks here, with commentary. Picks are in order of preference. All ticket prices reflect suggested wagers at the minimum base price. Enjoy and good luck!

Race 1

We look past the morning line favorite Head Games who seems very vulnerable in this position. Instead we go to the 6 Sarah’s Treasure who was washed off the turf two back and had enough to hit the board last out but for being DQ’ed. Number 9 Bete Noir brings turf experience and gets Trevor McCarthy along with what looks like a hidden class drop on this big day of racing. We’d also use the 3 Cherished Prize on exotic tickets being in the money four of her last 5 tries.

Race 2

The 6 Chapel of Chimes is one of 3 horses we’d use as a single today. The connections are clearly very savvy at taking advantage of the condition book and this horse stands out well above the rest of the field. She will be a short price but when you believe a horse will win it’s best not to bet against it. This race starts a P3 and P4 and that’ll probably be our angle. In exotics we’d use the 7 Star Eighty, one of the more consistent in this field and we’ll look at the 9 Next Best Thing who may be just that if she draws in.

Pick 3: 6/ 3,4,6,7,11/ 2,8,9,13 = $8.00
Pick 4: 6/ 3,4,6,7,11/ 2,8,9,13/ 2,3 = $12.00

Race 3

Two year old races are tough to pick and this one looks pretty wide open to us. We go to one on the AE list O Dionysus with the breeding advantage. Sired by Bodiemeister and purchased for $190,000 as a yearling, he’s got a win and a second so far to back up those credentials. We also noticed the 6 Slick Man, who figures to be among the last first-timers by the prolific Maryland stallion Not For Love who was euthanized in May at age 26. Not For Love has progeny in many of today’s races but Slick Man may well be a slick entry in this spot. We’ll be watching him closely in the paddock. The 4 In Arrears is in good form and could easily improve on a sharp win last out. Number 7 Greatbullsoffire failed as a short price favorite in a similar spot last month but can’t be ignored completely today.

Race 4

The 8 Diamond Dollar is another by Not For Love and looks to have a class advantage here. She’s yet to put up any eye-popping speed figures but has won at this level and never missed the board in five starts. We think an average performance by her today may be enough to get it done. The 2 Item will be a serious threat with any improvement at all. Number 7 Freisani looks to be working better than her lone start and may be a great price. AE 13 Misty On Pointe will draw interest if she’s in.

Pick 3: 2,8,9/ 2,3/ 2,7,12 = $9.00
Pick 4: 2,8,9/ 2,3/ 2,7,12/ 10 = $9.00

Race 5

Going with yet another Not For Love pick we like the 2 Devilish Love. Proven on the turf and with stakes experience we think this grey will be tough to beat. Her 5-1 morning line would be a gift from the Gods at post time. The 5 Northern Smile is similarly positioned and has a great shot today. AE 9 Vielsalm loves Laurel and loves the distance and should take a lot of money if she’s in. The 3 Rocky Policy looks like a bounce candidate after a gaudy 103 Equibase figure last out and doesn’t impress us too much. She’s cross-entered in today’s 9th race as well. We think she’ll run here but we hope the connections get what they deserve for pulling such a stunt.

Pick 3: 2,3,5,9/ 1,2,7,12/ 10 = $8.00

Race 6

This race sucks. It’ll probably be a year-maker for whatever small potatoes trainer wins it. The top 3 program selections are 2, 7, and 12 and they’re the only ones that look like live runners to us along with the 1 first off the claim for Wayne Potts.

Pick 3: 1,2,7,12/ 10/ 4,7,1 = $6.00

Race 7

In our biggest single of the day we’re going to the 10 Phlash Phelps whose got the speed over turf making this his race to lose. If he weren’t in it we’d be looking to number 1 Here’s To Mike or the 3 Spartianos, both of which would be fit to win a race today, but maybe not this race. The 11 Lord of Love may figure in the exotics but reeks of Seconditis with just 2 wins in 33 tries lifetime on the turf.

Pick 3: 10/ 4,1,7/ 11 = $1.50
Pick 5: 10/ 4,1,7/ 11/ 4,6,7/ 7 = $4.50

Race 8

Chalky though it may be, in the Sprint Handicap we’ve got to go with the 4 Morning Fire. Along with a couple of stakes wins his recent running lines show him running behind horses like Counterforce and Destin, so he’s been facing some of the stiffest competition in the country and we think he can outgun the old man Ben’s Cat. With a legendary 32 wins in 59 starts the Cat is a threat to win every race in which he’s entered, and he may make some magic today so we won’t ignore him entirely.

