Amid the rosy remembrances, some Schaefer missteps to consider

The mayor's stubborn championing of the East-West Expressway devastated West Baltimore and nearly disfigured Fells Point and Canton.

william donald schaefer  remsberg

William Donald Schaefer addresses the press on Election Night.

Photo by: Edwin Remsberg

Is it politically incorrect to say that the late William Donald Schaefer made some bad moves? I don’t mean the temper tantrums and profane outbursts deemed lovable by those not on their receiving end. I mean serious policy mistakes whose repercussions live on as civic wounds.

In the media narrative that has followed his death Monday evening, Schaefer has been portrayed as the supreme savior of this city. “Without him, Baltimore’s another Detroit, another Newark,” columnist Michael Olesker opined yesterday.

To be sure, Schaefer promoted the town of his birth with all the fervor of his volcanic Teutonic temperament. But fundamentally, Baltimore was less an object of his adoration than an arena for his ambitions as a master builder.

He was more iron-ribbed captain of industry, an Ayn Rand action figure, than conventional politician. Voters didn’t much matter to him as individuals (though he demanded their absolute fealty in return). What mattered to him was molding a fading organization into a new, improved product – and getting it done at breakneck speed.

This led to many triumphs. The Inner Harbor hotels and tourist pavilions, the “Baltimore is Best” movement and Pride of Baltimore public-relations coup have been rightly praised by the political class and local media. And it goes without saying that Schaefer was a human cattle prod who shocked city bureaucrats into action, or at least, movement.

But what of the problems that came to light during his 16 years as mayor? Should they be cast aside, or covered up, as too complex or “structural” to be raised in media accounts posing as accurate local history? One reads The Baltimore Sun’s gargantuan obituary seeking in vain to find any real appraisal of his occupancy of City Hall.

A more balanced view would note that over-exercise of the very qualities upon which his successes rested – stubbornness and resistance to realities he didn’t like – led to some notable policy failures.

Schaefer loved to spend money, especially federal money, because he thought it could help the city. Sometimes that impulse led to disastrous results, such as his ardent advocacy of the East-West Expressway.

Other times he simply sidestepped tough issues – like how to retain Baltimore’s manufacturing base – or handed off political hot potatoes to subordinates, such as the city’s growing vacant-house problem.

This post looks at highways, housing and jobs in the Schaefer years. There were other issues, such as the running of city schools and planning of the Metro and light-rail lines, whose legacies live on with us today. I’ll leave those to others; what follows are matters I directly covered as a newspaper reporter.

The Expressway Battle

Conventional lore has it that Baltimore’s low point was reached during the 1968 riots. But more people were displaced – and more houses destroyed – in the name of the East-West Expressway than were torched or looted in the disturbances that followed Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Schaefer didn’t come up with the idea of linking I-70, I-95 and I-83 (the Jones Falls Expressway) across the center of the city, but he championed these plans as city councilman and council president in the 1950s and 1960s and vowed to build the 22-mile network when he became mayor in 1971.

It was his way, which meant the highway, and he wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer.

The fact that the expressway didn’t wind up disfiguring dozens of city neighborhoods was only because brave citizens like Mary Rosemond, Lou Fisher, Norman Reeves, Jack Gleason, Joe Wiles, Bob Eney, Tom Ward and Art Cohen defied the iron-willed strongman and fought him tooth and claw.

Baltimore's "Highway to Nowhere," looking east from the Schroeder Street overpass. A highway expanse too wide for our camera lens. The recently-announced project will not change any of this a bit.

A project Schaefer ardently championed, Baltimore's "highway to nowhere." View is looking east, from the Schroeder Street overpass, with the highway expanse too wide for our camera lens. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

The mayor reacted with fury to the citizen and environmental lawsuits. When he got the opportunity to build a single 1.4-mile highway segment along Franklin and Mulberry streets in 1973, he jumped at the chance, even though the roadway would not connect to any other part of the proposed network.

