Baltimore highlights from the Society for American City and Regional Planning History

I organized a tour of West Baltimore neighborhoods this past November SACRPH conference in Baltimore this past November so the organized comped me the registration fee for the meeting and I made the most of the few days to check out the sessions on Baltimore. Finding the time to take a look at my sketchy notes only came a few weeks after the meeting so may be a bit thin on details.

Managing Baltimore’s Post-War Decline

I was quite excited about this panel, with my own particular interest on dealing with the consequences of abandonment, commercial disinvestment and concentrated poverty in West Baltimore neighborhoods. The first two panelists– Lynette Boswell, University of Maryland College Park and Karen Beck Pooley, Allentown Redevelopment Authority– took a similar approach focusing on the succession of public policies, what Boswell referred to as “place-based” policies in her paper Historical Shifts in Place Based Policies: A Focus on Baltimore, Maryland, from the “Baltimore Plan” an early housing plan under then Mayor Theodore McKeldin (documented in the 1953 short film by the same name) to federal urban renewal policies, model cities and up through HOPE VI and even Healthy Neighborhoods with Pooley’s paper Planning for Vacancy: Baltimore’s Response to Vacant Properties from WWII to the Present. With both papers, however, I really wanted a deeper consideration of the political and racial dimensions of the public policies they reviewed, along with a more critical treatment of the government reports and press accounts that served as a basis for  both presentations. For example, Boswell used a 1937 HOLC Residential Security Map of Baltimore to identify historically “distressed” neighborhoods but did not address the widely acknowledged racism of the HOLC’s mapping practices. Similarly the Baltimore Plan, which Pooley discussed in detail, was later used by the National Asso­ci­a­tion of Real Estate Boards, the National Asso­ci­a­tion of Home Builders, and the Mort­gage Bankers’ Asso­ci­a­tion as the basis for a campaign to eliminate support for public housing. Using more diverse sources or offering examples of contemporary scholar critiques of Baltimore development and housing policies could have provided a more complete review of these same issues.

With these concerns in mind, Hayward ‘Woody’ Farrar’s paper The Devolution of the Black Community’s Physical Environment in Baltimore, 1950-2010 offered a dramatic counterpoint with a personal and dynamic presentation that started with a brief emotional reflection on the tragic character of Baltimore’s widespread abandonment. Farrar, the author of The Baltimore Afro-American, 1892-1950, continued to reflect on the dramatic changes to the segregated black neighborhoods of West Baltimore, where a class diverse community helped foster leaders such as Thurgood Marshall and Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson in the early 20th century. Farrar attributed the loss of these neighborhoods as they were in part to urban renewal, referencing Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It by Mindy Fullilove.

The comments by Kelly Quinn, Miami University of Ohio were helpful in pulling the three papers together with an additional reference to How Racism Takes Place by George Lipsitz as a welcome addition to the issues raised in all three papers.

Making the Charm City: Planning, Tourism and Gentrification in Postwar Baltimore

Chaired by Edward Orser, UMBC, this panel touched on the real highlights of Baltimore’s 1970s urban renewal agenda from highways, to the Inner Harbor to the well known dollar house program. I came late and missed “Our Domestic Vietnam:” Baltimore’s Highway War and the Discovery of a New Urban Regime presented by Rob Gioielli, University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash College but I expect I could get a sense of it from the Baltimore chapter in his dissertation Hard Asphalt and Heavy Metals: Urban Environmentalism in Postwar America. The next paper, A Nice Place to Visit and I Would Want to Live There: Tourism and the ‘Liveable City’ in Baltimore’s Inner Habor Redevelopment from Aaron Cowan, Slippery Rock University (similarly drawn from his dissertation “A Nice Place To Visit: Tourism, Urban Revitalization, and the Transformation of Postwar American Cities”) was packed with interesting surprises on the early history of the Harbor Place development — most notably its role as an important gathering place for b-boys and MCs in the early 1980s. Cowan quoted from Bret McCabe’s 2009 City Paper interview with MC Labtekwon:

“In the ’80s, I grew up in Whitelock City in West Baltimore. I was a black kid on a skateboard that liked to rap. I would go to the Harborplace, Club Cignel, and Club Fantasy and meet up with kids from all over Baltimore City and Baltimore County. It was always an adventure.”

