Alec MacGillis discussed Baltimore's present challenges and hopeful future with City Journal assistant editor Charles F. McElwee. MacGillis covers politics and government for ProPublica. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York, and the New York Times, among other publications. A resident of Baltimore, MacGillis is the author of The Cynic, a 2014 biography of Senator Mitch McConnell.
Earlier this year, you wrote a powerful essay, “The Tragedy of Baltimore,” for the New York Times Magazine. The profile captured the city’s rising disorder, from rampant crime to widespread corruption. Did the piece inspire any introspection at the local level to address Baltimore’s problems?
The piece got a very strong reaction in the city. The then-mayor, Catherine Pugh, called me up to harangue me. (She resigned a few weeks later, amid a children’s book scandal.) Chamber of Commerce types criticized the piece as overly negative. But I heard from many others who appreciated its attempt to grapple with the unraveling of the past few years that everyone in the city has been aware of, and yet was too often downplayed by city leaders. I’ve been invited to speak at numerous forums and remain generally hopeful that the piece has inspired residents to demand more candor and accountability. The big test will be next year’s mayoral election—a huge moment for the city.
As a resident of Baltimore, what do you think the city's future holds?
Despite the stark framing of the article, I do hold out hope for the city. As I note in the piece, while Baltimore has fallen far behind hyper-prosperous, winner-take-all cities like Washington, it’s in relatively decent economic shape compared with many of its postindustrial peers—not just in terms of broad income and wealth measures, but even if you drill down to the city’s black community. The city has the benefit of assets like its East Coast location—just up the road from Washington—and a large port, along with the Johns Hopkins empire. Where the city is lagging badly is in terms of public safety and governance. If it can make even modest progress on those fronts, I can envision the city resuming its gradual pre-Freddie Gray rise as an affordable and flawed-yet-appealing East Coast bastion.
This year, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve released a report finding that gentrifying neighborhoods create economic opportunity for adult residents and children. How has gentrification played out in Baltimore’s neighborhoods, particularly around Johns Hopkins Hospital?
The recent nationwide reports on gentrification have driven home just how different Baltimore’s experience has been compared with other cities. In Baltimore, virtually all the gentrification of the past decade or two has occurred in formerly white working-class areas such as Hampden, Locust Point, and Canton. The only exception has been a narrow stretch on the gentrifying perimeter of the Hopkins medical complex in East Baltimore. What these studies have reinforced is that for struggling black neighborhoods in Baltimore, the biggest challenge by far remains blight and abandonment—not gentrification and displacement of the sort one sees in D.C. and other hyper-prosperous cities.
Recent U.S. Census figures show that scores of younger millennial and Gen X residents are leaving U.S. cities for the suburbs. Has the national trend, along with Baltimore’s recent challenges, affected those residential neighborhoods?
Here, too, my sense is that the Baltimore experience is different than in many other cities. Elsewhere, the departure by Gen-Xers and Millennials is being driven heavily by the quest for affordability. That’s not nearly as much of an issue in Baltimore, where even choice neighborhoods remain far more affordable than what you’d fine in D.C., New York, or Boston. To the extent that younger residents are leaving the city, it’s for the same reasons as they always have: for better schools and public safety. But the latest numbers I’ve seen do not suggest a big increase in such moves. The city is continuing to draw younger, mostly white professionals. It seems pretty clear that the biggest factor behind the city’s resumed population decline is the flight of middle- and working-class blacks to the suburbs.
Last year, you profiled Dayton’s economic decline for PBS Frontline. Does the media overlook how America’s deindustrialization policy, combined with China’s economic ascendance, has transformed economic development in the Rust Belt?
Absolutely, there needs to be more reporting on the upheaval underway in small and medium-size cities like Dayton. Not to go into a diner and ask voters what they think about Trump—the coverage that’s so easily lampooned—but to report on what it means to have a state go from having GM as its largest employer to its 72nd largest, as is now the case for Ohio. It’s been great to see the Fuyao auto glass plant get such exposure, notably in the American Factory documentary. But there are so many other stories to be told. One reason they’re not being told, of course, is the evisceration of the press in these cities.
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