Thank the Government for the Ghetto

One of the conditions of employment as managing editor for Whiskey & Gunpowder—aside from rabid adherence to Austrian School economics—was relocation to Baltimore. I really didn’t think much of it at the time. I’d spent nearly my entire life in one of the four boroughs of the City of New York (anyone who’s lived there can tell you that secession-longing Staten Island doesn’t count) and I was ready for a change of employment and venue. Writing for Agora in a smaller and more affordable mid-Atlantic city seemed the perfect prescription.
A couple of trips to Baltimore during the interview process only served to convince me that life here would be much better. Agora’s “corporate campus” is comprised of a handful of beautiful buildings in the center of the Mount Vernon neighborhood, one of the best-preserved bits of historic urbanism in the U.S…and I’m an absolute sucker for historic urbanism. I’d be able to live in an architecturally lovely part of a cheaper city, just a couple minutes’ walk from work that I would truly enjoy. What could be better?

I even did the usual due diligence and wandered around a bit at night to get a truer sense of how safe the neighborhood really was. Thing is, a cursory walk-through cannot substitute for actually living in a place. For example, I’m sure even downtown Baghdad has its moments; you’d have to stick around a bit to see exactly why the property values are so low in places. I’ve since come to know just how unsettling this otherwise lovely neighborhood can be in the dead of night. I’d heard endless stories of how rough Baltimore was (“Haven’t you seen The Wire?”) and I knew it looked bad on paper, but what I’d seen of historic Mount Vernon assuaged any doubts…until I actually moved in…

My last neighborhood in New York was historic as well—in fact, last year it became NYC’s newest designated historic district—but it felt safer by an order of magnitude. I would often venture out to the local 24-hour grocery stores or all-night food carts at 2 or 3 in the morning. There were many other times I couldn’t sleep in the hours past midnight and would walk the ten blocks to the 24-hour gym. I can’t remember once feeling the least bit afraid while doing so. New York has had the distinction of being the safest big city in America for a while, a phenomenon I’ll address in a bit. Baltimore’s not nearly as big…nor nearly as safe.
Ironically Baltimore does resemble the fictional New York in the movie adaptation of the classic Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend. For those of you who didn’t catch that Will Smith vehicle, the plot in the movie is as follows: a treatment that was supposed to cure mankind of an age-old plague becomes a virus that transforms over 99% of humanity into violent, blood-sucking, mindless monsters.

I hope you see where I’m going with this.

Federal Ghetto-ization

Baltimore—like a host of other old central cities in the U.S.—has for the past couple of generations been an ulcerating hole surrounded by affluent towns where the sane people with money would rather live. The ostensible reason is the flight of the pale, pale middle class while those with less access to capital—and who tan easily—remained stuck in the middle. Most folks take the decline of the American city as some sort of mysterious but certain given…like ageing and death…but I still point the finger of blame squarely at government.

Government at all levels—local, state and federal—is directly responsible for hobbling our cities, draining them of their human capital and mentally and economically crippling those that remain. And all the programs to “help” the cities after the initial wounding just wound up making things worse. Government created the problem and all its supposed balms turned out to be poison. Of course, this is government we speak of…so we really shouldn’t be surprised. Friend Jim Kunstler has made the point that the suburbanization of America was the manifestation of the will of the masses to escape the nightmare of the industrialized city…and that’s true…but it was the federal government that greased the wheels on that particular road to hell. They built the highways and subsidized the housing tracts miles from the daily necessities of work and commerce. They knocked down the neighborhoods in the old core cities and replaced them with housing projects where the poor devolved into listless and violent wards of the state.

I suspect that market forces would have worked to keep the cities and suburbs in balance, that they would have fostered the co-existence of multiple modes of transit between them, which in turn would have kept center cities and surrounding towns both distinct and compact, both internally walkable and efficiently linked by road and rail. Instead, the federal government catered to the fantasy that no one should ever have to walk again anywhere. In turn the built environment transformed into a place where no one can ever walk. A byproduct of all this is that the land between distinct urban zones that used to be devoted to local food production (“farms”) has been gleefully paved over to cater to the auto-dependence fetish.

Allow me to anticipate the criticism that I’m just a Luddite and an anachronist in love with some romantic notion of pre-automobile life…and that I’m nurturing an unreasoning but increasingly popular hatred of suburban icky-ness. What I am is a realist. Our living arrangement is an affront to human instinct…and it was never sustainable. We are returning—as things do—to the mean. We are going to be inhabiting our cities in a way more in line with how other humans have throughout history…and in the process we are going to be reversing the federally-funded ghetto-ization that has all but killed our core cities.

The Middle Class Comeback

The neighborhoods of Baltimore clinging to the Inner Harbor are actually quite wonderful…but I defy anyone reading this to venture for a stroll in the other two-thirds of the city. The resettlement of the city by people other than welfare-recipients, hustlers and muggers is well underway in those more pleasing precincts along the water, but the rest of the place remains marginal at best and downright seedy and dangerous at worst. The reason I felt so safe in my New York neighborhood and many others in that vast conurbation (with the notable exception of East New York and a lot of the South Bronx) was that New York has been experiencing massive re-colonization by middle and upper class people for years.

My own neighborhood in Baltimore is a curious case; it’s a nice collection of blocks just atop the so-so downtown and that inner ring around the water. It straddles North Charles Street which bisects the city into east and west; it’s surrounded on three of its sides by a ring o’ ghetto. The more disruptive inhabitants of that ring often wander on through. It’s especially bad after sundown. It’s best not to venture out too late at night, but if you do, travel in a group, stay on the main drag and avoid eye contact. In the movie referenced above the monsters come out in hordes at night and the hero has to board up his home and lie completely still till morning lest they find and devour him. Yet he could move about in the daylight in relative safety while the monsters hid from the sun. I know how he feels.

Reality has begun to trump the vagaries of energy excess, government interference and government misallocation. The middle class is choosing to move back to the cities, not because of D.C. diktat, but because of market forces. The lifestyle the feds sought to encourage with their highways, sins of railroad omission and their vigorous corralling of the poor within city lines…all of that is simply becoming unaffordable and therefore unsustainable. It’s all going away. Our cities will—must—become places where everyone can live again without having to get into a vehicle on a regular basis…or constantly worry about getting assaulted. The presence of honest citizens going about their business and doing honorable and necessary work will make the city streets much safer again. When the purposeful outnumber the idle, the tide will have turned. Lord, haste the day.

Gary Gibson
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

December 05, 2008