Monday, January 10, 2011
From the Baltimore City Paper:
Called “The Baltimore Plan,” this 20-minute Encyclopaedia Britannica film from 1953 describes an urban renewal plan of the same name, initiated in 1945. Once a blighted area was identified, a cadre of city agencies (housing, sanitation, police, etc.) would conduct inspections and rigorously enforce code violations, forcing the owners to either vacate or fix up their properties. A housing court, the first in the country, was set up as the final arbiter for stubborn cases. Another outcome of the plan was the Fight Blight fund, which issued long-term, low-interest loans to homeowners wishing to make repairs on their houses.
In the film’s stagy retelling, an intrepid young social worker braves the “urban jungle” of Baltimore in order to alert citizens and public officials to the city’s poor housing conditions. She comes across horrors such as flat rats and vacant houses but forges on. Her report caught the attention of The Baltimore Sun, which published stories in her wake. City agencies and private citizens eventually pull together—hammering, laying concrete, and building walls to jaunty Leave It to Beaver-esque music—to rebuild and renew 27 blocks in East Baltimore that served as a pilot project. At the end of the film, children frolic in clean, rat-free playgrounds, and women water verdant gardens.
The Housing Court is one enduring legacy of the plan, but the city’s crumbling housing stock—and the flat rats—are obviously still with us. Some now take a cynical view of the Baltimore Plan, or at least of some of its proponents: “[S]lum dwellers saw only minor improvements,” historian Nicholas Dagen Bloom writes, “[but] those involved with the plan caught professional fire and gained national prominence.” The plan promoted the idea of improving neighborhoods without expanding the social welfare system, he says, and thus appealed to certain interested parties. The National Association of Real Estate Boards, the National Association of Home Builders, and the Mortgage Bankers’ Association all latched onto it in an attempt to reduce efforts to build more public housing.
Despite its Pollyanna, paternalistic tone—or, perhaps, because of it—the film is a fascinating cultural artifact. The scenes, while clearly staged, provide glimpses of a bygone Baltimore. (Note the gas lamps and the arabber at the beginning.) But some footage—like an alley strewn with debris that serves as a neighborhood playground—is not as unfamiliar as it should be. “Plans have only a pencil and paper reality,” the social worker says at one point. Sadly, that much and more remains true.