After Urban Riots, a Long Road to Revival
In troubled American cities, such as Baltimore, neighborhoods devastated by unrest seldom come back
By Christopher Caldwell in the Wall Street Journal
The Woodberry Kitchen, near Druid Hill Park in northwestern Baltimore, is among the best restaurants in the mid-Atlantic. It shares a renovated cotton mill with an art gallery and a glassblowing studio. Washingtonians flock there. The restaurant website recommends taking the highway, but there is a shortcut for those willing to creep northward along Fulton Avenue in West Baltimore.
I suspect few patrons take that shortcut twice. The jazz bandleader Cab Calloway and the Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall grew up in the neighborhood, but it has, to put it mildly, gone downhill since then. This is Sandtown, where dozens were arrested this week in the rioting that followed the death in police custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray (on Friday, charges were filed against the officers involved). Unless you have been to the worst parts of Detroit or Camden, N.J., you are unlikely to have seen anything like Sandtown.
More shocking, perhaps, is how little distance separates sophisticated, 21st-century Baltimore—where you can dine on wood-roasted Delaware River rockfish with pak choi and koshihikari rice—from the left-behind, boarded-up Baltimore that Americans have been watching on television with alarm.
The country can only hope that this week’s damage remains limited to one wild night. The fate of Baltimore and other troubled American cities often depends on how the violent parts get rebuilt after rioting. In most cases, riot-torn neighborhoods don’t get rebuilt at all.
Baltimore missed the boom of the 1990s. It has lost 120,000 residents in the last quarter-century. It has a murder rate (37 per 100,000) that only New Orleans, St. Louis and Detroit can match. A decade ago, under Democratic mayor (and now presidential candidate) Martin O’Malley, reforms drove the rate down, but they required policing so aggressive as to be unsustainable. In 2005, there were 108,000 arrests in a city of 622,000 residents. Less than half of Sandtown’s working-age residents work.
The city, which is two-thirds black, has a black political establishment that has been entrenched for a generation. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her police commissioner, Anthony Batts, called last fall for a federal civil-rights probe of their own city. The notion, heard on some talk shows, that the city’s leaders want to keep black residents down can be dismissed.
In the wake of urban unrest, well-positioned neighborhoods eventually attract private and public capital for rebuilding. Both Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles have suffered riots that were orders of magnitude greater than this week’s in Baltimore. Washington’s U Street corridor, nearly destroyed by the revolt that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, is again a lively business hub.
But it took a very long time. U Street didn’t see the first stirrings of revival until the 1990s. And businesses were replaced, not restored. U Street was once the premier black downtown in the U.S.; now it is a place for hipsters to drink microbrews and smoke hookahs. That’s better than nothing, but U Street isn’t the hub it was. It is a new hot spot on the site of the riots rather than any sort of resolution of the problems that the riots revealed.
The legacy of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which followed the acquittal of four policemen videotaped beating the black motorist Rodney King, is similarly mixed. A 2009 poll found that 68% of the city’s African-Americans and 76% of its Latinos had a favorable view of the city’s police department, formerly denounced for its paramilitary tactics.
But here, too, the process took time, with the lost economic activity amounting to as much as $3.8 billion. A 20-year retrospective in the Los Angeles Times showed that the unemployment rate in the neighborhood is now higher and median income lower than at the time of the riots.
Less prominent cities tend to languish after riots. Neither Newark nor Detroit ever recovered from the post-assassination uprisings of 1968. Camden’s 1971 riots—sparked by the police’s rough treatment of a Puerto Rican motorist, who later died—terrified many residents. Some 60% of the white population left in the next decade. They have not come back.
Reviving blighted neighborhoods may be tougher in today’s prestige-based economy than in the old days of manufacturing. Recall the desperate efforts of Newark’s city government to save a Starbucks that closed in 2008. Baltimore has its new-economy businesses (the investors T. Rowe Price and Legg Mason, the sportswear company Under Armour), not to mention the research magnet Johns Hopkins University. It also retains some prizes from its experiments in public-private development—its aquarium and sports stadiums, the new Horseshoe Baltimore Casino. The port is thriving, if heavily automated.
But none of these offers much opportunity for the undereducated workforce of Baltimore’s slums. And even the city’s economic strengths are threatened by the hit to Baltimore’s reputation over the past week. The casino’s general manager recently spoke of the need to “communicate with the customers that this is as safe as any other place.”
Much hinges on whether it actually is—and on whether Baltimore can impose order on its neighborhoods faster than the neighborhoods spread disorder to the city.
—Mr. Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard