Tale of two cities reveals a lot in common

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BALTIMORE -- We're not so different, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, part of the fraternity of wintry, mid-sized, post-industrial towns in a post-millennial America, jostling for a new identity.

It's like we're brothers, separated at birth, possessing many of the same personality traits, only one of us had the good fortune to be raised by intelligent and caring parents, and the other tragically grew up to be a Ravens fan.

We both have a working-class temperament, forged by our legacies of steel-making and manufacturing. We are both port cities. We both were nearly wiped out by vast city fires. We both boast cheap living and world-class medical centers (UPMC and Johns Hopkins).

We both have inferiority complexes, stoked by more populous, more popular cities (Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., in Baltimore's case). And we both have unshakable reputations that precede us -- ours is smoke and steel. Theirs is murder and, lately, "The Wire."

Brothers, maybe. Nobody said we were identical twins.

"My boss hates it, because of the damage it does, the perception among some people [that] Baltimore is exclusively a troubled, dangerous city. The reality is, for the vast majority of the people, that's just not the case," says Michael Evitts, director of public relations at the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

"The Wire," an HBO television series, is an urban drama set in Baltimore, and has put an unflattering spotlight on the city's drug trade, crime issues and political dysfunction. (The city's real mayor, Sheila Dixon, was just indicted on theft charges).

Unflattering maybe, but a daily reality, if not for the downtown harbor-and-skyscraper area visited by conventioneers, then for the city writ large.

Baltimore, a city of nearly 640,000 people, had 234 reported homicides in 2008 -- and that was a major victory, the lowest number in years, down from 282 killings in 2007. So far in 2009, Baltimore is averaging a murder a day. The 2008 homicide rate was 37 people per 100,000, putting it in the same violent company as Detroit, Camden, N.J., and Washington, D.C.

Pittsburgh's homicide rate last year was about 23 people per 100,000 and that was considered a bad year, up from the 2007 rate of 18 killings per 100,000 people, or 55 homicides.

"The past few weeks and months, it's actually kind of accelerated again," said Lee Gardner, editor of Baltimore's City Paper. "What was it, last week, we had nine murders in one week? So that's a pretty good clip. Baltimore's a city with a lot of poverty. A lot of it is generational," driven by the evaporation of industrial jobs that, three decades ago, gave economic opportunity to those without a college education.

With those jobs gone and Baltimore trying to convert to an educated banking and biotech economy, a disproportionate number of city residents have turned to either selling drugs or using them -- one estimate says up to 60,000 city residents, or 1 in 11, are dependent on heroin or some other drug.

"As to [why] Baltimore has the particular drug problem that it does," Mr. Gardner said, "if we could answer that, we'd all win Pulitzers."

With the city's drug and crime problems often front and center, overshadowed are the many neighborhood reinvention stories.

Baltimore's Inner Harbor -- home to shops, restaurants, hotels and the National Aquarium -- was populated by derelict warehouses and river rats the size of schnauzers 40 years ago. Now it's easily the city's biggest tourist draw.

Gentrified, historic neighborhoods like Fells Point (think South Side) and Federal Hill (think Shadyside) were left for dead -- one 1960s-era highway construction plan would have built a new bypass through both neighborhoods, connecting Interstates 83 and 95 via a bridge across the Inner Harbor.

Other neighborhoods were reinvigorated, in part, by the city's dollar-home raffle -- homes in blighted areas were sold for $1 to anyone who could line up the financing to make them habitable and promised to live in them.

"I can hear the baseball games during the summer," said Judy Aleksalza, who bought her "dollar house" in 1976. She still lives there, in an area of the city known as Washington Village (or sometimes as Pigtown, for the hogs that were dragged and trotted through the neighborhood streets, on their way to slaughterhouses, many decades ago).

The tract of homes she now lives in, just a few blocks from the city's baseball and football stadiums, was slated to be condemned because it was near a new highway. Instead, Baltimore got a new neighborhood. A home that cost her $60,000 in fix-up money could have sold for more than $300,000 a year ago, and possibly could do so today.

Like Pittsburgh, Baltimore has been somewhat insulated from the steep housing price drop-offs being experienced in other cities. Though volume is way down, Baltimore-area home prices dipped just 3 percent in 2008, compared to 13 percent nationally.

The city's office vacancy rate is relatively healthy, at 11 percent. Pittsburgh's rate is closer to 17.5.

Downtown, too, is aiming for a turnaround. Like Pittsburgh, Baltimore has slowly come to believe that the key to a sustainable downtown is not just retail, it's residential, as well.

The story that has played out in other older mid-sized cities -- downtowns that were once primarily viewed as jobs centers being retrofitted with rental town homes and new condominium towers -- has been playing out in Baltimore, with 36,000 people now living within a one-mile radius of the Inner Harbor's northwest corner, double the number from a decade ago.

Downsizing, well-to-do Baby Boomers -- the thinking goes -- want to live more compactly. And recent college graduates and thirtysomethings with cash to spend didn't grow up watching "Leave It To Beaver" and "The Andy Griffith Show," paeans to small-town living. They grew up watching "Friends" and "Sex and The City."

"They have a very different openness to the urban experience," Mr. Evitts said.

New to that urban experience is Lou Cestello, regional president for PNC Financial Services' Maryland territory. After living in the Pittsburgh area all of his life, he and his wife moved to Baltimore a year ago for his new job and he was soon struck, he said, by the similarities.

"They are mirror cities in many different ways," he said. "Baltimore is really following the same track as Pittsburgh, morphing into an education-based town and a health-care-based town" -- and, of course, the 100,000 service and hospitality industry employees who cater to the increasingly white-collar workforce.

There are differences. Pittsburgh has far more Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies than Charm City does. Baltimore's economy has decentralized to a greater degree than has Pittsburgh's. Only 30 percent of the jobs in the Baltimore "region" are within the city limits.

Baltimore stands poised to capture residential and business overflow coming from Washington -- the federal government's Base Realignment and Closure Plan will, for example, relocate 45,000 Department of Defense jobs to Maryland between 2005 and 2011, including Baltimore.

Its proximity to the nation's capital, and its midpoint position between the Northeast and the research centers in North Carolina and points south, means, "Baltimore has a really unique advantage [over] many cities," Mr. Cestello said.

Another major difference -- "Baltimore is an American League city," he said. Meaning, among other things, they use the designated hitter.

If you can overlook that significant personality flaw, the people in Baltimore aren't so bad, said Nate Beachler, formerly of Mt. Lebanon and now the general manager and an operating partner at The Oceanaire Seafood Room near the Inner Harbor.

"When I first moved here, I couldn't believe how similar the cities are," he said. "A lot of the ethnic areas are still pretty strong," as in Pittsburgh. "The people, in general, really remind me of home."

Before you start thinking he's gone crazy from too much mercury in his salmon, know that he'll be returning to Pittsburgh this weekend for the AFC Championship game.

And he'll be rooting for the good guys.

Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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