To build the roadway he had to use an extra $13 million in city funds – a sizable sum in those days – because the stand-alone strip of highway would not quality for 90-10 federal funding.

When it looked like the proposed route through Rosemont and Leakin Park would be permanently blocked, he entertained plans to build the highway through Western Cemetery and up Edmondson Ave. as far as Ten Hills. Luckily, federal authorities scotched that crazy idea.

Saving Schaefer From Himself

In southeast Baltimore, Schaefer insisted on an expressway cutting a block or two from the waterfront through Fells Point and Canton. One plan called another “enhancement” – the beheading of Federal Hill to make way for an interchange between I-83 and I-95.

Today, all of these communities are thriving and considered models of urban revitalization. What they would be like with a block-wide gash cutting through them is anybody’s guess.

While failing to get the highway through southeast Baltimore, Schaefer did push I-83, stalled at Biddle Street, one mile south to Baltimore Street on a huge elevated platform. The city now wants to tear that down, but doesn’t have the $1 billion it would take to undo what Schaefer did.

The great irony of the expressway battle is that citizens saved Schaefer from himself, rather than Schaefer saving the citizenry with his grand visions and obsessive management.

To his credit, Schaefer belatedly agreed that an expressway through southeast Baltimore was counterproductive (an idea delicately planted by then City Councilman Barbara Mikulski, among others).

And faced by hundreds of empty houses, the mayor and Housing Commissioner Bob Embry pushed for urban homesteading, selling vacant rowhouses condemned for the expressway to middle-class rehabbers at a nominal price – sometimes just $1.

On the more pliable West Side, however, Schaefer continued to build with abandon, finally finishing the Franklin-Mulberry segment in 1979, followed by Martin Luther King Blvd. in 1982.

Last week, The Brew’s Gerald Neily pronounced Schaefer’s highway legacy in West Baltimore a failure in human terms and called for a major rethink of the “fortress mentality” that, 30 years later, prevents urban energy from flowing across acres of asphalt to Heritage Crossing and Harlem Park.

Deteriorated Houses

In the past two days, we’ve heard about Schaefer’s penchant for cruising around neighborhoods, checking for cracked pavement, potholes and errant trash, then writing tart notes to his underlings demanding immediate action.

True enough. But he who obsessed over potholes never effectively cracked down on landlords letting their houses go to pot. The mayor was loath to meddle with the private affairs and pecuniary interests of powerful property owners, especially if they were on friendly terms with Irv Kovens, the West Baltimore boss who had smoothed the political path for Schaefer’s ascent.

By the mid-70s, vacant and abandoned buildings had spread from the inner city to Walbrook, Park Heights, Pimlico and Clifton Park. It was a plague in a city of rowhouses, where a single bum building in a row of 20 could start the malaise.

Schaefer let the city housing department handle the problem. Even when the inspection system was exposed as cumbersome, if not counterproductive, by a series of articles in The Sunday Sun, Schaefer kept good-old-boy, Charlie Noon, as his chief housing inspector and Ottavio Grande (later convicted of taking bribes) as his rehab coordinator.

Many stabs were taken at the fixing up city-owned vacant properties, often in scattershot mode.

Admittedly, abandoned housing was a difficult, perhaps intractable, urban problem. One can argue that no city – and no American mayor – had the answer. Still, it needs to be pointed out that the man famously deemed as America’s “best mayor” choose to duck the problem.

Job Losses

The larger issue from which vacant housing stemmed was the precipitous loss of jobs during the mayor’s four terms in office. The city’s manufacturing base was in free fall.

Much of this took place in the early 1980s, when a sharp recession combined with the economic policies of President Ronald Reagan led to massive job losses in the industrialized Midwest and East.

