Refocusing Baltimore

Baltimore Inner Harbor (Photo by David Stuck)
Baltimore Inner Harbor (Photo by David Stuck)

With memories still fresh of last April’s unrest surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, the young African-American man from Sandtown who sustained fatal injuries while in police custody, organizations throughout the city are working to erase the disgrace that national headlines heaped upon Baltimore, even as the upcoming trials of the officers involved generate almost daily news.

“The publicity made it look like the city was in flames, when in reality only a few areas were directly affected by the violence,” said Bob Merbler, a resident of Federal Hill for more than 30 years and a real estate agent at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Homesale Realty.

Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’nai Israel Synagogue in East Baltimore’s Jonestown neighborhood met with a group of rabbis immediately following the unrest to provide support to the areas heavily affected by violence. The reactions from his congregants varied based on their backgrounds.

B’nai Israel Rabbi Eitan Mintz leads a Jonestown neighborhood vigil in 2015. (Melissa Gerr)
B’nai Israel Rabbi Eitan Mintz leads a Jonestown neighborhood vigil in 2015. (Melissa Gerr)

“Some people remembered living through this [kind of violence] in the 1960s,” said Mintz. “Some people were focused on the injustices and the question of police accountability. Other folks had a sense of anger because they saw people burning down their city. It definitely gave the city a bad image.”

Despite this, Mintz added, people didn’t necessarily feel the urge to abandon Baltimore but rather wanted to ensure the city would come out stronger after self-introspection.

“Nothing happens in a day. Communities, organizations and governments need to work together to find a mutually beneficial solution going forward,” said Rabbi Ariel Fishman, director of JHeritage, an urban educational and social organization for young Jewish adults at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. “I think that what we can do on a practical level is build a positive outlook. When you have a situation where there’s been a lot of baggage and pain, the only way you can start to develop that in a positive direction is with acts of kindness.”

It’s a challenging time for Baltimore but also an opportunistic time because people are looking to have an impact.

— Rabbi Jessy Gross, founder, Charm City Tribe

Mintz added that many of his congregants wanted to enact positive change and see the inequities and systemic problems addressed. “There was a real sense of wanting to make a difference,” he said.

Fishman, who regularly speaks with prospective students, has a message for those on the fence about coming to the city for school or employment.

“Baltimore isn’t just about something that you want to [avoid] because there were some issues in the past,” he said. “There are still issues that we need to take care of, but there are [also] opportunities for change. [These are] opportunities where we can work together as a community, both within the Jewish and the general community to try to find a way to go forward.”

Steven Gondol (provided)
Steven Gondol (provided)

Live Baltimore is an organization, founded 18 years ago, that focuses on portraying the city through positive marketing.

“I do respect and realize there is a crime problem,” said Steven Gondol, its executive director. “We had one of our worst years [in 2015], but I don’t think it affects every neighborhood to the same degree. We recognize we have a problem. We recognize it’s not the whole city, [but] it does paint the image [of the city] as being violent.”

Live Baltimore studied the city’s real estate market following the unrest by examining factors such as number of homes being sold, who is buying homes (traditional homeowners or investors) and the number of days a home is on the market.

Joe Quinn (provided)
Joe Quinn (provided)

Baltimore’s population has declined for several decades since hitting its peak, just short of 1 million in 1950, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Gondol, who studied urban planning at the University of Cincinnati, explained that Baltimore’s initial decline in population was not unique.

Following World War II, many American cities experienced population decline due to housing policies that supported suburban migration for returning servicemen and safety issues in cities that stemmed from unbalanced employment opportunities and neighborhood destabilization, among other issues.

While Baltimore’s real estate market did lag shortly following the unrest, according to Merbler, the market did not falter as much as people may have expected.

Gondol said when cities experience disruptive events, such as in Baltimore, the first red flag is a large influx of new homes being listed — a signal that people are panicking and trying to leave. Home sales and values would drop, and the average days of homes on the market would rise.

Bob Merbler (provided)
Bob Merbler (provided)

But “fewer homes were being listed, so people weren’t panicking. We saw home values [and the number of sales] go up and days on the market drop,” said Gondol on the months following the unrest. “It defied everything that a textbook would say would happen after a major incident like that. That baffles people; they would have expected this huge drop, [but] it followed the trend of [the previous year].”

