Tuesday, July 19, 2011

800 Words: Baltimore-Washington - The Special Relationship

Nearly every Great American City has a smaller second city as a neighbor - a shadow city into which is poured as much of the Great City’s darker nature as it can possibly manage; its permanent underclass, its industrial sludge, its crime, its diseases, its drunks and junkies, its functional architecture. New York has Newark, Boston has New Haven, Chicago has Gary, San Francisco has Oakland and Washington DC has Baltimore.

No matter where life takes me, I am a Baltimorean. My family came to Baltimore at various points of the twentieth century, and mine is the first generation for whom Baltimore always felt like Home. It is more than a place where I lived or went to school, it is the place of which the sights, sounds, faces and smells will always feel the most familiar. Try as I might have to escape, Home will never be anywhere else.

And as I’m sure most Baltimoreans do, I grew up viewing Washington with a mixture of awe, envy and smugness. Washington had the exact same problems as Baltimore: murder, drugs, AIDS, venereal disease, teen pregnancy and illiteracy chief among them. Yet there was something about DC which could not help but gleam. Every year as a kid, my father used to pack as many of my friends would fit into our Ford Taurus station wagon and take us on a tour of Washington. It was the ‘social event’ of Christmas vacation among our friends - and believe me, the only one I controlled.

I suppose it was on those trips that I developed the kind of fascination with Washington which a Brooklynite would have with Manhattan. Baltimore is the city of my heart, but Washington is the city of my dreams. I may be the only person to ever live in Washington who also romanticized it, but I’d also be hard-pressed to believe that America has a more beautiful city.

To most people, especially Baltimoreans, Washington is a synthetic city - a city of transplants, social climbers, egoists and fanatics who built a city on the dime of taxpayers whose cities declined while DC flourished. It is a city full of segregation where people engorged on white privilege are served at every counter by those who’ll never experience it.

But to me it was also the city where aspirations torrentially flowed. Baltimore may be the city of my life, but Washington is the city of my youth. I came to college in 2001, three weeks before 9/11. I arrived a horrendous student in American University’s learning-disability program. I didn’t expect to last through my first year. Four years later, I graduated an honor student with special tassles and a medal. No matter what else happened in my life, nobody can ever take those years away from me.

Once, Washington was the city of cherished possibilities. Now, Washington is the city of cherished memories. For me, Washington will always be the city of drunken escapades, late-night conversations, believing in causes and in love, mostly unrequited, and both with a passion I will never again experience. It is the place where I discovered on some cigarette fueled night that I could write, and the next sleep-deprived morning that other people might enjoy reading it.

Baltimore is a place to go if you want to be realistic about life. Washington is a place for romantics. It is not for nothing that every survey names Washington DC the top city in America for young professionals. DC is a machine forever powered by youth. The young are the only people who believe in what they do so fervently that they grind themselves the bone in service of their cause. The DC of suburban bureaucrats is far away from their DC. The DC of young people is a small village, it’s own kind of movable feast; full of happy hours in which everybody stays until closing time to discuss the minutia of every political issue. It’s the only place in America where young people still dress as though they live in a Mad Men episode, and perhaps the only place where it’s acceptable to act as though they do.

Less than two weeks ago, I came to DC for the first time again. Living now in Bethany Beach Delaware, it was my first time as a visitor since before college. And DC, ever surprising, came alive for me in a way it never did before. I barely entered the ‘safe’ confines of the North-West quadrant. I was everywhere else, but the furthest I ventured into North-West was First and Rhode Island. At four o’clock in the morning, I walked alone from 14th and Maryland in Northeast to 13th and S in Southeast; and at no point did I feel unsafe. DC was no longer a small village, it was a full city in which the possibilities were too large for any one person to experience all of them.

Unfortunately, the expansion of my DC comes at a price. The price is paid, as usual, by the black community. Gentrification jacks up the prices, and the poor can’t afford to stay in their homes. And yesterday came the news that DC was no longer a majority black city.

