Baltimore blues: Lessons from the waterfront and ‘The Wire’

As we made our way out of the bus station in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon, I couldn’t help but think that “The Wire” had gotten it right.

For those not familiar with “The Wire”—and if you’re not familiar with it, by all means stop reading this post and go watch it—the show examines Baltimore, portraying it as a city of empty row houses, shattered windows, and neighborhoods abandoned but for the drug trade. We didn’t visit the city’s worst neighborhoods—Stringer, Marlo, and Omar were nowhere in sight—but we were nonetheless overwhelmed by the number of decrepit and condemned buildings, many of which looked like they hadn’t been touched in years. It was a sunny day, but the gray streets were largely devoid of people, and even the few green spaces we passed were littered with garbage. We’d never seen a major city in a state of such disrepair.

Baltimore building

But amid the deteriorating buildings and empty streets, one neighborhood was particularly teeming with economic activity: the Inner Harbor.

Seeing the Inner Harbor was our only concrete priority for the afternoon, and while it wasn’t as exciting as we’d anticipated—it’s an obvious tourist trap, and the water is surrounded by concrete rather than greenery—it was definitely more lively than the neighborhoods we’d walked through to get there. We saw museums, shops, restaurants, the main branch of the National Aquarium, and boat tours of the harbor. There were people everywhere.

Check out the harborscape, which is definitely a word I just invented:

Inner Harbor

As alluded to in “The Wire”—more on that in a moment—Baltimore’s waterfront has been subject to decades of redevelopment, an effort that started in the late 1950s and continues today. Much of that redevelopment has been necessitated by the decline of Baltimore’s shipping industry, and in many ways, the transition has been a successful one—waterfront neighborhoods are among the city’s safest and wealthiest.

So why is Nick Sobotka so upset?

Nick Sobotka

Nick Sobotka

For the uninitiated, Nick Sobotka is the emotional lynchpin of the second season of “The Wire,” a dockworker whose ability to put food on the table is dependent on the number of ships choosing to unload in Baltimore. Nick is honest and hardworking, but it’s been decades since the heyday of Baltimore’s shipping industry, and most days he can’t find work. The story of his slow descent into smuggling and drug-dealing is heart wrenching.

After the second season, Nick drops off the face of the show, seemingly never to be heard from again. But then season five rolls around, and Baltimore Mayor Tommy Carcetti decides to support a condominium project on the waterfront, further dashing the dockworker union’s hopes for more shipping infrastructure. Carcetti and big-time developer Andy Krawczyk hold a press conference, and there’s Nick in the back:

You don’t need me to tell you that Nick isn’t “nobody at all”—he’s a human being, and for him, waterfront redevelopment represents the destruction of his livelihood. There’s little Carcetti can do to save the shipping industry, but what he calls “revitalization,” Nick calls “tearing down the port of Baltimore.”

And this is where the idea of waterfront revitalization starts to get complicated, particularly in a city like Baltimore. Because for all of the tax revenue it generates—and for all of the attractions it presents—the Inner Harbor doesn’t have a lot to offer the vast majority of Baltimoreans, at least not directly. In a city where 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and at least 10 percent is unemployed, the Inner Harbor’s overpriced restaurants, expensive housing options, and ticketed museums can have only limited relevance. And for people like Nick Sobotka, they’re worse than irrelevant—they’re destructive.

Waterfront revitalization isn’t unique to Baltimore, of course, any more than the shift to a post-industrial economy is limited to one American city. In places ranging from Los Angeles, to Chicago, to Oakland, to Boston, to St. Louis, to Detroit, to New York, to Washington, D.C., to…well, you get the idea. In these places and others, local governments have partnered with developers to revivify—now there’s a fun word—waterfront areas that were once blighted, underused, or environmentally degraded.

And many of these places are doing it better than Baltimore has. Take, for example, Los Angeles—my hometown. The city is working to remove the long-suffering L.A. River from its ugly concrete shell, and to surround the river with public parks, bike paths, and scenic walkways—and, yes, residential buildings and businesses. Generating tourism revenue is certainly part of the city’s master plan, but the overarching idea is to create spaces that benefit all Angelenos—housing that is affordable, walkways that promote wellness, businesses that create jobs, and green spaces that everyone can enjoy.

And maybe that’s not what will happen. Maybe, as the L.A. River revitalization project plays out over the next 25 to 50 years, the focus will shift from green spaces and affordable housing to expensive restaurants and lucrative condominiums. Maybe I’m naïve for expecting something substantially different from what we saw in Baltimore.

But as a water blogger, I can’t help but think that waterfront revitalization is driven by more than simple dollars and cents. I can’t help but think that there’s something uniquely disquieting about a blighted riverfront or a polluted harbor, something that strikes us as deeply wrong. We yearn for revitalized waterfront spaces for the same reason that we build fountains to pay homage to beloved historical figures, and for the same reason that we enjoy lying on the beach, watching the waves. We understand water’s fundamental majesty and importance, and we want to feel a connection to it. We know, without having to be told, that waterfront spaces should be green, vibrant, and accessible to all.

I’m sure that the redevelopment of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has been good for the city’s economy, and that I’m underselling its other virtues. But all the pieces matter, and when decrepit buildings with shattered windows and shuttered doors sit just blocks from the waterfront, you don’t need to be an urban planner to know that something’s not right. You don’t need to be Nick Sobotka to know that whatever benefits have come from waterfront revitalization, they haven’t been extended to most Baltimoreans.

Nick’s dream of a revived shipping industry isn’t in the cards, but as cities around the country redevelop their waterfront areas, civic leaders would do well to learn from Baltimore’s missed opportunities. They would do well to remember that tourism isn’t everything, and to emphasize green, friendly, accessible waterfront spaces that stimulate economic growth while truly benefitting everyone.

And if they decided to watch “The Wire”? That wouldn’t hurt, either.

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