Benchmarks Revisited: New snapshots of 'The Greatest City in America'

City Paper

The last days of “The Greatest City in America” are upon us. On Jan. 20, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake signed an ordinance supplanting former Mayor Martin O’Malley’s superlative city slogan with a new one, “Birthplace of the Star-Spangled Banner.” Expect bus benches around the city, long bedecked with the mark of O’Malley’s high expectations, to be repainted accordingly. 

When the “Greatest City” public-relations era began in 2000, the U.S. Census was doing its decennial enumeration of the country’s people and circumstances, and in 2003, when the count was done and the numbers were available for crunching, City Paper took photographs of a dozen of those benches and compiled census data about their surroundings. The resulting photo essay was entitled “Benchmark: Snapshots of the Greatest City in America,” suggesting the exercise someday would be repeated to see how things change. With the “Greatest City” mantle now coming off, the time has come to take another look.

In terms of the data, though, there’s a rub: after 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau “re-engineered” its decennial census with the “American Community Survey” (ACS) program, an annual process meant to enhance the once-a-decade count with “current data about all communities every year,” according to its website. The result is intended to be a more accurate and up-to-date picture of society, but it also means the numbers from 2000 and before are not precisely comparable to what the ACS churns out. The good news is that the new survey is done every year, so census-tract data based on five years of surveys are now available for 2012—the year used for this bus-bench update.

Changes good and bad are evident in the census tracts where these 12 bus benches sit, and that’s true, too, for the city as a whole. The array of overlapping factors responsible for these changes are so complex that no one leader or policy can take credit or be held to account—and don’t forget context: The technology bubble was bursting in 2000, while in 2012, the nation was still reeling from the Great Recession. Thus, the following time-series snapshots are just that: two moments in time in the same places, glimpses of the changing Baltimore experience.

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