Overall, manufacturing employment in Baltimore dropped from roughly 100,000 at the start of his first term in 1971 to about 52,000 when Schaefer left office in 1987. Here’s a partial list of manufacturing and retail job losses in 1980-85 alone:

Acme Markets – 1,200
Bethlehem Steel Key Highway Shipyard – 1,500
Brager-Gutman – 180
Esskay meat packing – 240
Maryland Glass – 325
Maryland Shipbuilding & Drydock – 1,500
Misty Harbor Raincoat – 210
Pantry Pride – 4,000
Two Guys discount stores – 500
Vectra fiber and yarn – 600
Western Electric – 3,500

Other jobs had been killed off by condemnation of commercial properties for the expressway. About 500 jobs were transferred from downtown to Jessup when the mayor decided that the Camden Street Wholesale Produce Market did not fit into his Inner Harbor scheme.

Schaefer's legacy, Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Schaefer's legacy, Baltimore's Inner Harbor. (

Like abandoned housing, job loss was a very complex problem that the mayor never seemed to wrap his mind around. Yes, the city built some industrial parks, but it never attracted many venture capitalists or gained a foothold in growing industries.

It didn’t have to be that way. Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Indianapolis did a better job attracting and retaining corporate jobs in the city. St. Louis and Camden, N.J., did worse.

As a reporter, you couldn’t help but notice that Schaefer devoted more time courting the owners of local sports teams than trying to snare a branch office or headquarters of a Fortune 500 company. His Inner Harbor was developed openly as a tourist mecca rather than a business center, with tax-exempt buildings, such as the World Trade Center, becoming the flagship buildings.

Schaefer was clearly in the forefront of big-city mayors who looked toward tourism, sports stadiums and convention centers as a way to revive their downtowns. But looking back, much of Baltimore’s economic growth has come from homesteaders and small businesses that have created lively localized milieus in Federal Hill, Locust Point, Canton and Fells Point. The role of city government in these neighborhoods has been essentially passive, maintaining an environment that allows private citizens to flourish.

The big-spending, infrastructure-driven approach of 1970s Baltimore now seems old-fashioned, even obsolete. In an age of tight city budgets, the challenge is to do more with less through public-private partnerships and market-driven mini-projects, plus tackling effectively our perennial problem, crime.

William Donald Schaefer would have been sorely vexed and most profanely annoyed that the horizons of government had diminished. Let him rest in peace.


Brew reporter and editor Mark Reutter covered housing, transportation and the Inner Harbor for The Sunday Sun and Morning Sun in the 1970s. Longtime Maryland photographer Edwin Remsberg, whose Schaefer photo we used for this post, can be reached here.

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  • Joan Jacobson

    Don’t forget Schaefer’s intense opposition to rent control, which was adopted by voters, only to get defeated in court. He also gave millions of tax dollars in loans to politically connected developers to build hotels, condos, high-end apartments, etc. Later, most of that money was never repaid. He and his finance director, Charlie Benton, (who ran the infamous Trustees) ran the city at times like a private corporation, hiring a man who was not even a city employee, nicknamed “Mac The Knife” because he wore a knife on his belt in City Hall, to do their dirty work. Benton once said in a court deposition that “I avoid the Board of Estimates like the plague,” meaning that he tried not to get approval from any public body in spending city funds. What an unusual comment for a mayoral cabinet member to say. And his housing commissioner (Pines) did build a little hotel with public housing funds (mentioned in Birch’s article) only to have HUD make Baltimore pay the money back.

  • Mlm2627

    Schaefer deserves his place in the B’more Hall of Fame (wherever that may be) but it’s good to have a bit of balance as well. Thanks…

  • Tom

    I would add the light rail line to his list of policy missteps. Yes, it’s useful in some respects, but totally impractical in others (the Cold Spring Lane stop, e.g.). His goal was to get SOMETHING built, even if it didn’t make a lot of mass-transit sense.

    • James Hunt

      Sounds like the effort to get the Red Line built today.

  • Andrew

    Can I just say that the “World Trade Center” is the ugliest building in the City?

  • UpperFells

    This is a good article. The WD Schaefer adulation has seemed a bit over-the-top.

