When Natasha Gibson was growing up, Baltimore was where all of her friends and family in the suburbs wanted to be.
“There was a draw,” she said, remembering her coming of age in West Baltimore’s Coppin Heights in the 1980s. “It was relatively safe. We could stay out all night, running and playing as kids. Now, we can’t do that any more.”
Baltimore is no longer on the right path, the 49-year-old said: The city’s staggering violence coupled with the highest property tax rates in the state have left Gibson, who now lives in Southwest Baltimore’s Beechfield neighborhood, mulling an eventual move from the place she’s called home all her life.
Most Baltimoreans agree with Gibson: 67% of residents think the city is heading in the wrong direction, according to a new Baltimore Banner survey conducted by the Goucher College Poll. Just 18% think the city is on the right track. But while respondents are tired of the decades-long issues that plague Baltimore, many still have hope: More than half said they’re optimistic for the city’s future.
From May 17 to May 23, The Banner’s Baltimore Now poll surveyed 1,002 residents representative of city demographics by phone, asking for their thoughts on elected officials, police, schools and taxes. The poll has a 3.09% margin of error.
The results reflect a city in great flux. Since the 2015 unrest following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody, the city has experienced a brutally unwavering pace of more than 300 homicides a year. Five different commissioners cycled through the Baltimore Police Department in five years. Three different mayors ran City Hall in three years after yet another corruption scandal kicked off political instability. The federal government prosecuted a rogue plainclothes police unit, creating national headlines. Mayor Brandon Scott promised to reduce fatal and nonfatal shootings 15% each year of his term, but those numbers are trending in the opposite direction.
While fallout from some of those scandals continues to reverberate, there are some signals. The city and its public school system have received historic federal stimulus packages totaling more than $1 billion. Major infrastructure investments are poised to boost the port operations and rail links that are some of the city’s major competitive advantages. Mayor Scott’s new violence prevention pilot is seeing reductions in shootings in the Western District.
The results reflect Baltimore’s perennial challenges: crime, mistrust in institutions, a lack of affordability. One-third of respondents feel unsafe in their neighborhoods. Almost three-fifths of city residents polled disapprove of the Baltimore Police Department. Baltimore City Public Schools fare similarly — 60% of respondents graded the system D or below.
“Baltimoreans are well-versed in the problems of their city. These aren’t new problems; they’re problems that have continued and continued,” said pollster Mileah Kromer, the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics and an associate professor of political science at Goucher College.
‘This city is backwards’
Baltimoreans of all demographic groups are overwhelmingly concerned about crime; a resounding 90% of respondents called it a major issue.
Ronald Anderson is one of them. He’s used to dealing with nonviolent crime in his neighborhood — his Old Goucher home is near several corners well-known as sex work hubs. “We’re always cleaning up condoms and excrement in our alley,” he said.
But when Yahmell Montague and Angel Morgan Heather Smith, who was about seven months pregnant, were shot and killed a couple of blocks from Anderson’s home in May, he was taken aback by the violence.
“The city is [headed] backwards,” the 51-year-old federal worker said.
More than half of respondents said they don’t feel safe in Baltimore. Black respondents were more likely to feel unsafe; 58% said they feel not at all or a little safe in the city, compared to 48% of white respondents. The feeling generally does not extend into people’s local communities: about two-thirds of Baltimoreans report feeling safe in their neighborhoods.
Black and white residents answered similarly, but respondents reported different experiences depending on their income: about 40% of those with incomes less than $49,000 said they feel unsafe in their neighborhoods, compared to about 22% of residents who make more than $100,000.
“When I come out on my street, I can either make a right to go into the city, or a left to go into Catonsville,” said Gibson, of Beechfield. “I never make a right because I’m afraid to get robbed again.”
Affordable housing and litter trailed as the second- and third-most-cited major issues at 71% and 70%, respectively.
