CityLab Baltimore provides a salve for technocrats and influencers

At CityLab Baltimore, the people congregate outside the big renovated movie theater at North and Charles and wait in line for name tags attached to lanyards. CityLab, a side project of the respected Atlantic Monthly magazine, is a gathering of professionals, underwritten by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Open Society Institute, to find solutions to urban problems. Mayor Catherine Pugh will be here, and so will billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, trailed by photographers.

Nondie Hemphill, a research and policy analyst at Hopkins, is here to take it in. She grew up in Northeast Baltimore, then away to college in Massachusetts. She worked in D.C. and then came back, and is planning to buy in the city. She wants to help build the city up, because Baltimore is home. Strong Baltimore partisans like Hemphill are what makes the city what it is. But she is unusual in that she went away and joined this class of consultants and policymakers, the "best practices" gang, the advisers and analysts and "big data" evangelists. Baltimore people want to fix things locally, with local solutions. Or they don't: They want to do things the way they always have. Or they just want to be left alone and for things to stay the same. It's a provincial town; that's the flip-side of that strong partisanship and love. And it is in tension with everything Hemphill's professional cohorts stand for.

If that group has a leader it might be Mike Bloomberg. The billionaire purveyor of financial market monitors and trading platforms has fashioned himself as a sort of "solutions" master for local governments. His foundation—and CityLab Baltimore is nothing so much as a showcase for Bloomberg's foundation—funds experiments and "innovations" in efficient government, focusing on blight elimination, gun control, and addiction recovery.

"Solutions that transcend geography," as the conference host, Margaret Low, tells the audience.

Bloomberg posits that cities are leading America now: on epidemiology, on climate change, on the major markers of civilization. He would say this, of course: He was mayor of the country's largest city. But he's putting up: $200 million over three years for the "American Cities Initiative" to provide technical assistance and to advance and expand promising local initiatives. The idea, Bloomberg says, is to "use data to improve people's lives."

This all sounds great. The words all fit together smoothly in the familiar patter of neo-liberal bromides. They fall like a soothing rain on the ears of this class of specialists in managerial analysis, the way a preacher's cadence becalms a congregation. No one seems to notice when he pronounces former Baltimore (and Maryland) Health Director Joshua Sharfstein's name "Sharnstein."

In his turn on stage, Sharfstein, now employed at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, doesn't mention it either.

The CityLab format is a series of conversations with people like Sharfstein, Baltimore Health Director Lena Wen, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, Detroit Planning Director Maurice Cox, and Baltimore Housing Director Michael Braverman. The subjects include "Revitalizing Neighborhoods," "Battling Opioids," "Telling Baltimore's Stories," and "City as Muse." There is no feeling of irony here, in a city experiencing its highest-ever homicide rate and hemorrhaging population, that there is no session titled "Stopping the Goddamn Murders."

In a video clip about a Bloomberg-funded program to cut blight in Mobile, Alabama, the young technocrats dispatched to help are called the "i-team" (for "innovation"), and they Instagram the vacant eyesores before cleaning them up or demolishing them. The closing music swells with an overhead shot of green lawns and kids playing.

Judy Reese Morse, a New Orleans deputy mayor, says she recognizes one of the workers in the video, because he also worked in New Orleans "on both murder reduction and customer service."

This culture of project management—the idea that a 25- or 30-year-old with the correct schooling can be parachuted into virtually any urban setting and instantly work wonders, even as subject matter experts with decades of real-world experience cannot—animates the Atlantic Cities generally and CityLab in particular. The trait is shared with a fistful of think tanks and like-minded consultancies which have, over the past couple of decades, become a self-sustaining ecosystem—so long as guys like Bloomberg are bankrolling.

Only one speaker on the program hits a dissonant note: D. Watkins, the writing teacher, memoirist, and occasional City Paper contributor speaks in concrete and personal terms about building and defending his east side community; his friend Tony helping people stay physically fit, BPD detectives allegedly planting drugs on suspects in the neighborhood. The real challenges of actual Baltimore residents never felt so close to the surface. And then they're gone.

Braverman tells the crowd about astrophysicists triangulating Baltimore vacants using utility data, as if basic governance and database merging is literally rocket science.

BGE CEO Calvin Butler introduces Mayor Catherine Pugh, telling the congregants that there are "so many examples" of the mayor "bringing together great teams to achieve amazing outcomes."

In a sort of mock interview format with Atlantic magazine contributing editor Alison Stewart, Pugh says there are "so many institutions in our city who are always cultivating innovation…a higher level of innovation."

Stewart asks Pugh several times to talk about the city's challenges, and she won't do it. Programs like CityLab, Pugh says, are "what we have to do so we can bring folks together and solve our problems."

Stewart asks again, and Pugh says "the challenge is keeping everybody on the same page and writing our own narrative about success."

The problem, always, is "the narrative." The mayor does manage to mention "violence reduction" in the context of "health issues, jobs" and "housing the homeless," but only to pivot again to her theme of getting "everybody on the same page."

She wants to clean up the Park Heights corridor so it will appear nicer to drivers entering the city. Pugh says the words "reduce violence" but talks about demolition, blight elimination, and small business. She hardly mentions police, other than to boast about how fast she signed the consent decree with the Justice Department.

"We should not just be measuring crime reduction," the mayor says, "we should also be measuring how many graduate from our schools." The statistic is already published regularly, of course. That the sound of palms slapping faces did not then echo through the theater is, perhaps, a measure of this audience's politesse. 

Pugh decries the lack of attention paid to a young man who made national news this summer as a supposed chess champion. "The chess champion of our nation graduated from Baltimore City Public Schools," Pugh says. "We're not telling that story." Again: His story went viral, prompting a correction from a Deadspin reporter, which prompted a whole media dust-up about the reporting of the event.

Stewart asks Pugh about crime, saying the city has had 205 murders so far this year. It is an undercount: As they speak, there are 207, and two hours ago a man was shot in the head in East Baltimore, homicide detectives summoned as he clung to life in a hospital. Tonight two more people will be gunned down. And an hour after this interview, BUILD will gather at the Darley Park home of Waddell Tate, age 97, who was killed on July 21, and demand Pugh release her "crime plan."

Pugh will answer that the plan is being reviewed by consultants.

"I'm a person that thinks outside the box," Pugh says at the forum.

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