    My only quibble would be the dig at Reagan’s economic policies and the 1981/82 recession as the cause of Baltimore’s economic problems. Somehow other cities overcame the recession and those policies (if they were even a problem), yet Baltimore continues to lag behind in jobs. As the article mentions, other cities have done much better over that time.

    I’m also puzzled at the light treatment of the 1968 riots. I suppose that more people were directly displaced by the building of east-west expressway, but in terms of indirect-long term effects to the city, the riots were far more important. Afterall, there’s no expressway in East Baltimore, or even 90% of the city, but look at the condition of those neighborhoods.

  • Nate

    Willie Don was also behind the failed strip mall/shopping center in Bolton Hill that never was build. Some city judge who owned a house on the sole remaining block of Linden Ave held out and the project was canned. I’ve never heard anybody talk about this.

    Schaefer did a lot of dumb stuff, but some of it was simply part of the mentality of the time–like the expressway system and the light rail. I could give him a pass on thinking the light rail might be a good idea. There really wasn’t enough of a precedent then. He did at least get the Metro built. (I-83 is perhaps the most inoffensive of urban highways, but President and MLK are disasters…)

    It’s tough to argue about the manufacturing decline–retrospectively it appears inevitable. Basically, that sector only seemed to grow in the Right to Work states. But the corporate presence is more arguable.

    But it seems to me that Schaefer really did what he thought was right for the City far more than what he though would benefit him and his political ascent unlike some more current politicians. I don’t get the impression he was a power monger, but I was too young to remember.

  • Lshopes

    Thanks to Mark Reutter for pointing out some of the “rot beneath the glitter,” as one consultant to BALTIMORE 2000, a report commissioned by the Goldseker Foundation in 1987, put it.

    • Anonymous

      Readers should know that Linda Shopes is one of the three editors (along with Linda Zeidman and Elizabeth Fee) of “The Baltimore Book.” Along with “Not in My Neighborhood” by Antero Pietila, “The BB” is a tremendous source for learning recent Baltimore history, carefully researched & un-photoshopped. –MR

  • Garylsever

    I don’t give any credibility to any report commissioned by the Goldseker Foundation. Goldseker himself was a huge contributor to city’s blight, through his predatory business practices, and his largess was utlized to found said Foundation upon his death. So essentially they caused the problems that Schaeffer did or did not address properly.

    • Tom

      I’m sorry, but that response makes no sense. Goldseker (the man) did damage to the city. But Goldseker the Foundation is making great contributions to Baltimore…Don’t let the name cloud your vision of the Foundation’s work.

  • Thomas Ward

    I write this not in criticism of Don Schaefer but merely some facts about the man and the issues you correctly go into.

    I knew Don Schaefer long before I joined him in the City Countil in 1963 and was vice-chairman of his legislative committee. Unfortunately, after many pleasant associations, we came opponents on the Mt. Royal Project One urban renewal plan which destroyed five hundred historic houses in Bolton Hill including my own- the Governor Edwin Warfield mansion at 1219-23 Linden Avenue where I lived, had my law office and owned. At that time Don was the councilman from the fifth district and knew many of the slum landlords who owned some of the historic houses, and they very much much in favor of having them torn down and receive the money paid to them by the city, usually sums way over the worth of their properties. But, the plan received enormous support from just about everyone including your newspaper, THE BALTIMORE SUN. Don did admit in later years that he was wrong, as has just about everyone else I have spoken to who is still alive. The plan was disastrous and the ill effects still live on in Bolton Hill today.

    I had a huge battle over the urban renewal plan for Mt. Vernon Place, and I was successful in blocking it in its entirety, stopping the total demolition of the east side of Mt. Vernon Place, the 600, 700 and 800 blocks of Calvert Street and the 600, 700, 800, 900 blocks of St. Paul Street and all of the houses on the cross streets from Guilford to St. Paul as well as numerous other blocks in the area. As a result of my opposition, Eugene Feinblatt who was chairman of the commission altered the plan to a restoration. Mr. Schaefer was a hysterical opponent. Once again, he admitted he was wrong in later years.

