There are more than a few ghosts left behind by Johns Hopkins, the 19th-century Baltimore businessman; the man himself remains a generally benevolent apparition, others veritable poltergeists. Johns Hopkins is the ghost of a better Christmas Past and his institutional legacy the best hope for Christmas Future but there haven’t been many lessons learned in the interim and Ignorance and Want attend constantly to the story of that great and unfortunate city.
As for Hopkins’ biographer, Antero Pietila’s own story is a fascinating later piece of the churn of immigration to Baltimore: a Finn who arrived in the United States at 20, he was employed by The Baltimore Sun a mere four years later in 1969 and wrote for them for 35 years, with stints spent at the Sun’s bureaus in Johannesburg and Moscow (just that fact is tangible evidence of Baltimore’s institutional decline).
The Baltimore Sun didn’t mismanage itself into the closure of all of its foreign bureaus; it was the casualty of broader disastrous systemic trends in journalism, just as Baltimore at large is the grievous victim of broader deindustrialization. It boasts problems of corruption and historical racism which were its own devising to be sure. These were easier to handle or ignore when the city was relatively successful, impossible to avoid when it began to decline.
It rose on the back of a variety of industries, many of which Johns Hopkins had an early hand in or were linked to his principal asset, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The city reached a peak in the postwar era with a population over 900,000. Long one of the largest of American cities its population declined beginning in the 1960s; enterprises fled or atrophied.
As you know, “Eds-and-Meds” is the revitalization strategy for every single down-at-heels American city, and not unreasonably so, but in few are these hooks hung so dramatically on a single educational and medical institution. Johns Hopkins University is the largest private sector employer in Baltimore and its Health System the third. Pietila writes:
The Hopkins legacy straddles two realities. His pathfinding First World institutions are islands of excellence in a city that rewards mediocrity and increasingly exhibits Third World dysfunctions. Killing and drug addiction are out of control, bureaucracies are faltering amid corruption and falling tax revenues, and kids drop out of school, or are graduated without being able to read or write.
Hopkins was a teetotaling Quaker who achieved an early start bartering his products for whiskey which he sold as “Hopkins’ Best.” He was a strikingly successful businessman whose investments soon grew to involve railroads, steamships, banking, insurance, and more. He was also an Abolitionist in a city with unambiguous southern sympathies. He was a forward-thinking man, and many ensured that his legacy would be foiled in varied ways.
His 1870 bequest of $7 million to establish a university and hospital was the largest to educational institutions in American history to that date. His specifications for a hospital that treated patients regardless of color (and a university that allowed them similarly) were briefly observed—and then entirely ignored. In 1887 the first African-American student was admitted to the University; the second was admitted after World War II. The first African-American MD graduated in 1967. There were initially integrated wards at the Hopkins Hospital: these were subsequently segregated.
The trouble in Baltimore is that its intensive segregation was often implemented decades after the Civil War. Downtown featured a diverse set of businesses and institutions as late as 1900, which were steadily purged. An African-American school opened in 1889 and was evicted 13 years later. In 1903, a mob attached a black Masonic temple. The Baltimore fire of 1904 encouraged mass relocation elsewhere. By the 1950s, the only establishments black diners could patronize in downtown Baltimore were the Greyhound bus terminal, railroad stations, and the YMCA. The first black police officer was hired only in 1937. Maryland belatedly ratified the Fifteenth Amendment in 1973 (which had granted equal rights with three-quarters of the states in 1870).
Attempts to ferret out racial mixing took on almost farcical aspects. The mainly African-American business district on Pennsylvania Avenue had plenty of bars with a “black” liquor license patronized by whites. The city cracked down on this abomination in the early 1950s. In whiplash fashion, this was only a few years before Baltimore’s sweeping school desegregation in 1954.
New Deal redlining, a kind of nonsensical sociological scientism courtesy of the Home Owners Loan Corporation, exacerbated these problems. It’s at times framed inaccurately as entirely a racial classification: older white neighborhoods were also redlined, with their age regarded as an inevitable source of decay, but there’s no question that African Americans suffered worst as they literally couldn’t leave. Pietila quotes a 1943 New York Times report that “in 1943 that Baltimore’s estimated two hundred thousand blacks, are about 20 percent of the total population, were compressed to neighborhoods comprising less than four square miles of the city’s total 78.6.”
Every time something looked better in Baltimore some fresh problem seemed to bedevil it. The end of segregation was chased closely by widespread blockbusting and land-installment contract swindles, large-scale public housing construction and frequent demolition for misbegotten urban renewal.
One understated consequence of the end of segregation was growing black flight to the suburbs: those who could get out of troubled neighborhoods did, generally leaving behind the poorest of residents.
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One of these neighborhoods was the troubled location of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Originally a “semirural nuisance district” it was host to a shifting variety of populations, Irish, German, Eastern European Jewish and then African-American. One nearby pocket, Little Bohemia, was studded by breweries. The hospital was marooned amidst slums by the 1970s.
It was a potent symbol of inequality. Pietila writes, “The ten census tracks surrounding one of the world’s premier hospitals had one doctor serving six thousand people—or fifteen serving a population of a hundred thousand—whereas national average was one doctor for 750 patients.”