Washington is a city built by blacks, maintained by blacks and native-rooted by blacks. Except for a few pockets of over-privileged Wasps, the roots of Washington DC that go more than a generation deep are almost entirely African-American. Whites come to DC in search of work, particularly in an economic downturn when government jobs are the only unaffected source of employment. But the black community made DC work for well over a hundred years.

All around America, we’re beginning to see something which looks like Urban Flight in Reverse. Whites are beginning to move back into the cities, ‘gentrifying’ neighborhoods and raising prices to the point that poor blacks have to move into the suburbs. Who knows? In twenty years it’s possible (though unlikely) that every one-bedroom apartment in Gallery Place might cost more than a five-bedroom house in Rockville. Richard Florida, the urban studies theorist and guru at the University of Toronto, believes that this is how America is going to be re-formed for the twenty-first century. The small towns, suburbs and industrial cities which were so crucial to sustaining middle-class America in the twentieth century are no longer able to do so. According to Florida, the best hope to maintain America’s middle class is for educated young people to move back into cities with viable twenty-first century industries. And that is precisely what is happening (among other places) in San Francisco for technology, New York for finance and media, Boston for education, Los Angeles for entertainment, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill for research, and Washington for government.

But there is still reason to hope that this isn’t just another form of Urban Flight, at least in DC. There is no stopping governments from growing, neither Reagan nor George W. Bush were successful in that regard. But one of the upsides to this is that the DC metropolitan area has an unemployment rate of only 6.9%. Compared with the national rate 9.4%, the city is a Mecca of possible employment.

Since families that once had reliable employment in rustbelt towns like Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati no longer have such things, they must look for other towns to place roots. For a long time, the rust-belt was good to American families. They made more than enough to make ends meet, and many families sent their children to college. Unfortunately, these children must make new roots in a new city.

The Obama era is a watershed moment in American History for many reasons. Not least of which is a Coming of Age for Washington DC. The Obamas are perhaps the first ‘first family’ to take Washington DC to heart. If DC were a city for upper-class transients, it would not have been worth their time. The Obamas have woken us up to a new vision of DC: A multicultural place where black and white intermingle freely.

This is paralleled with a new growth which you can see all around America. The growth of the Black Middle Class. In 1980, 50% of the African American population had graduated from high school and eight percent graduated from college. By 2006, 86% of blacks under the age of 29 graduated from high school and 19% had completed a bachelor's degree. If you combine this with the 48% of African Immigrants who have bachelor’s degrees, this is an enormous step forward. It is a new phenomenom in America: a black middle class so large as to be a demographic of its own. Not even the largest economic recession in 75 years can destroy it.

As America becomes more blind to race, its upper, middle and lower classes will all be less race-bound. DC will never be more segregated than it has already been, and it is entirely possible that it will shortly become one of the most multicultural cities in America. The poverty within DC will exist for a long time yet, and it will hardly be exclusive to the black community. But at least some, perhaps many, within the Black community stand to taste much of DC’s coming prosperity.

And as I move back to my hometown to become a Baltimore businessman, watching DC gives me new hope for what Baltimore will accomplish. A number of government agencies have already moved to Baltimore - Social Security being the largest. Johns Hopkins Hospital is both the #1 hospital in America and the #1 employer in the State of Maryland. The government has a variety of reasons to collaborate with Hopkins and it might soon make sense to bring the government’s medical facilities to Baltimore. Around Johns Hopkins sprouted the beginnings of a thriving bio-tech industry. Furthermore, many workers in the Federal Government are attracted by Baltimore’s cheaper housing - they simply buy houses near I-95 or Penn Station and commute to DC every day.

Baltimore may no longer have many industries of its own to offer, but it is gradually getting an influx of the better things from Washington. Just as the three cities of the research triangle in North Carolina are equally important to one another, perhaps Baltimore can develop a more modest but similarly symbiotic relationship to DC for government. Baltimore would no longer be DC’s shadow city. Baltimore and DC would be cities to stand alongside each other.

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