    Simultaneously came the battle of the expressways. In 1962 McKeldin ‘s administration with strong support from Tommy D’Alessandro, III presented to the council a bill for the highway. Don Schaefer was the chairman for the critical committee, and just about everyone supported the East West highway bill. I was able to stall it for several years, but it passed in 1966 with a vote of 20 to 1 (me being the 1). At that time I joined with Lucretia Fisher and formed the Preservation of Fells Point and Federal Hill Society. I wrote the charter and incorporated it. As a result the rest is history. Bob Eney was a Board member and he wrote up, measured, photographed every historic house in Fells Point for the National Register and then invited the Presidential Committee to come to Baltimore to view them. They voted “no” to any demolition under a new Federal Act that no highway project could be enacted that destroyed historic structures. This was 1971. Fells Point and Federal Hill were saved. This was before Barbara Mikulski ever said one word in opposition, and from the time I was involved from 1963 to 1967 she never attended any meetings or wrote any letters. After 1971 when she entered into the City Council she became active in expressing her views on where the road would go instead of through Federal Hill and Fells Point.

    Once the harbor area was cured Don came into his own. His work in preserving and building up the harbor, using the dollar houses to build up a very successful neighborhood, Otterbein, etc. entitles him to the statue who has in the harbor. And I emphasize again, he told me many times in later years he was entirely wrong on preservation. Tom Ward

    • Gerald Neily

      Thank you, Judge Ward. Your first hand account is invaluable. Compare that to the interview with Senator Mikulski in the current “Baltimore Guide”, were she is quoted with regard to her dealings with Mayor Schaefer on the expressway battle:

      “Out of that came the beginning of…a compromise that led to the Fort McHenry Tunnel. We saved Fells Point. We saved Federal Hill. We created the opportunity to build Camden Yards. Our unfinished business, which I am now working on, is the West Side,” Mikulski remembered. “So he beat me one day. But then he invited me into the office on another day.”

      That corroborates what you say, that the issue after 1971 became simply where the expressway system should go instead of the waterfront. However, the Fort McHenry Tunnel plan was first devised way back in 1968, and from that point until into the ’80s, Schaefer and the road gang wanted to build BOTH the Fort McHenry Tunnel and the Fells Point/Canton leg of I-83, as well as the west side Franklin/Mulberry Expressway and MLK Boulevard which got built. Collectively all this was called the 3-A system. The Mikulski quote is oblivious to this.

      The one thing everyone now seems to be in agreement about is that even after the brutal condemnation and clearance for the highways, there was still the opportunity to rebuild the highway corridors with dollar houses and larger scale development programs. That is what was done in Canton, Otterbein, Barre Circle, etc., but it was NOT done in Franklin-Mulberry. Instead, the road gang including Schaefer, promised redevelopment that they tied only to their pet projects. Back in the ’70s, that was the promised construction of expensive and isolated “platforms” over the highway to build housing, schools, etc. Incredibly, 30 years later, the city and MTA are still trying to use that exact same ploy today, under the guise of “transit oriented development”, if only we’ll plunk down another $2 Billion or so to build their Red Line. The MTA Red Line plan is predicated on keeping the horrendous “highway to nowhere” as-is, except for the modest two block kludge now under construction at the west end. It’s take it or leave it.

      If only Senator Mikulski, Congressman Cummings and all the others would recognize this extortion for what it is. They haven’t learned.

  • Susankroizkrieger

    This is a great discussion and I especially appreciated Judge Wards comments on the successful blockage of the I 83 extension in Fell’s Point. That is how I remembered the saving of Fells Point with
    Bob Eny documentation of the historic houses and the great work of the Fells Point and Federal Hill Preservation Society.
    Does anyone recollect the “shadow government” during the Schaefer Era with the funds from the sale of the Friendship Airport that was used for pet projects? The reopening of the Mechanic Theater in 1976 was a Schaefer project as were several other developments.

