My wife and I took a recent jaunt to New York City. It was a glorious two days spent walking Manhattan boulevards, exploring central park, taking in a show, eating well (and too much and too often) and generally enjoying a great city’s vast and unparalleled cultural offerings. New York is New York after all.
Now for those of you who are less familiar with Baltimore, here’s what you need to know about our city. It has many of the trappings of New York urban living save two critical and related things:
1. It has far fewer people
2. Because of this, it has a much lower population density.
Fewer people means less demand for retail or entertainment. And our more diffuse population leads to a whole host of challenges including ample vacant housing, few population centers to sustain robust mass transit, and a cash-strapped city government lacking the necessary resources to sufficiently address endemic problems like poverty and violent crime. Yes, one can and does find great theater or restaurants, museums and shops in Baltimore. It is simply a question of scale.
While in the process of listing our condo back in Chicago, our realtor suggested, in setting a price, that we consider what many first time home-buyers are looking for. “They want to live near the ‘L’ and good schools,” he said, “and they want to be able to walk to sushi.” I love my new neighborhood of Reservoir Hill. It is grand, well located, with good housing stock and an improving school. It has resources nearby like Druid Hill Park (and the zoo), our soon-to-be-built playground and easy access to the 83 Expressway. But it is a long and impractical walk to the light rail and there is no sushi in sight.
So while I remain quite optimistic about the present and future of Res. Hill, I am also beginning to reframe my expectations of urban living. What has emerged is the great paradox of Baltimore. On one hand, we cannot escape from one another as easily as New Yorkers or Chicagoans. We have fewer cafes, shops, and subways in which to hide, and this means that our challenges are often more noticeable. The median family income in Baltimore City is comparable to that of New York, but poverty is more obvious here, closer to the surface.
On the other hand, we have an arguably greater capacity, here in Baltimore, to fulfill a great Jewish principle of living: Because there is more to do, we are better able to partner with God in the ongoing act of creating and perfecting the world. I loved my time in Chicago and have nothing but affection for my hometown, but doing the work of social justice in Lakeview or Lincoln Park requires one, detective-like, to peer between the bright edifices into the darker places within. In some cities, it is a challenge to locate the problems. In this city, the greatest challenge is figuring out where to begin.