In a cover story that is not quite as long as “War and Peace” but bleaker, The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, March 17, publicly undressed the city of Baltimore.
The piece is titled, “How an American city falls apart: The Tragedy of Baltimore.”
The reporter, Alec MacGillis, who lives here and has done the proper homework, rounds up the usual suspects: the poverty, the drugs, the street crime; the thousands of abandoned buildings; the troubles on the police force; the downtown anxiety and commercial fall-off since the Freddie Gray disturbances of 2015; the general indifference from the governor’s office; the continuing exodus to suburbia; and the appalling homicide rate — more than New York’s with a population 14 times higher than that of Baltimore.
“It takes remarkable fortitude to remain an optimist about Baltimore today,” MacGillis writes.
I read the article on Sunday, a few hours after I was awakened by the 6 a.m. sound of my wife’s car alarm going off. I read it in the aftermath of a friend getting mugged in broad daylight last week, about two miles from my neighborhood, leaving him with dozens of stitches in his head.
And I live in one of the safer areas of the city, I keep telling myself.
The Times story isn’t exactly news to those of us who live in, and around, Baltimore. Maybe it isn’t even news out there in greater America to those whose perception of the city comes strictly from “The Wire.”
But this is The New York Times doing the public undressing, giving validation to existing perceptions. It’s The Times, which is the world’s finest newspaper, no matter what President Donald Trump says. It’s The Times, whose reach is now so great that they’ve reportedly got more readers in California than they do in hometown New York.
So it feels like a kind of national embarrassment for Baltimore.
And so we need to keep some things in mind. In any big city, some things can be true even if they seem to contradict each other. A city can be in great shape or in trouble – but people’s perceptions of the city are just as important as facts.
In Baltimore’s case, the perceptions right now are pretty depressing – among Baltimoreans. On the same day as the Times piece, The Sun’s page one lead story highlighted the city’s 17,000 vacant buildings. (There are plans to rehab about 2,000 of them over the next year, but by the time the rehabs are done, there may be others that are abandoned.)
MacGillis gives some lip service to signs of improvement here. As always, while there are parts of town that are falling down, there are also parts previously declared dead that are being reborn.
It wasn’t terribly long ago that newspapers like The Times and the Washington Post were writing about the great Baltimore renaissance. In fact, MacGillis’s story notes, as recently as 2014, the city’s population was climbing, and “office buildings downtown were being converted to apartments, and a new business-and-residential district was rising east of the Inner Harbor.”
Such things are still happening. In the gap between reality and perception, the people who run the city of Baltimore have to get that hopeful message out, as well as the tale of despair.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.