  • Antero Pietila

    From Antero Pietila: This is a very substantive — and necessary — discussion. I thank Mark Reutter for igniting it. Amid all the nostalgia about William Donald Schaefer we are well to remember Marc Steiner’s adage that nostalgia is remembering the past with the pain removed.

  • Big G

    Finally, a balanced assessment of William Donald Schaefer that doesn’t blow smoke up your azz. Let’s not forget that this was the Mayor that lost the Baltimore Colt franchise and we only got Camden Yards because Edward Bennett Williams had leverage because of the Colts departure. Also the Cleveland Browns move came under the Glendening administration.

  • Big G

    Finally a balanced assessment of William Donald Schaefer that doesn’t blow smoke up your azz. I think people forget that this was the Mayor that lost the Baltimore Colts franchise on his watch. We only got Camden Yards because Edward Bennett Williams had leverage on Willie Don because of the Colts departure. Also the Cleveland Browns relocated under the Glendening administration.

  • Gerald Neily

    Art Cohen gives us another excellent first-hand account. And today’s Sun editorial gives us another simpleminded whitewash, “The Lessons of Schaefer,” the first of which insultingly is to “build things.” All of which makes me ponder two related questions: When was the expressway battle really over? And in 2011, have things really changed?

    To clarify: The first victory in the highway battle over Fells Point did not kill the highway. At that point, the city simply agreed to put I-83 in a tunnel UNDER Fells Point and the harbor. The west tunnel portal would have still wiped out most of what is now Harbor East. The east portal would have been built on a long finger peninsula out into the harbor from Canton, so that much of the Canton waterfront view would have been dominated by the highway instead of by Fort McHenry and the outer harbor. It would have also been horrendously expensive.

    Similarly in West Baltimore, the first victory that saved Leakin Park did not save Gwynns Falls Park. The “highway to nowhere” would have linked only to I-95 instead of I-70. The segment of I-95 east of Caton Avenue was built in the early ’80s with extensive ramp stubs for these connections, which is why the Caton Avenue ramps still stretch much of the way toward Russell Street to accommodate all the ramp weaving that would have occurred. The state knocked down part of this a few years ago.

    So the expressway battle lingered on well after Fells Point and Leakin Park were “saved.” Schaefer did not suddenly see the light due to the persuasion of Mikulski or anyone else.

    I contend that not much has really changed to this day. Art Cohen wonders if the current temporary construction closure of the “highway to nowhere” might last “maybe forever.” But let’s be clear: A significant part of that current construction contract is to REBUILD the last two blocks of the “highway to nowhere” to eliminate the “temporary” configuration that has lasted over three decades. The highway will reopen and function just as it always has. Otherwise, there would be no reason to rebuild it.

    The Red Line is the same kind of monumental project that continues the Schaefer legacy, as James Hunt points out. The original 2002 plan glossed over the issues of how it would connect to the existing rail system and whether it would be in a tunnel. The next level of detail concluded that it was more “cost effective” as a surface line, but physically it had to be tunneled to fit in. That’s I-83 all over again. So the delays and cost of the Red Line continue to escalate, with a tunnel under Fells Point, but with the Canton portal in the middle of Boston Street (now totally redeveloped) instead of a highway portal on a new man-made harbor peninsula.

    The pattern continues. Other big Schaefer-esque ideas include the proposed Convention Center/Arena and the new replacement State Center. Today’s leaders have been following what the Sun calls “the lessons of Schaefer” all too well.

  • Charlie Cooper

    I feel that Schaefer just threw up his hands with regard to the public schools. He started a trend of flat or reduced City funding of public schools that basically continues to this day. I don’t have details, but if someone knows this history, it would be an important contribution to post it.

