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Baltimore City

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Baltimore is known as a quirky, gritty place through its most famous popular cultural works such as the writings of iconoclastic journalist H. L. Mencken, the oeuvre of proudly transgressive filmmaker John Waters, and the groundbreaking television series The Wire. The rich architectural heritage of Maryland’s largest city also offers compelling stories crucial to understanding the forces driving state and national history. Baltimore was shaped by both racial segregation and the development of ethnic immigrant enclaves that stood in stark contrast to the neighborhoods of the elite. Both fiercely unique, yet profoundly representative, Charm City looms large as historically one of the most important cities in the United States and the unofficial capital of Maryland.

Baltimore’s emergence as an industrial and financial powerhouse and primary commercial and cultural engine for the state of Maryland seemed unlikely when the legislature issued a town charter in 1729. Baltimore Town included just sixty lots on the north side of the Patapsco River, and for nearly three decades development was limited. It was the rise of flour milling and export in the 1750s that awakened the great potential of Baltimore’s geographic position as the East Coast deepwater port closest to the Midwest. When Baltimore City (now including neighboring Jones Town and Fell’s Point) officially incorporated in 1797, it had already matured enough to have public works such as a market, some paved streets, streetlights, and a dredged shipping channel.

The population grew to 80,000 by 1830, making Baltimore the second largest city in the United States, with significant immigrant populations from Germany, Ireland, Scotland, France, and Haiti. The Haitian immigrants joined the largest free Black community in the country and before emancipation in 1864 coexisted with enslaved workers both in households and in the skilled trades such as shipbuilding. Baltimore began to eclipse Annapolis as the most important city in Maryland and take its place among other East Coast urban centers such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Baltimore became an important center for industry and manufacturing as varied as cotton textiles, seafood and vegetable canning, fertilizer, steelmaking, shipbuilding, railroads, ready-made clothing, brewing, and pharmaceuticals. In addition to its international port and location along the National Road, Baltimore became the center of major transportation innovations through the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, founded in 1828.

The accumulated wealth of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century created a cultural and aesthetic awakening in Baltimore. A new generation of European immigrant and home-grown architects designed grand town houses and institutional and civic buildings, including some of the nation’s first monuments, that employed the latest European styles and up-to-date construction technologies such as structural and ornamental wrought and cast iron. Baltimore’s commercial and financial success also inspired local philanthropists who established world-class institutions of arts and culture, medicine and science, and education and social welfare throughout the nineteenth century. These efforts included Peale’s Baltimore Museum (BC48), Davidge Hall (BC39), the music school and library at the Peabody Institute (BC7), the Enoch Pratt Free Library (BC15), and the Walters Art Museum (BC6). Perhaps most impressive was the largesse of merchant Johns Hopkins, who established both the hospital (BC77) and the university (see BC105) that transformed medical and educational practices in the United States in the late nineteenth century.

In terms of ordinary residential life, few cities are so closely identified with row housing as Baltimore. Row houses available at every price point, made affordable by a system of ground rents, created high homeownership rates for the citizens of Baltimore. Row housing appeared in every stylistic mode with fierce competition among speculative builders, resulting in rich ornamental details and other amenities. In the twentieth century the row house was also a focus of revitalization efforts, including the city’s path-breaking Homesteading Program that preserved many of the oldest neighborhoods.

In 1888 Baltimore expanded from ten to thirty square miles through annexation, and new residential development was supported by expansion of the horse-drawn railway lines into electric streetcar companies. Baltimore was poised for further success as the sixth largest city in the United States, with over a half million in population in 1900. A disastrous fire destroyed most of the downtown commercial district in 1904, but it inspired rapid rebuilding using the latest construction methods and design modes. Immigration continued to soar, with Baltimore second only to New York as a port of entry for those seeking a new life in the United States. Another annexation in 1918 increased the city’s size to almost ninety square miles, now encompassing large areas with a more suburban character. Led by the Baltimore Municipal Art Society founded in 1899, Baltimore embraced City Beautiful movement-inspired civic improvements such as the Baltimore City park plan (1904, Olmsted Brothers). More prosaic, but arguably more critical, early-twentieth-century efforts created an extensive sewer system, stricter fire codes, and a comprehensive zoning ordinance adopted in 1923.

After struggling through the Great Depression like many urban centers, Baltimore industry roared back into production for World War II. Accelerated suburbanization after the war started a population decline that began to erode the city’s economic base and exacerbated the inequalities of Jim Crow segregation for Black citizens in a struggling city. Officials seeking bold action embraced federal highway construction and urban renewal. While some of the most potentially damaging projects were thwarted by local activists, new highways such as those along the Jones Falls, across Locust Point, and through West Baltimore hurt already fragile working-class neighborhoods, particularly African American ones already crowded due to housing discrimination. Redevelopment of the central business district and the Inner Harbor did successfully harness comprehensive planning to reinvent these areas as part of an expanded service/tourism-based economy. Today Baltimore continues to embody all the complexity of a major postindustrial city while still trying to extend its legacy of progress to all its citizens. Yet with an amazing stock of historic buildings and tightknit neighborhoods embracing their distinctive identities, Baltimore has great potential for a second renaissance.

Writing Credits

Lisa Pfueller Davidson and Catherine C. Lavoie

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