The hospital’s location was in trouble in an age of medical specialization that was increasingly marketable on a national scale:
If Hopkins—and Baltimore—did not provide the desired services and amenities, rival hospitals in other cities were eager to step in. In any case, why would any important person want to come to Hopkins? True, the citadel of hope was a bastion of breakthroughs and excellence. But nothing can erase the stigma of its location smack in the midst of squalor and abandoned buildings, surrounded by poor blacks of all ages whose mere presence and demeanor some visitors viewed as threatening.
Hopkins considered relocating but one obvious spot, the land around the university in more stable North Baltimore was already built up. A move to Columbia, Maryland, was mulled but didn’t happen. Redevelopment schemes came and went, leaving mainly empty lots. A Sheraton was built in 1960 which acquired a reputation as Baltimore’s worst hotel. Some homes were demolished to build nurse-and-doctor dormitories. Redevelopment only accelerated recently, with a Residence Inn constructed nearby.
There is an unfortunate and invidious pattern in Baltimore, starved for any development, of endemic giveaways for any scraps of investment, generally benefitting wealthy institutions or developers. Property tax forgiveness for decades is often the carrot inducing development. Grants intended to foster organic development flow to those with no need of them.
The Residence Inn project received the largest 2018 grant from a state-established Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative, whose funds have generally been awarded to much smaller increments for neighborhood improvements. These funds were disbursed by the Board of Estimate lead by Baltimore’s mayor Catherine Pugh.
Pugh, who resigned, in early May, was the focus of a scandal cartoonish even by Baltimore’s very low standards, which has developed even since this book’s quite recent publication. While serving on the Board of Directors of the University of Maryland Medical system, she arranged the sale of 100,000 copies of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books to the system for $500,000. This would make her one of the most successful children’s authors in the country, with the bill footed not by a publisher but a medical system. There were no competitive processes anywhere near this arrangement and several members of the board made substantial donations and loans to Pugh’s election campaign. It required months and the seeming unanimity of every elected official in Maryland to induce Pugh to resign.
Pugh won election in 2015 running against a disgraced former mayor, Sheila Dixon, who resigned in 2007 as part of a plea bargain after a guilty verdict at trial for a variety of unreported gifts while in office.
Corruption is heavily entrenched at multiple levels and institutions in the city, from schools to community development programs. We are well familiar with considerable problems of corruption in the Baltimore Police. Then-U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein prosecuted the Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force’s shocking record of organized theft. He commented. “This is not about aggressive policing, it is about a criminal conspiracy. These are really simply robberies by people wearing police uniforms.”
The unquestionable and dire problems of the Baltimore police, from corruption to excess violence have lead to dangerous pendulum swings in other directions. Alex McGIllis recently wrote an excellent profile of the consequences of hands-off policing after the Freddie Grey death, with spiking crime rates the reward to those convinced that the problem is entirely the police or “root causes” of poverty, and not lawbreakers that increasingly are not intercepted.
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It’s not all terrible in Baltimore now or throughout this past. Pietila encapsulates Baltimore’s appeal well, writing about the city in the troublesome 1970s:
Despite a steady exodus to nearby counties, many Baltimoreans found the city as comfortable as a pair of worn-out slippers. It was a nickel city, big enough, cheap, and unpretentious. Washington down the road was a dime city. Each year Straw Hat Day on May 15 marked the return of straw boaters and seersucker attires to be worn until Labor Day. Summertime fun included snoballs, cheap bleacher seats at Memorial Stadium where the Orioles played, ad visits to neighborhood crab houses where waitresses called everyone “hon” and where families hammered steaming crustaceans at long newspaper-covered tables groaning under pitchers of beer.
Baltimore has been home to a striking set of personalities: Poe (dead likely of excess drink amidst a political scam), Mencken, Fitzgerald, Eubie Blake, Billie Holliday, John Waters, Philip Glass, John Barth.
The university plays a somewhat smaller role in this narrative than the hospital does, but it yields many nuggets of interest, from Woodrow Wilson to William Sloane Coffin to Alger Hiss to Chester Wickwire, the William Sloane Coffin of Baltimore. The university was not a draw for revelry for much of its history, or my own attendance. Barth wrote, semi-autobiographically in The Floating Opera: “One thing more, which perhaps distinguished my crowd from similarly exuberant groups of undergraduates at other colleges at the time: those of us who didn’t flunk out got an education—it is difficult to remain long at Hopkins and escape education.”
Baltimore remains a city with an extraordinarily excellent and walkable housing stock, full of historic neighborhoods that have seen good use and many more that have not.
The largely anonymous Inner Harbor district did launch a pattern of development that radiated south and eastward. It’s a city that has attracted gentrification agonies but one according closely to Jason Segedy’s observations about the forgotten problems of urban America—where more neighborhoods are threatened by collapse and extreme concentrated poverty than by an influx of the affluent. A few neighborhoods have changed visibly in the last 15 years, but many more seem frozen in time.
There are no easy solutions to Baltimore’s many intense problems, but Pietila’s account will ensure you don’t stop caring.
Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer in Brooklyn who has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Guardian, and numerous other publications.