Terri Toomer of East Baltimore lives in a rowhouse adjacent to a rat-infested vacant. The vermin have begun to intrude on her own rental, which is also home to her two children and three grandchildren. The 53-year-old lifelong Baltimorean said her calls to the city seeking alternative housing have gone unanswered, with the exception of a 311 request.
“All they did was patch up the hole. The rats just dug another hole by the end of the day,” she said. One of them scratched her face, resulting in a trip to urgent care to receive a tetanus shot and wound care. Raising the issue with her landlord resulted in receiving notice to leave by mid-July.
“Trying to get into low-income housing or emergency housing feels impossible,” she said.
Toomer was among 13% of poll respondents who said they weren’t sure whether the city was on the right or wrong track, including Chris Broome of Charles Village, who wondered how he could confidently say what direction a city as beleaguered as Baltimore is heading in.
“Things might be getting better — but how do you even define better?” the 43-year-old software developer said. Throughout nearly two decades in Baltimore, he said, he’s witnessed “a lot of progress and a lot of failures.”
In the year before Gov. Larry Hogan took office, it felt like Baltimore was poised for positive changes, Broome said, pointing to two high-profile slated projects: the Red Line, a light rail that would connect West and East Baltimore, and the redevelopment of the State Center complex. The Republican canceled the rail line; the State Center transformation remains long-stalled.
“He took billions of dollars worth of promises away. It feels like that future was stolen from Baltimore and Central Maryland,” Broome said. “Without that investment, we’re swimming in place with only incremental changes that don’t move the needle one way or the other.”
For Greg Davis of Belvedere, the question is easier. “We’re on the wrong track because of the increased amount of gunfire I hear. This is a new phenomenon. It was rare — now it happens more often,” the 63-year-old contractor said.
That so many people feel similarly is not “a question of what track we’re on, but a question of speed of progress,” said Lester Spence, a professor of political science and Africana Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.
“With the [challenges] we have now and the challenges we have coming, we need significant transformation. And we just don’t seem to have the institutional capacity to begin that process,” he said.
Mayor Scott likened his efforts to tackling the city’s systemic challenges — noting many of them have grown worse decade after decade, such as the legacy of redlining — to turning around a cruise ship.
‘And we’re not just talking about a cruise ship. We’re talking about turning around the Titanic, with the iceberg in half of the boat,” he said. “The dysfunction, the turmoil, the misplaced focus … city government was broken. When I came into office, folks were still signing their time sheets by hand.”
The Democrat invoked some of his signature moves as transformative, from the pilot of his Group Violence Reduction Strategy in the Western District, where homicides and non-fatal shootings are down by 40% and 18%, respectively, year-over-year since its implementation in late January, to installing a city administrator, who handles tasks as menial as paying overdue contractor fees and making employees set up their voicemail system, to opening brand new and once-shuttered rec centers. But, he said, he understands why residents are frustrated with the city’s enduring trials.
“The answer really is, yes and no,” Scott said. “Yes, we’re moving fast. But no, we’re not getting to where I want us to be at the speed I want to move at.”
How Baltimoreans want to reduce crime
Both crime and strategies to reduce it are at the top of respondents’ minds. The poll presented a list of ways that lawmakers could address crime in Baltimore — nearly all of which received widespread support.
“Baltimoreans are looking for a solution, and I think they’re willing to hear all ideas,” Kromer said.
The Baltimore Now poll found that 81% of residents support imposing harsher punishments for violent offenders, 80% support increasing police presence and the number of patrols throughout the city, 80% support imposing stricter gun control laws and related punishments for gun crimes and 72% support violence prevention programs like Safe Streets, which sends trusted community members to intervene in interpersonal conflicts at risk of erupting into violence. More than half support increasing the rate of prosecution for non-violent offenses like drug use, petty theft and vandalism.
For Anderson, of Old Goucher, the police presence equation is a simple one: “We need to have more police on the street as a deterrent to prevent things from happening. Police can’t be everywhere at all times, and crime will happen, but if they’re posted up at a corner, there will be less crime there.”
