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Commentaryby Mark Reutter9:41 amApr 21, 20110

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.

Above: William Donald Schaefer addresses the press on Election Night.

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.


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 tourist-friendly Inner Harbor. (kathika.com)

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, Camden, N.J., and, yes, Detroit 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. May he rest in peace.
Brew reporter and editor Mark Reutter covered housing, transportation and the Inner Harbor for The Baltimore 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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