The final paper of the panel — O Pioneers! Urban Identities in Baltimore’s Homesteading Program of the 1970s from Shana M. Gass, Towson University — was an effective introduction to what is often better known as Baltimore’s dollar house program. Gass’s interpretation of the dollar house program reflected some of the racial and class tensions emphasized out in contemporary press accounts.

Baltimore Highway Planning and its Effect on Planning Baltimore

I missed the introductions for this panel and did not initially realize that the panelists included a whole host of professionals who had been directly involved in the planning and partial implementation of Baltimore’s deeply misguided highway plans during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Chaired by William Chan, now an Assistant Professor of Architecture, Morgan State University, co-panelists included Sidney Wong, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning, Morgan State University, Art Cohen, Principal of Public Health Services, Martin Millspaugh, former Chairman of Inner Harbor/Charles Center Management and author of the The Human Side of Urban Renewal: A Study of the Attitude Changes Produced by Neighborhood Rehabilitation, William Hellman, a former Maryland Secretary of Transportation (1984-1987), and Al Barrie, former Deputy Planning Director of Baltimore.

With this large group, many of the panelists did not have a chance to say much but did offer a small window into the odd dynamics of the 1970s highway fights nearly 40 years ago. At one point, William Chan reflected on the impossible challenge of preparing a “sensitive” urban design for an elevated highway proposed to run straight through the Fell’s Point neighborhood, just a few feet from the front steps of late 1700s and early 1800s rowhouses. Art Cohen, who remains an enthusiastic transportation activist with b’more mobile, shared his own reflections on the unique conditions that led to the success of the highway revolts, including the role of the civil rights movement in enabling new interracial coalitions and a popular anger following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Additional Baltimore paper presentations

Of course, I could not make it to all of the sessions or catch all the Baltimore-focused papers. Here are the papers I wish I could have heard, along with any information I can find online for the paper–

  • Saving ‘City X:’ Citizens and Policy-Makers Prepare for the Unthinkable in Baltimore, Eric S. Singer, American University — of course based on the dissertation “Saving City X: Planners, Citizens and the Culture of Civil Defense in Baltimore, 1950-1962” (unfortunately not available online)
  • Corner Stores in Canton, Sidney Brower, University of Maryland (Brower’s 2007 paper on The Corner Store as an Element of Smart Growth is online as a PDF)
  • City Planning Through Land Tenure in Baltimore Maryland’s Ground Rent System, Garrett Power, University of Maryland Law School — Power is the author of the seminal study of Baltimore’s ground rent system Parceling Out Land in Baltimore, 1632-1796
  • Washington and Welch Talk About Race: Public Health and Residential Segregation in
    Early 20th Century Baltimore, Graham Mooney, Johns Hopkins University. Mooney teaches a course Life and Death in Charm City: Histories of public health in Baltimore, 1750 to the present with a thoroughly referenced syllabus.
  • The Machinery of Immorality: Entrepreneurs of Vice, ‘Vice Cranks’ and Disorder in
    Baltimore, 1900-1916, Dennis Halpin, Rutgers University (again not available online)

Race, Place and Civil Rights Bus Tour

Finally, my tour on Race, Place and Civil Rights, covered a handful of neighborhoods we walked through for last year’s programs on Race and Place in Baltimore Neighborhoods, including stops at PS 103, the old Frederick Douglass High School, and Lafayette Square along with a ride past the old Orchard Street Church and the lower stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue up to St. Peter Claver Church. This was actually the first bus tour I’d ever planned–we usually do walking tours at Baltimore Heritage as they don’t require any investment up front–and I did not realize how much time moving a group on and off the vehicle could eat up. While we covered the earlier period of civil rights activism in Baltimore, I missed my chance to bring the group out to Greater Rosemont for a discussion on block-busting and only took a handful (who did not need to get back to the hotel by noon) to see Read’s Drug Store. A lesson learned for me but I hope the tour-goers still had a good experience.

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