Pick 3: 1,4/ 4,8,11/ 4,6,7 = $9.00
Pick 4: 1,4/ 4,8,11/ 4,6,7/ 7 = $9.00

Race 9

The Distaff handicap brings us our Price Play of the day with number 8 Wowwhatabrat at a 15-1 Morning Line. There’s some consistent improvement here between this filly’s 3 and 4 year old years and her last race at Parx was a big (but not too big) step up with a win at 30-1. She can excel at 7 furlongs and may leave a lot of people scratching their heads. We also like the 4 Scip’s Sonata who looks like she’s coming into her own in mid-career and makes the switch to a hot young rider in Nik Juarez. She should be a very square price too. We can’t leave out the heavily favored 11 Loveable Lady (another by Not For Love) who’s got a lot to like but the price is not one of those things.

Daily Double: 11,4,8/ 4,6,7 = $9
Pick 3: 11,4,8/ 4,6,7/ 7 = $4.50

Race 10

The Maryland Million Classic will definitely be a show this year and while there are a lot of ways it can go we think the edge belongs to the 4 Admiral’s War Chest. He looks like the one most likely to survive a hot pace over long distance. It could be they want to send him to the lead and let him try to hold it, which worked last out, and which may be as good a plan as any. Program favorites Flash McCaul and Just Jack definitely have speed, but may do their best work at shorter distances. Also Eligibles Noteworthy Peach and Eyeplayeveryday could make an already tough race even more challenging.

Race 11

We usually don’t bother with the Get Out race but today the 7 Publishanditerate really catches our eye. Sire Tapit’s six figure stud fee is really eye popping in a field of horses who aren’t worth that price combined. As a first time gelding and with a 5 pound weight break it looks an awful lot like juggernaut Sagamore Farm is trying to come in with one of their sneakiest trainers (DePaz is 3 for 9 and let the horse walk 5f in a 1:05 workout last week) and steal a purse after a big day of racing while everyone’s heading for the parking lot. We wouldn’t treat this entry like a traditional single, but we don’t think enough of any of the others to use them so we may use him on the end of horizontal wagers or even back him in the win pool if he looks fit in the paddock and circumstances allow.

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.

 

Context.

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.

Baltimore’s $15 and Hour Minimum Wage Bill Sent Back to Committee In Council

Ed. Note: Today’s post is by guest author and Baltimore resident Gabriel Sikowitz. You can follow him on Twitter @GabrielSikowitz.

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This past week the Baltimore City Council sent a bill authorizing a $15 minimum wage back to committee. It will almost surely be brought up with the new Council. At the current minimum wage of $8.25, a full time job at or on the minimum wage cannot feed a family and it cannot provide for rent in the vast majority of Baltimore’s neighborhoods.

Workers who make the minimum wage are not youths and college students looking to make extra money. Nearly 43% of minimum wage earners in Baltimore provide for kids or are married. Nearly 30% of minimum wage earners are parents. A fight for $15 an hour is a fight for families that can work with dignity and fewer hours.

One of the most consistent arguments against a minimum wage is that it will increase unemployment. This is false. Modest increases in the minimum wage boosts wages, while having little effect in the unemployment rate. There is always anecdotal evidence of businesses that close or move or claim they will. However, economists agree that increases in the minimum wage do not increase unemployment.

The Baltimore City Council recently sent the proposal for the $15 minimum wage back to committee, all but assuring that it will come up with the new council. The current minimum wage for Baltimore City is $8.25 an hour and the tipped wage is $3.63. This bill does not raise the wage overnight to $15 an hour but it will phase (in) over the course of four years. The bill also limits the amount of money that employers can withhold and strengthens the Wage Commission’s ability to fight wage theft.