Gondol added that not only were home sales up 25 percent from May 2014 to the beginning of 2015, but 60 percent were being financed — rather than being purchased with cash — which is a sign that the property is being bought by a traditional homeowner instead of an investor.

 Scott Lederer (provided)
Scott Lederer (provided)

“We look at inventory in the real estate world and gauge it by the number of months to deplete everything on the market for sale,” said Scott Lederer, broker and Maryland regional president at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Homesale Realty. “In a normal market we would expect six months of inventory. We’re closer to four in Baltimore City, which means we don’t have enough homes to sell right now.”

Gondol attributes the market’s behavior to the power of social media and distribution of information that kept Baltimoreans well informed on the reality of the situation in a way that was unavailable in 1968, when riots broke out across the city after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Prospective mayoral candidates, in anticipation of the upcoming election, have cited the need for population growth in the city as a platform issue.

But Donn Worgs, associate political science professor at Towson University, said the challenge of bringing in new residents is a balancing act.

“[A mayor has] to create a sense that the city is growing and evolving and is an attractive place for these newcomers,” Worgs said. “The challenge is, can you do that while not losing existing residents?”

Domino Sugar Factory (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)
Domino Sugar Factory (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)

Worgs added that depending on the economic profile of new residents and where they choose to live could cause gentrification, which can lead to tensions that drive longstanding residents away.

“The mayor is the chief salesperson for the city, [but] at this particular time, the mayor’s race will be decided by how people [already here] manage things inside the city,” said Worgs. “It’s kind of like getting your house in order before you [have an open house].”

Businesses play a large part in attracting new residents through recruitment. Joe Quinn is the chief human resources officer for LifeBridge Health.

When asked about how he reconciles Baltimore being between major cities such as New York and Washington, Quinn said he considers Baltimore’s geography an advantage because it has ease-of-access into other larger cities.

“If someone is looking at a different [city], they are looking at the opportunity [of the job] rather than what does Baltimore have to offer,” said Quinn.

Baltimore neighborhoods (Photo by David Stuck)
Baltimore neighborhoods (Photo by David Stuck)

Visit Baltimore generates economic benefits through the attraction of convention, group and leisure visitors. This includes overseeing the Baltimore Convention Center.

One tool the organization uses to gauge its success is “definite future room nights” booked within its fiscal year. These include different events such as conventions, meetings, family reunions, weddings and group tours.

A room night is the equivalent of a single night stay by a visitor.

“The unrest of April 2015 and resulting negative media attention was felt in a slower than usual [fourth-quarter] sales figure, with several major citywide groups deferring their booking decisions to fiscal year 2016,” according to Visit Baltimore’s financial report. “While total room nights booked in fiscal year 2015 fell below prior years, Visit Baltimore is still outperforming our [peer cities] and booking convention center business at a rate to maximize the Baltimore Convention Center’s impact.”

Washington Monument (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)
Washington Monument (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)

From 2010 to 2014, Convention Center activity generated 337,877 room nights per year on average; and it only booked 225,777 room nights in 2015. Despite the drop, said Visit Baltimore president and CEO Tom Noonan, the deferred business puts the company ahead of schedule at the start of its fiscal year.

“People are not being scared off by unrest,” said Noonan. The question that remains unanswered is, how much better we would have been without unrest?”

Rabbi Jessy Gross, founder of Charm City Tribe, an organization that is part of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Jewish Community Center, works to bring Jewish young professionals together who live in Baltimore City.

Gross said the group’s strength comes from what others might consider a deficiency. Since it has no official residence, CCT meets in public spaces around the city, which results in attracting people who may not seek out a Jewish experience, to come and learn.

She sees Baltimore’s size and challenges as something that actually attracts people.

“[Baltimore] is a small enough city that you can be somebody but large enough that you have options,” Gross said. “It’s also in a state of transition and people are interested in [making a change]. It’s a challenging time for Baltimore but also an opportunistic time because people are looking to have an impact.”


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