There are times when a short trip to exciting New York City streets is not enough to ease the frustration from Newark’s troubles. On Christmas Day, 1994, we woke up only to find our car was among seven within two blocks, stripped by smashed windows. On the next day, we booked a bed-and-breakfast room on Ann Street of Baltimore’s thriving Fells Point. The four-term mayor Schaefer’s urban revival projects had started to change Baltimore’s downtown decay. At the time, Governor Schaefer was pushing a $500 million light rail line through the heart of the once “Cinderella City.” Encouraging!
On the morning before returning home, we sat at the hostess’ kitchen table for an elaborate breakfast with Andy, the hospitable husband. After learning our destination, he could not help giggling. “What is it, Andy?” “When I drove through the fallow city blocks, wind blew waste paper against my windshield. I am sorry. Newark is such a dirty city.” We headed back immediately after, without a single word in two hours.
Earlier this year, after two years into the Booker Administration and much talk of Downtown Revitalization, we had another visit to Baltimore, by now a completely different place. Its urban redevelopment strategy has worked impressively. As a Fortune magazine article envisioned 30 years ago, “Their [public and private sector] strategy has been to convert the heart of the city into a culturally rich, architecturally exciting magnet where both affluent and middle-class families will choose to work, shop, and live.” A closer look at the city’s success points to a single word—“Leadership.”
William Donald Schaefer was born in Baltimore in 1921 to a modest Lutheran family of German descent. After finishing his early education in public schools and Baltimore City College, he went to England not to attend Oxford, but to serve with distinction in the Army during World War II. With the GI bill, he received his law degree from the University of Baltimore and spent 19 years on the city council, tackling the city’s planning and housing issues. The Baltimore native son was elected mayor in 1971, 1975, 1979, and 1983 by over 85 percent of the votes in a city with an African-American majority. In 1986 and 1990, he was elected the governor of Maryland with an overwhelming majority. Over his almost 60 year career of public services, the driven and focused visionary had his heart only in his city.
The legendary mayor was known for his attention to detail, taking note of problems of every project large and small, such as the seal pool at the National Aquarium and street violations like strewn garbage as he rode around. “Fix it right now!” Aiming to redevelop the downtown and the waterfront as fast as possible, he devised strategies to overcome the slow-moving bureaucratic city machine and to win the confidence of ordinary citizens and corporate investors. Under his leadership, redevelopment efforts were directed and implemented by 24 flexible and efficient quasi-public development corporations, which could pay higher salaries with less politicized regulations. As a city researcher observed, Schaefer encouraged “apolitical means for improving the city’s development potential by infusing speed, flexibility, and technical expertise into the policy-making process.”
The Ann Street Bed-and-Breakfast opened during the transformation of the Inner Harbor. Those rat-infested piers, rundown structures, and eclectic parking lots were scenes familiar to Downtown Newark residents. The blighted mess smelled “like a million polecats,” as H.L. Mencken described. Under Schaefer’s leadership, the city acquired over 400 structures to provide land for redevelopment. A few blocks away from Ann Street, the Harborplace, a delightful and warm place of people, includes two translucent pavilions of diverse shops and restaurants. Its success assured Schaefer’s audacious dream of making Baltimore a national tourist destination, attracting 18 million visitors the first year, earning $42 million, and creating 2,300 jobs. During the year of our first visit, the nearby aquarium added another 18 million visitors. By 1998, visitors spent $847 million annually, contributing $81 million in tax revenues, and covering a payroll of $266 million. Schaefer’s legacy also includes the construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the reduction of Chesapeake Bay pollution, and higher standards for public schools.
A “public entrepreneur,” Schaefer lives most of his life in humble row houses in the city, with no interest in material things except fast food and political-convention freebies. The no-nonsense pal held public positions over half a century, not for his political ambition, but for his intrinsic motivation of getting things done for his beloved city. Like any strong leader, he never shied away from controversy. His successor, the first African-American Mayor Kurt Schmoke, observed, “If you revisited Baltimore today after a 20-year absence, you would find us much prettier and much poorer.” The national organization “Good Job First” complained about using millions of Urban Development Action Grants (UDAG) on Inner Harbor projects. With our own Newark experience, I am not convinced by his detractors’ accusations. He served during the worst urban decline, the fastest manufacturing depletion, and the deepest racial and economic segregation in this country’s history. When Baltimore poured UDAG money into its tourist and entertainment infrastructures, Newark was busy building parking garages and industrial parks with the same money. To this day, these facilities are still strangely under the total control of our infamous Al Faiella, with no contribution to the city and its poor people, but to his own $200,000 plus salary and “charitable” choices.
A few months ago, Schaefer sold his row house in Fells Point for $225,000. However, the 87-year-old man only moved to a sixth-floor apartment at a retirement community, with his friends and a view of the Baltimore skyline shaped by none other but himself. Having been a Newark resident for 12 years and our mayor for 30 months, Cory Booker has yet put his money down on Newark soil for a permanent home. In an August master plan hearing, NJPAC’s CEO Larry Goldman commented on Newark’s slow motion redevelopment, “There is no value-free planning. We are expecting the administration’s strong leadership to move the city forward.” Absolutely, leadership!