Hampden Heritage

Archaeology, History, and Heritage in Central Baltimore

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bob's dissertation, Chapter 1, Part 5

Just in time to keep all of our wonderful readers company over the holidays, another installment of my dissertation introduction. I have again skipped a short section summarizing the post-World War II boom and subsequent suburbanization of Baltimore.

The Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Agency (BURHA) was established in 1956 to study the growing problem of blighted neighborhoods and to propose feasible actions for the city to take in response (Olson 1997:375). With its declining industrial employment base and aging housing stock, Hampden-Woodberry was the subject of one such study in 1963 (BURHA 1963). The Jones Falls Expressway had been built along the path of the river in the early 1960s (Olson 1997:360), providing a convenient route for white-collar suburbanites to commute to work in the city but essentially cutting Hampden and Woodberry off from each other.[1] According to the study's authors, the area west of the expressway (Woodberry) was devoted to light industry, whereas east of the road (Hampden), a mixture of land uses was "symptomatic of changing conditions and ensuing blight" (BURHA 1963:5). They suggested a renewal project in this part of the study area to coincide with the extension of a park strip along the Jones Falls River, a joint project of the mayor's office and the Greater Baltimore Committee, a private organization of land developers and businessmen working on the problem of urban renewal.

The very fact that the BURHA study was conducted in part to further a public-private initiative (the proposed park extension) is indicative of the shifting means by which urban revitalization was to be accomplished, as well as significant changes in the players involved. Political scientist Marion Orr has termed this shift, which occurred across the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, the "changing ecology of civic engagement." According to Orr, prior to World War II the movers and shakers in city-level politics were ward and district-level politicians who could trade personal and legislative favors for community support. Following the war, control of city governments became more centralized in the office of the mayor. By the end of the 1960s, however, city politics had become diffuse once again as mayors increasingly shared decision-making power with state authorities and began building strategic alliances with the private business sector, including large financial institutions, to revitalize the inner city. Such state-city-private sector arrangements still characterize city politics in the U.S. today, with the private sector taking over more and more responsibilities (or, one might say, privileges) including providing non-unionized contract workers for municipal services; operating charter schools; and even making zoning decisions (Orr 2007:12-15).

In the 1970s, Baltimore became one of the nation's best-known examples of this changing ecology of civic engagement through the revitalization of the downtown area. The city government and its private partners decided that a "turn to tourism" would be the best solution to Baltimore's economic problems. The Baltimore City Fair, an unabashed celebration of the power of the free market and unfettered consumption, was inaugurated in 1970. Before long, the waterfront along the Inner Harbor (creatively rechristened Harborplace) became what geographer David Harvey has described as "a permanent commercial circus" complete with "innumerable hotels, shopping malls, and pleasure citadels of all kinds." Far from solving the city's problems with economic decline, poverty and the lack of an adequate service infrastructure for disadvantaged communities, however, this move constituted the "rediscover[y of] the ancient Roman formula of bread and circuses as a means of masking social problems and controlling discontent" (Harvey 1991:236-237). Essentially, Baltimore reinvented its image as a tourist destination while ignoring the social consequences of redevelopment, such as the replacement of high-paying industrial jobs with low-paying service jobs and the wholesale condemnation of entire neighborhoods for the sake of economic "progress" (or their consignment as ghettos).

Harborplace and the surrounding downtown area continues to serve as Baltimore's economic engine by drawing tens of thousands of tourists each year. In other parts of the city, however, the physical and social infrastructure continues to crumble. In a growing number of formerly working-class neighborhoods gentrification has taken root. In these communities, revitalization has been driven primarily by the business community. In Hampden, Café Hon owner Denise Whiting is largely responsible for the transformation of the Avenue into an upscale shopping district, her success attracting many other small business owners to the area. Zoning decisions have been made primarily to benefit local businesses, with very little input from residents. The success of the Avenue, however, has drawn a sizable number of middle-class home buyers to the community. The result has been rapid development of open space for housing and drastic increases in property values and tax assessment rates, often pushing long-time working-class residents out of their homes (Gadsby and Chidester 2005:7). Similar processes of gentrification are taking place all over Baltimore in communities like Canton (in east Baltimore) and Locust Point (south of the Harbor).

[1] This separation continues today; many younger Hampden residents are unaware of the two neighborhoods' intertwined history.