New Greater Baltimore Committee president and CEO Mark Anthony Thomas is hitting the ground running to boost the prospects of Baltimore-area businesses and the regional economy. So far, Thomas has expressed the desire to make Greater Baltimore more competitive compared to regions anchored by cities such as Charlotte, Nashville and Atlanta.
As Thomas told the Baltimore Business Journal in January 2023: “We have to be the best version of ourselves for the global economy.” When speaking to The Baltimore Banner in April, Thomas listed his concerns for downtown: “Walkability, cool restaurants, green space, safety: You have to compete.”
Clearly, Thomas is positioning Baltimore to be a successful competitor in a global race for attracting and retaining corporations and businesses.
But focusing entirely on competing in the global economy results in sidestepping the necessary reckoning needed for all of Baltimore’s residents to flourish and thrive, especially those living in the collection of predominantly Black Baltimore neighborhoods that has come to be known as the “Black Butterfly.” To move forward, the GBC must take stock of its own role in perpetuating what amounts to economic apartheid in Baltimore.
As archival records in the University of Baltimore’s Special Collections reveal, during the 1950s and 1960s, the GBC Planning Council actively partnered with the Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Agency to carry out the city’s urban renewal projects. Urban renewal uprooted 10,012 households, a large majority of which were African American people during a time when Baltimore was still majority white.
In its December 1968 statement, the GBC supported the proposed 3-C highway alignment which would have gutted neighborhoods such as Otterbein, Federal Hill, Harbor East, Harbor Point, Fells Point and Canton. The organization also opposed adding “the larger citizenry” and “citizen organizations” to the Policy Advisory Board, the official decision-making body for the highway site selection. Citizens’ organizations at that time included the Relocation Action Movement, Baltimore Congress of Racial Equality, Movement Against Destruction and Activists for Fair Housing, Inc.
In 2017, the GBC backed the decision by then-Mayor Catherine Pugh to veto an increase the minimum wage in Baltimore to $15 an hour. It also pushed for $660 million to support the Baltimore Peninsula and disregarded calls for it to support a housing equity plan to ensure a more diverse population in the peninsula.
It’s been a pattern for the organization historically: opposing measures that would benefit the Black Butterfly and its residents while boosting the collection of predominately white neighborhoods known as the “White L” and supporting benefits for developers and other corporate interests.
For Baltimore to become a thriving, vibrant city, the GBC must reckon with its role in deepening the economic apartheid. While none of this history is Thomas’ fault, it is the legacy of the organization he now leads.
To Thomas’ credit, he is supporting a plan by Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development to rebuild and restore the city’s more than 14,000 vacant houses. But GBC must go further. BUILD’s plan — as written in its 2023 “Whole Blocks, Whole City: Reclaiming Vacant Property Throughout Baltimore” report — focuses on material structures. But it does not address the severe underrepresentation of Black Baltimoreans in the building trades.
African American people are 29% of the Baltimore metropolitan area population. But according to GBC’s 2020 “Preparing the Future” report, Black workers in Greater Baltimore represent less than their share of the building trade workforce for positions such as electricians (14%), carpenters (12%), pipe fitters (14%), operating engineers and construction equipment operators (15%), concrete masons (21%) and construction/building inspectors (20%).
To reverse the exclusion of Black people in the building industry, the West Baltimore Builders Alliance has proposed a comprehensive workforce preparation plan called the Truman Pratt Construction Institute. This plan has been submitted to the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs and the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development for review. The plan addresses a range of issues, including engaging youths and young adults in high-paying careers that do not require a college degree. This interdisciplinary program would connect thousands of Black young adults in the city to careers that position them to obtain skills, restore homes and build vibrant communities.
To connect Black workers to those jobs, Baltimore’s transit inequity needs to be addressed. In a recent speech at the Baltimore Center Stage, President Samuel Jordan of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition supported the proposed revival of the east-west Red Line, saying it would go a long way toward producing transit equity.
In addition, the project would create 10,000 jobs, with the potential of providing expanded opportunities for Black Baltimoreans. This mode of transit can then create hubs for transit-oriented development that features high-quality, affordable housing for workers. To his credit again, Thomas has publicly supported reviving the Red Line project. But he has not yet addressed the need for local Black workforce participation in the project.
Baltimore’s essential workers also deserve a community wealth building fund, as Lisa Brown, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East executive vice president, argued recently in The Baltimore Banner. Financing this fund would require hospitals and universities to pay much more than the 5% of taxes they currently pay to the city’s general fund. Currently, some GBC-member institutions escape their tax obligations due to agreements called payments in lieu of taxes. These agreements contribute to the defunding of Black neighborhoods in Baltimore and the underfunding of public facilities such as schools, recreation centers and parks.
The Greater Baltimore region is classified by the National Institutes of Health as a Category 5 hypersegregated area. A Category 5 level of racial segregation inflicts severe economic damage in Black communities. Thomas referenced the effects of racial hypersegregation in his recent Baltimore Business Journal commentary calling for a regional plan. Regarding Greater Baltimore, Thomas remarked: “Out of 56 markets with more than a million people, we’re No. 43 for growth, No. 42 for prosperity, and No. 50 for racial inclusion.” Can there be any doubt that our regional hypersegregation stymies growth and prosperity when GBC member banks and lending institutions systematically redline Black neighborhoods?
The Greater Baltimore Committee must adopt a vision that considers economic development in terms that go beyond global economic competitiveness. The organization must work to build a regional abolition-democracy. Under an abolition-democracy in Greater Baltimore, GBC member banks would restoratively deliver resources to neighborhoods that have historically been denied them by discriminatory lending practices and other means. Such a system would also mean advancing cooperative enterprises, community wealth building and participatory governance in Black neighborhoods.
Thomas can push the organization to build an equitable metropolitan area by restoring the Black Butterfly, East Towson, western Baltimore County and other places where African American people live throughout the region. GBC can do this by inviting citizen organizations such as BUILD, West Baltimore Builders Alliance, Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, 1199 SEIU and others to join the GBC as official members with a vote and a voice. The organization should support their proposals, lobby for their passage and assist with implementation. These actions would expand our local democracy and repair the damage the group inflicted when it advocated for excluding citizen-led organizations from the policy tables where decisions are made.
Lawrence Brown is a research scientist in the Center for Urban Health Equity at Morgan State University. In 2021, he authored “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America.” He is also the creator of Urban Cipher, a learning board game.