  • Lewis Frisch

    The passing of William Donald Schaefer should be an invitation to look beyond the personalities and sound bite issues of his career and to honestly address the harsh realities of what happened to Baltimore in the 1970′s and 80′s.

    I worked as a Program Manager for the Department of Housing and Community Development during Schaefer’s first term. My memories of the first Schaefer administration are short, bittersweet and prophetic of what was to come.

    In 1971, I joined a team of dedicated and competent civil servants who were reinvigorating municipal government, bringing new energy and creative solutions to the fight against blight. We shared high hopes that we could reverse the precipitous decline of so many neighborhoods. We were professionalizing housing code enforcement and municipal services delivery so as to help neighborhoods save themselves. The new Mayor was truly devoted to neighborhoods and we thought he would be a strong ally in our efforts to strengthen neighborhoods’ capacity for self-renewal.

    Contrary to our hopes, by the end of his first term, the Schaefer administration had failed to adequately perform one of municipal government’s most necessary functions — enforcing the laws against property owners who violated housing codes, neglected their properties, endangered the health and safety of their tenants and destabilized neighborhoods.

    I left Baltimore at the end of 1973, thoroughly disillusioned by the lack of political will in the administration to do something truly meaningful about substandard housing and sanitation.

    Here are some important facts to remember:

    In the 1970′s, following incessant lobbying by citizens’ groups, housing code enforcement was made a priority and slum-lording was to be treated as a serious crime. A Housing Court was set up to deal with major code violations and it was to treat failure to correct these as a criminal offense. A dedicated States Attorney and a supporting bureaucracy were in place to insure that persistent violators were successfully prosecuted.

    In spite of enormous difficulties and obstacles, hundreds of serious cases made their way to the court dockets. And all too frequently that’s where they stopped.

    Powerful property owner associations, politicians and even academic advisors all concluded that both the costs of complying with the codes and the penalties for non-compliance were so high that it was “unreasonable” to subject “legitimate businessmen” (often well respected and politically powerful) to such extreme measures.

    So the worst slumlords were given schedules — a sort of plea bargaining in which a slumlord agreed to make repairs according to a schedule drawn up by the prosecution, in return for a suspension of most penalties as long as they adhered to the schedule.

    In theory, this appeared to be a logical way to approach a very complex problem. In practice, it was a deal with the devil, and all of us on the front lines knew it would fail. Schedules and and negotiations dragged on endlessly. Slumlords thumbed their nose at the city, bribed whomever they could, laughed at the judges and continued to extract very substantial income from very substandard housing. Tenants suffered immensely in bitter coldly and unsafe dwellings awash in raw sewage, filth and rats while politicians and technocrats kept insisting that enforcement would be counter-productive and that we truly needed the “professional property owners” (as they always referred to the slumlords) as “partners” in redevelopment.

    My particular adversary was a young attorney/slumlord Jeffrey A. Levitt, whose family owned a staggering number of substandard properties throughout Northwest Baltimore. By June 1972, we were achieving some success against him. Violation notices piled up in Housing Court and the judge began to fine him heavily.

    Then, suddenly, he was given a schedule by HCD higher-ups and 28 properties were withdrawn from prosecution. Of course, Levitt did next to nothing and by September HCD allowed me to reinspect the properties and resume compliance enforcement. Successful prosecutions resumed in December 1972.

    By the summer of 1973, I began to receive a great deal of negative feedback from HCD higher-ups regarding my intensive efforts to bring Levitt to justice. I had every reason to suspect they were being pressured by the HCD Commissioner and the Mayor’s office.

    In October 1973, Levitt and his lawyer met with the two top code enforcement officials and three of us who were field program managers. All the program managers recommended continuing, stepped-up prosecution. A week later, the Department ignored their own field staff and granted Levitt a new schedule. Disgusted, I sought new employment in Atlanta and left HCD at the end of the year.

