As a native Baltimorean, I’ve seen and heard a lot of media comparisons between Detroit and Baltimore. Whether it was Anthony Bourdain putting both cities together (along with Buffalo) in his “Rust Belt” episode of The Travel Channel’s No Reservations, or the seemingly endless descriptions of either/both cities as a “murder capital,” “dope capital,” etc., I felt like the cities were somehow linked in American minds. I recently finished Charlie LeDuff’s book, Detroit: An Autopsy, where the former New York Times and Detroit News journalist and Detroit native, LeDuff, describes the undercounting of murders by the Detroit police, and how Baltimore could breathe a sigh of relief when Detroit’s true numbers were revealed because that meant Baltimore was only #2 in murders that year. Yes, we’re all so very relieved, thanks.
I recently attended a pop up dinner in Detroit where I asked my fellow diners (all Detroit-area natives) if they had heard the same Detroit-Baltimore comparisons. They had not. They had heard Detroit likened to Pittsburgh. They also wondered if there were ads on TV for tourism in Detroit outside of Michigan because they had noticed an influx of East Coasters “vacationing” in the D and thought it was weird. I said we had those “Pure Michigan” ads, but I hadn’t seen anything specifically Detroit-related. But maybe Baltimoreans trek to Detroit just to see what all the fuss is about and if it’s really Baltimore’s twin city.
I guess all stereotypes stem from a grain of truth blown out of proportion, so peeling the onion and mixing my metaphors, let’s see what we come up with.
Both Baltimore and Detroit had booming industrial businesses in the past: Baltimore with ship building and steel, Detroit with autos. Did you know that according to the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, “the first US Navy ship ever to enter service was launched from the Harris Creek Shipyard in Fell’s Point on September 7, 1797“? That’s pretty cool stuff.
Both cities’ industrial based economies fell on hard times. Baltimore’s before Detroit’s, and so perhaps Baltimore has had a bit more time to “pivot its concept” to more viable revenue sources (i.e. tourism/healthcare/finance). It seems to me (from an outsider’s perspective) that Detroit’s auto business is still trying to find its way back to greatness, plagued by scandal and financial mismanagement, they haven’t decided to throw in the towel (yet?).
Okay, crime. Both cities definitely have bad reputations for lots of drugs, assault, murder, etc. I think this still holds fairly true (looks like in 2012 Detroit was #1 in murder and Baltimore was #4), and luckily I never experienced first-hand any muggings or assault (unless you count that super unfortunate incident in a Subway sandwich shop where a (homeless? high?) man rubbed scented oil on my arm and the people behind the counter did nothing to throw him out or stop him from cornering me while I stood in shock utterly forgetting all karate moves I learned as a kid…and that was the shop located in the same building in which I worked!)…but I do know many people who were mugged or assaulted…often in broad daylight. I don’t really understand enough about the societal roots and antidotes of endemic crime to speak intelligently, other than to say poverty and oppression, but that seems obvious. Are there best methods or even uniformly applicable best practices to lowering crime?
Corruption. Surely political corruption exists all over, and these cities are no exception: Detroit had Mayor Kilpatrick whose Wikipedia page discusses all matter of scandal from the standard (i.e. kick-backs and abuse of power: indicted) to the extreme (i.e. a stripper party and subsequent murder: metaphorical “jury” still seems to be out on his peripheral? involvement). Baltimore had Mayor Dixon with her gift-cards-intended-for-the-poor embezzlement scandal. Interestingly enough, Mayor Dixon’s Wikipedia page mentions that crime actually dropped during her tenure as mayor. Good job, I guess!
Those seem to be the main hard-on-their-luck/down-and-out/blue-collars-out-of-work-when-industry-left kind of comparisons I’ve heard. Here are some thoughts on what sets these cities apart:
Both cities are quite old by American standards: Detroit was founded in 1701 by the French and was an important city for fur trade and then for the Underground Railroad during the Civil War; Baltimore was officially founded in 1729 by the Maryland General Assembly but was settled in the prior century by the English. But what’s interesting to me is that even though both these places have long histories, the feel in each city is very different.
In Baltimore, the neighborhoods are packed together with small row homes on cobblestone streets in the oldest parts of town, getting progressively bigger as you move away from the center. In Detroit, the historic homes I’ve seen are larger, of the Victorian persuasion and the roads tend to be larger and wider.
The roads are the second major difference. Detroit’s roads were perfect for the automobile industry that would become the major growth driver of the city in the 20th century. According to Wikipedia on the history of Detroit:
“After a devastating fire in 1805, Augustus B. Woodward devised a street plan similar to Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for Washington, D.C. Detroit’s monumental avenues and traffic circles fan out in radial fashion from Campus Martius Park in the heart of the city, which facilitates traffic patterns along the city’s tree-lined boulevards and parks. Main thoroughfares radiate outward from the city center like spokes in a wheel.”
Yep. But to me, those huge boulevard type roads are not conducive to walking from place to place easily, especially if there are large deserted patches along the way. While Baltimore has been revived neighborhood by neighborhood, so, it would seem, has Detroit. But whereas Baltimore’s colonial neighborhoods typically center around a market or square, with spidery roads and alleys all around, perfect for close knitting of revitalization, Detroit’s neighborhoods are more main street-esque…that is to say down a particular corridor, which may in fact be a really wide road. Not necessarily cozy for leisurely strolls from here to there. I think it would be hard to create that neighborhoodly charm that seems to be needed for urban renewal. But I guess that’s why Baltimore is “charm city” and Detroit is not.
Okay, so these are completely just my newbie observations after a lifetime in Baltimore, so please feel free to disprove my theories or add in any other relevant thoughts! But I will leave you with these two pictures of sculptures: one in Baltimore and one in Ann Arbor….not exactly Detroit, but don’t they look really similar??