After fanning out across the city and delving into reams of statistics, students in the university's Master of Arts in Policy Studies program last week presented to a packed room in Levering research that shed light on how a distressed urban neighborhood can revive.
The presentation was part of a class assignment designed by Sandra Newman, MAPS professor and director of the Institute for Policy Studies, based at Homewood. Newman gave the 22 first-year students a hypothetical memo addressed to Charles C. Graves, director of the Baltimore City Planning Department, from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. In "RE Neighborhoods Moving Up: What Baltimore Can Learn From Its Own Improving Neighborhoods," O'Malley asked Graves to investigate the improvement in a number of Baltimore neighborhoods during the 1990s.
"I firmly believe that the best way to learn policy analysis is to do policy analysis," Newman said. "Through the annual Baltimore project, students learn by doing while providing the city with high-quality research designed to raise the level of debate about Baltimore's future--an unbeatable combination."
Students, divided into five teams, examined pairs of inner city neighborhoods: Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park; Reservoir Hill North and South; Carrollton Ridge and Mill Hill; Broadway East and Milton-Montford; East Baltimore Midway and Barclay. Each pair consisted of a neighborhood whose median sales price increased between 1990 and 1999 and an otherwise comparable neighborhood without this increase.
Contrary to the commonly held view that home ownership is the primary catalyst for neighborhood improvement, students found that other factors--such as significant amounts of new construction, rehabilitation or even demolition combined with strengthened social fabric, including lowered crime rates and improved school quality--figured more significantly in neighborhood improvement.
Zig-zag lines depicting median sales prices for each of the 10 neighborhoods in the MAPS study revealed the erratic nature of improvement, year by year. Consequently, no one solution fits all, the students concluded.
In the East Baltimore Midway and Barclay neighborhoods, "the role of a strong, stable and adequately funded Community Development Corporation [in East Baltimore Midway] really makes a difference," said Kelly Panciera, on the team focusing on those two neighborhoods. The loss of a CDC director precipitated a downward spiral, she added.
While Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park are both located in the west side Empowerment Zone, part of the federal program designed to revive distressed inner city neighborhoods, Sandtown-Winchester sales prices have increased threefold since 1990 and those in Harlem Park have fallen.
"As important as investment is, other factors are at work," said MAPS student Jessica Lundberg, the presenter for the Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park team. The key factor in Sandtown-Winchester, she said, seems to be the planned, comprehensive strategy with "a strong emphasis on social capital, including lowered crime rates, improved schools and community groups."
Strong blocks within a district can create spillover effects into bordering areas, reported Mark King, who presented results on the Broadway East and Milton-Montford neighborhoods. The positive spillover from so-called "islands of stability," in which teetering neighborhoods benefit from healthier areas adjoining them, is at the core of Mayor O'Malley's Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative, King said. The students found a "much smaller version" of the phenomenon in Broadway East. King noted that blocks immediately around the island showed above-median sales prices.
Serendipity also may be responsible, the students pointed out. "Several factors seem to come together at the same time to result in neighborhood improvement," said Jason Shultz, reporting on North and South Reservoir Hill. "Concentrated renovation of five apartment buildings, dramatic decreases in the crime rate and a 35 percent improvement in school test scores in the last five years in North Reservoir Hill seem to be the strongest factors in the increase in median sales prices in that neighborhood. This wasn't a coordinated effort; these things just seemed to happen to occur at the same time."
Students analyzed census and administrative data, conducted interviews with both "arms-length" experts and neighborhood leaders and did their own on-site observations. They delivered a Power Point presentation to an audience that included Graves, the Baltimore City Planning Department director; Robert Embry, president of the Abell Foundation; Tim Ambruster, president of the Goldseker Foundation; and other key players in Baltimore's future.
At the end of the presentation, Graves thanked Newman for hosting the event each year and jokingly thanked the students for doing his work. On a more serious note, he said the report reinforced the importance of CDCs and community-based groups for neighborhood improvement and raised significant questions about whether "home ownership is the driving force or not in turning neighborhoods around." Graves said he would be sharing the preliminary findings, presented in 53 pages of charts and graphs, with the mayor this week.
The final report is expected to be published by the Institute for Policy Studies in the winter.