    Of course, Levitt again failed to meet the schedule. The Mayor’s office and his Housing Commissioner, Robert Embry — normally almost obsessively concerned with the efforts to fight blight in Northwest Baltimore — didn’t seem to notice that no cases were being tried for the next ten months!! By that time conditions in Baltimore were sufficiently scandalous to justify an investigative series in the Baltimore Sun by a young reporter, Mark Reutter, on urban blight and substandard housing.

    I visited Baltimore in May 1975 and was tracked down and interviewed by Mr. Reutter. The headlines splashed across The Sunday Sun on June 1st concerned the Leavitt case: — “Houses without heat, water: City grants landlord special treatment.”

    There was a lot of controversy for a few weeks: bold headlines, impassioned editorials, some movement by Mr. Embry to enforce the law against Leavitt. The Sun suggested that Mayor Schaefer insist upon being given definite and faith-restoring answers as to how this could happen in a city that was a national leader in housing code enforcement. Then more weeks passed. Interest waned, the tough enforcement was diluted — and it became all too clear that for Northwest Baltimore, really nothing had changed.

    Jeffrey Levitt, of course, went on to reinvent himself as a high-roller financier and philanthropist. His excesses and avarice landed him in federal prison for looting almost $15 million from his own bank, Old Court Savings & Loan, precipitating a banking panic that, among other things, cost Maryland taxpayers additional millions of dollars.

    William Donald Schaefer could likely have stopped his criminal trajectory way back in 1973-1975 simply by enforcing the law.

    So amidst all the praise and hype, let’s glean some wisdom and perspective from those like Mr. Reutter, who wrote this article and has weighed William Donald Schaefer in the balance, and found less to admire.

    Lewis Frisch
    The Bedford Consultancy
    Nazareth, PA

  • Melmintz

    I have a tremendous admiration for Don Schaeffer. If more elected officials had his commitment to real service and not self service, we would be all the better. He solved a heretofore untractable problem of the stump dump fire in th 1980′s in Baltimore county with one phone call.

    That being said, there were tremendous mistakes. Essentially he believed all manufacturing was dead in this country. Tourism was all. He never understood you must make something to succeed. The most major failure was reliance on the auto. He should have taken all that money spent on I 83 and I 795 and used it to build a world class intracity rail transit system It would have benefited this entire region. We would have a vibrant city of neighborhoods like Chicago or New York. Instead these expanded interstates out of the city gave us have beautiful bucolic houses on acres of land resulting in traffic congestion on all of our interstates due to the long commute from these far off suburbs.

  • Art Cohen

    Hey folks – for a different form but similar content of BREWMINATION on WD Schaefer, check out the Chalkley cartoon in today’s (April 27) City Paper – and catch the Brew in the final panel.

  • Gerald Neily

    MAYOR ED KOCH’s death announced today reminds me of just how much he was New York’s answer to our own William Donald Schaefer. Just as Schaefer was elected mayor in the aftermath of one of Baltimore’s darkest events, the 1968 riots, Koch was elected after NYC’s 1975 bankruptcy and the world famous headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead”. Koch took Schaefer’s cue of nonstop boosterism and attention focused on himself, as the antidote for his city’s deep ailments. And it worked for a while, as he was re-elected twice until finally defeated by his city’s first black mayor, David Dinkins, whose message of empowerment was also similar to that of our own Mayor Kurt Schmoke. And that was seen as successful for a while too as an antidote for all that boosterism, although in retrospect it seemed not a whole lot actually got done in either city. Finally, New York got serious and elected Rudy Guiliani, who was able to slash the crime rate and revive New York’s traditional economic and human dynamism. Will Baltimore ever learn?

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Below the Fold

  • March 24, 2014

    • Last Thursday, I sent an email to the Mayor’s Office of Communications asking for some basic responsiveness: Please return our emailed queries and phone calls about stories. Please send us the same routine emails you send to other members of the media. Lately, more so than usual, they haven’t been. It’s a shame because, even [...]