Largely burned out by the 1968 riots, the area became a focus for then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who closed blocks of Gay Street to cars and created a revolutionary concept for the time — an inner-city pedestrian mall where people could stroll and shop.
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"It was very successful, and it was Schaefer's baby," the 62-year-old Zerden, a third-generation property owner in Oldtown, said of the now hollowed-out neighborhood east of the city's prison complex. "As bad as the place looks today, it would have been gone a long time ago if not for Schaefer."
The four-term mayor and two-term governor who died last week will be remembered for revitalizing the Inner Harbor, building a world-class aquarium and obsessing over the quality of neighborhood life. Schaefer also breathed hope back into Baltimore at a time when economic and social currents — along with conflicting federal leadership — were eroding big cities across the nation.
But Baltimore still suffered from those fundamental changes, despite his best efforts.
After climbing to a peak population of 949,708 in 1950, Baltimore began losing residents at an alarming rate — a slide that continues today, though at a slower pace.
Between the 1970 census, which was conducted months before Schaefer was first elected, and 1990, four years after he left City Hall for the State House, Baltimore's head count fell 19 percent to 736,014. That loss mirrored population declines in Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago.
Other cities fared far worse: Detroit's population, for instance, fell 32 percent during those two decades. Cleveland lost 33 percent of its residents.
"These were very bad times for cities, and people thought things were almost hopeless," said Tom Kingsley, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, who added that the ability of local leaders to confront the challenges was severely limited. "It wasn't the fault of the federal government or even local government. It was that economic forces were playing themselves out."
The onset of urban decline had begun before Democrat Schaefer came to power, but the consequences were becoming painfully clear. The riots that followed the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stoked racial tensions. Manufacturers that had provided stable, middle-class jobs and a sense of cohesion in many neighborhoods slipped away. And in Baltimore, the real-estate scare tactic known as blockbusting had a particularly profound impact on accelerating the city's descent.
Poverty became more pervasive and more concentrated nationally. At the end of the 1970s, 5.3 million people lived in neighborhoods with extreme poverty — where at least 40 percent of residents had incomes below the poverty line. By 1990, that number grew to nearly 9 million people, according to Urban Institute research.
White flight, black flight
"White flight had occurred in the 1970s, but later in the '70s and then in the '80s is when the more stable black middle-class families began to leave these areas," Kingsley said. "That was the period of time when crime also began increasing rapidly."
Statistics compiled by the FBI show that the number of violent crimes in Baltimore increased from 3,117 in 1960 to nearly 19,000 a decade later, even as the population declined. The number of homicides more than doubled during the decade, and the incidence of robberies increased more than tenfold.
Giving Baltimore something to hope for during his tenure was the essence of Schaefer's strategy. That included selling city-owned vacant properties for $1 each to lure people into blighted areas, promoting a city fair, dropping "mayor's stations" throughout the city to make government more accessible and offering shop owners a voice through small-business advisory groups.
"He knew that the real energy it took to make the city work was something that couldn't just come out of City Hall," said Ronald Kreitner, an aide in Schaefer's mayoral and gubernatorial administrations. Though the mayor was never able to reverse Baltimore's population decline, he held the line on job losses, Kreitner said, adding that was "very remarkable considering what was going on."
"History will say there was a lot done to stabilize the city and a lot done to enhance it," Kreitner said. "The price of it was, it raised expectations. But that was a good thing to have, high expectations."
Many big-city mayors, including Schaefer, tried to confront the national trend of disinvestment in cities by forging ahead on large downtown development projects, hoping the effort would lure jobs back. Before Harborplace and the National Aquarium, Schaefer successfully pushed for the construction of the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Light Street and the Baltimore Convention Center — both of which were precursors to a broader renaissance.