When asked their opinion on allocating funding from the police budget to various social, mental health and drug treatment programs, 67% expressed support. Black and white residents’ stances were nearly identical.
But when asked in a separate question about changing BPD’s funding, 44% of respondents said it should be increased, 29% said funding should stay the same and just 16% said funding should be decreased.
Black and white Baltimoreans generally answered similarly — 16% of Black and 18% of white respondents said the budget should be decreased, 33% of Black respondents and 22% of white respondents said it should be kept about the same and 41% of Black respondents and 49% of white respondents thought it should be increased.
Roger Hartley, the dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore, attributed the difference to how the questions were posed.
“When you raise what the tradeoffs are, you get a different response,” he said. “Even if people aren’t making the linkage to crime between schools and community centers, at the very least this says, ‘We want our government to do more, we’re concerned about our neighborhoods, we’re concerned about our youth.’ "
The majority have mulled a move — but are optimistic, too
Many of the city’s most persistent problems, from crime to vacancy, are tied to steady population loss. While every other major city in the Northeast corridor experienced at least 5% population growth from 2010 to 2020, Baltimore lost 5.7%, according to the latest census figures.
The Baltimore Now poll found that the trend remains a looming threat: Two-thirds of respondents said they have considered leaving the city. Of that group, a quarter have considered moving within the next year, 31% have considered leaving within the next five years and 10% have considered moving longer than five years from now.
About 70% of those Baltimoreans cited crime, while 50% cited quality of life and 44% cited the cost of living. About a quarter of the group cited personal or family considerations, job opportunities and the quality of public schools; 17% pointed to city services and 9% pointed to public transportation.
And yet, many people see the city as brimming with potential that’s yet to be realized.
Only 36% percent of respondents said they’re pessimistic about the future of Baltimore — nearly half the share of people who believe the city is on the wrong track.
Despite her nostalgia for Baltimore’s better days, Gibson, of Beechfield, is an optimist, citing the upcoming gubernatorial and city state’s attorney races. The moderate said she’ll cast a ballot for Peter Franchot in the Democratic primary: “A Democrat instead of Hogan will be good for us.” She’s undecided about the city state’s attorney primary, but noted that “change, in general, is good for us.”
“With all the crime and all the bloodshed, this is going to sound contradictory, but the people are good,” she said. “My neighborhood is good. We stick together, we watch out for each other, we watch each other’s kids if their parents can’t be home, we watch out for our cars since we’ve been dealing with carjackings and break-ins.”
Others say the city’s crown jewel cultural amenities like music and art will continue to bring in droves, as will neighborhoods, parks and streetscapes that continue to offer handsome urban vistas and offbeat appeal lacking in suburbs or other cities. Broome, of Charles Village, grew up deep in the suburbs “where going anywhere interesting required a half-hour’s drive.”
“Now I’m a couple blocks from a brewery, supermarket, bookstores galore,” he said. “There’s two jazz fests in my neighborhood this summer, and the Ottobar is still there.”
Ronald Thomas said he’s deeply pessimistic about the future of any city, given upward trends in violent crime in urban areas throughout the country.
“But believe it or not, with all the challenges, I still like it here,” he said, describing his tenure in Baltimore after arriving here as a freshman at Morgan State University. “You get your first job, you meet your wife, you get attached to your life — it becomes your own. Just because I have problems with the city doesn’t mean I need to retreat and leave.”
For Tikvah Womack, a therapist in her 30s, her optimism for Baltimore is tied to its marriage of city life and small-town feel, plus the deep-running pride and connection of its residents.
“We don’t have six degrees of separation here, we have two degrees,” she said. “Baltimore’s like an old house: We have really good bones and good infrastructure. There’s some areas we need some remodeling in, but when you have a good foundation, you can do a lot.”