To explain what is meant by “Baltimore Seals Its Borders,” we need to go back to the election season of 1948—by any measure, one tumultuous affair. With the nation transfixed by a Dewey-Truman presidential race so tight that some media outlets predicted the wrong winner, Marylanders also juggled a combustible array of controversial bond issues and referendum questions. Citizen interest in politics was so high that, in Baltimore County, an astonishing 93 percent of registered voters turned out at the polls.
Amid this hullabaloo, no one paid much mind to a drab-sounding referendum question down near the bottom of the ballot. Proposed by Democratic state Senator William P. Bolton of Baltimore County, Question 5 sought to amend the state constitution so that any future land annexations by Baltimore City would require a special vote of approval by the residents living within the proposed annexation area.
To folks who weren’t avid followers of how annexation worked, this probably sounded innocent enough. But those who were paying attention knew what the question was really getting at—and that it would ultimately prevent any new annexations by the city.
Still, the issue had no pressing immediacy attached to it. Three decades had passed since the city last gobbled up any new land, in 1918. There were no annexation proposals on the table in 1948, and there were no plans to introduce any in the foreseeable future.
That’s why Baltimore City greeted the appearance of Question 5 with a big yawn of indifference. The city’s representatives in Annapolis didn’t try and stop it from getting on the ballot; in fact, some of them voted with Bolton to put it there. The Chamber of Commerce didn’t see a need to take a position either way. The Sun papers barely mentioned the issue, offering one tiny and tepid editorial of opposition in the run-up to the election.
So, on November 2, 1948, Question 5 passed by a close-but-comfortable margin. The day after the election, this result earned a grand total of one paragraph, buried deep beyond the jump in the Sun’s election roundup.
Today, it earns this from Robert Embry, the president of the Abell Foundation: “It’s hard to think, looking back, of any single public decision that’s proved to be more important to Baltimore City than that question in the 1948 election. It was a very shortsighted decision.”
The reason is a straightforward one: Healthy cities grow, and unhealthy cities don’t.
The fact that Baltimore landed in the unhealthy category for much of the last half of the 20th century isn’t exactly news at this point. Like so many other industrial cities, it struggled to combat a daunting array of urban ills—failing schools, distressed neighborhoods, high unemployment, excessive taxes, declining population, and high crime rates among them.
In the mid-1990’s, Embry’s Abell Foundation asked urban affairs expert David Rusk to take a look at the city, its problems, and its prospects. One thing that Rusk does in his 1998 book Baltimore Unbound: A Strategy for Regional Renewal is draw a straight line from that referendum vote in 1948 to the problems that continue to challenge Baltimore six decades later.
To put it simply: Question 5 turned Baltimore City from a shining jewel into a charity case.
Somewhere off of Lexington Street, in the upper stretches of downtown’s Charles Center development, there once ran a little alleyway called Crooked Lane. It was there—below today’s Saratoga Street—that the original Baltimore Town set its borders in 1730.
In a 1978 article in Maryland Historical Magazine, the late University of Maryland at Baltimore County historian Joseph L. Arnold detailed how Baltimore grew out of its original 60-acre spit of property and into its current boundaries. Early on, expanding the city was a routine affair; the General Assembly did it 12 different times in the 1700’s.
After the Civil War, Maryland adopted a state constitution that required county-to-county annexations be approved by residents subject to the switch. In the 1870s, Baltimore City decided to abide by this rule even though the law never mentioned the word city (an omission that Question 5 in 1948 would rectify). This time, the city had its eyes on “The Belt,” which encompassed such distant burgs as Highlandtown and Canton.
The city lost badly the first time around. In fact, city leaders nearly started a riot when they tried to hold a pro-annexation rally in Highlandtown. But they came back for another, successful try in 1888, by which time Belt residents had grown desperate for proper water and sewer lines.
The city stretched into its current borders in 1918, but only after a hellacious, decade-long fight that saw at least four different annexation proposals go down to defeat before a statewide referendum gave the city control of 35 square miles of Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
A civic organization called the Greater Baltimore League took the lead in campaigning for that annexation. One of its spokesmen, retired judge Henry D. Harlan, made folks who moved to the outskirts of the city and then fought against annexation sound like the equivalent of those modern-day folks who move next door to an airport and then complain about the noise.
“Those who locate near the city limits are bound to know that the time may come when the legislature will extend the limits and take them in,” Harlan is quoted as saying in the Sun. “No principle of right or justice or fairness places in their hands the power to stop the progress and development of the city, especially in view of the fact that a large majority of them have located near the city for the purpose of getting the benefit of transacting business or securing employment . . . in the city.”
Thirty years later, in 1948, it seems that no one remembered Harlan’s sensible-sounding argument anymore. Maryland’s voters changed their minds, approving Question 5 and fitting Baltimore City into a straitjacket of its 1948 boundaries.
Why bother slogging through all this ancient history? Because it’s not ancient history at all. When a constantly-expanding and vibrant Baltimore City lost its centuries-old ability to expand its borders, it ended up stuck with a preponderance of the region’s poor and needy—and a shortage of the region’s rich and wealthy. The city’s population reached an all-time high in 1950 of more than 949,000; soon thereafter, the exodus out to the new suburbs began. That’s a surefire recipe for civic decay. It happened not just here, but in Cleveland and Detroit and Milwaukee and lots of other cities as well.
But it didn’t happen that way everywhere. Think of cities like Houston, Columbus, Raleigh, and Albuquerque. What did these cities do that enabled them to sign on with the thriving Sun Belt and avoid the fate of the suffering Rust Belt? They did what healthy cities have been doing for centuries—they grew. And they did it the old-fashioned way, by annexing their suburbs—and sharing the wealth.
What if the 1948 election had turned out differently and this had happened in Baltimore, too? What if the city had stretched its borders out to the Beltway? What if it went beyond that, combining the city and the county into a single jurisdiction, whether in whole or in part? We can see real examples of how that worked in cities like Indianapolis and Jacksonville. Both towns implemented versions of this, and it’s worked out pretty well in both places, judging by their lower rates of crime, unemployment, and poverty.
“If Baltimore City and Baltimore County had consolidated—obviously, that’s something that’s not really possible any more, but if it had been possible and if it had happened—Baltimore would be the fifth largest city in America in population,” Rusk says. “It would have all kinds of different resources and tools and flexibility to deal with the urban problems.”
After 1948, Maryland had one more chance to correct the mistake of 1948. In the late 1960’s, the state considered adopting a new constitution that gave the state legislature the power to create “super governments” that would be empowered to oversee and coordinate regional efforts to combat problems across jurisdictions. This proposal did not go over well in Baltimore’s suburbs.
“It would be a matter of days before my friend Tommy [Baltimore Mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro Jr.] would be calling for a new super government to include this county,” thundered Carroll County Commissioner Scott S. Blair. After an ugly campaign full of battle-between-the-races undertones, the new constitution went down to defeat at the polls.
And so Baltimore City remained stuck in its 1948 borders. “What that did,” Rusk says, “is cut off Baltimore City’s potential as a Sun Belt city and made it a northern Rust Belt city. It landed Baltimore in the company of Cleveland and Detroit, whereas it might have been able to be more in the category of Charlotte and Atlanta.”
Instead, back in the tumultuous election of 1948, Maryland broke ranks with the ways of the past in a way that landed Baltimore City on the losing side of that divide.