As I stated earlier, the minimum wage wouldn’t immediately jump to $15 an hour, it would be phased in over the next four years. While the bill was sent back to committee, the new council is most likely to support bringing it up again for debate and it would look very similar. The present bill would phase the wage in like this:


July 1, 2016, $8.75;
January 1, 2017, $10.00;
July 1, 2017, $10.50;
July 1, 2018, $12.00;
July 1, 2019, $13.50;
July 1, 2020, $15.00;

After the fourth year (2020) the wage would be tied to the Consumer Price Index and any increases would be tied to increases in the index. Tipped wage earners would also benefit from a similar boost. Their current wage is $3.63 an hour. It would then slowly increase until it hits $15 an hour.


January 1, 2017, $4.50;
July 1, 2017, $5.25;
July 1, 2018, $6.00;
July 1, 2019, $7.50;
July 1, 2020, $9.00;
July 1, 2021, $10.50;
July 1, 2022, $12.00;
July 1, 2023, $14.00;
July 1, 2024, $15.00;

After the fourth year (2024) the tipped wage would be tied to the Consumer Price Index and any increases would be tied to increases in the index. It should be noted that the tipping is not a universal custom and in some countries it is frowned upon if not an alien custom.

As with all pieces of legislation different departments have the ability to comment on the bill. The Baltimore Development Corporation officially took no position, however it strongly implied its opposition. The BDC suggests that because Baltimore has a higher minimum wage, people from surrounding counties will seek work in Baltimore City in direct competition with Baltimore workers. The BDC also provided a survey of businesses. The survey found that there is not a strong opposition to raising the minimum wage in Baltimore amongst business owners. Roughly 39% of respondents are opposed to the minimum wage, 25% support the increase and 36% took no position. Below is what employers would say the impact of an increase would be on them.

The Case for $15 in Baltimore:

In 1964 Baltimore felt that neither the state nor the federal minimum wage was high enough for workers to enjoy a minimal standard of living, in doing so it became one of the first city minimum wage laws. Since then the state and federal government have increased the minimum wage, however workers have seen their wages stagnate.

The current minimum wage in Baltimore is the same as most of the rest of the state, which is $8.25 an hour. If one works eight hours a day, five days a week for 52 weeks a year that comes out to $17,160 a year pre-tax. That’s great news if you are a single person household, but bad if you are a family of three. The Federal poverty level for a family of three is $20,160 a year.

$15 Varies across the country and $15 can get you further in Ottumwa, Iowa than in Baltimore, indeed it will go further in Harford County than it will here in Baltimore City. It is more expensive to live here than it is in other jurisdictions. Our wages should reflect that. Last year it was estimated that while Maryland’s minimum wage was $8.25 the purchasing power of that was $7.44, slightly above what the minimum wage was last changed at the Federal level in 2009 to $7.25 an hour.

The Tax Foundation published a report earlier this month on how much $100 is worth across the country. This is a result in purchasing power differences. Cities and suburbs are more expensive places to live than rural and exurban areas. In the Baltimore metro area $100 has the purchasing power of $92.89, while in Cumberland $100 has the purchasing power of $113.10. It should be noted that the Tax Foundation describes itself as non-partisan but some view it as pro-business.

The Economic Policy Institute broke down what an increased minimum wage would mean in Baltimore. The demographics make it clear that minimum wage earners in Baltimore are working families and not part-time workers. An increase in the minimum wage would be a boost for almost 98,000 working people; almost 27% of all workers in Baltimore City. This would not be a boost for teenagers, 95.7% of all minimum wage workers are 20 or older and almost 80% are 25 and up. Women make up 55.3% of workers who earn the minimum wage almost a ¼ of working mothers and 1/3 of single mothers would get a bump in their paycheck. Any increase in the minimum wage would disproportionately benefit racial minorities, 54.2% of workers who earn the minimum wage are African-American, 8.3% are Hispanic, and 5.1% are Asian. Workers who would see gains in their incomes make up roughly 54.6% of their families’ income. 20% Of workers who earn the minimum wage are a family’s sole provider. This increase would have a disproportionate impact on people who work full time. 73.8% of those who’d benefit are full time workers, and only 7.7% are part time workers who work 20 hours or less.

The minimum wage is not a living wage in Baltimore City. The people who earn it aren’t teenagers looking for extra money or college students picking up a couple of shifts between classes. They are working men and women, many of whom have families. We cannot continue to have a wage that keeps people in poverty who work full time. We cannot have families who have one or both parents work full time and still just get by. A $15 minimum wage will lift people from earning poverty wages to earning closer to a living wage.