Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
This 1953 film celebrates early efforts to fix up some of the city’s most distressed homes.
Not even a flurry of new public housing construction in Baltimore could solve its housing woes by the end of the 1940s. Turning to the landlords, the city created what was eventually known as “The Baltimore Plan.”
As dramatized in a 1953 film produced by Encyclopedia Britannica, the plan came about as activists, journalists, local businessmen, and the mayor all agreed that the most disenfranchised residents needed better housing—fast.
Scenes of dead rats, unusable outhouses, and garbage-strewn alleys set the tone as viewers are given a “before” tour of a segregated and impoverished inner city. After enough reports by housing activists and the local newspaper, the film explains, Baltimore was finally moved to fix the problem.
A housing court was established in 1947 to put pressure on landlords to keep their properties up to code. Two years later, the city launched its “Block One” program, repainting walls, replacing fences, and removing outdoor toilets at 63 properties.
A Mayor's Advisory Council on Housing Law Enforcement was then established in 1951, chaired by Citizens Housing and Planning Association co-founder James Rouse.
After the success of “Block One,” 27 blocks in east Baltimore were then targeted as part of a pilot program, only to to come up against limitations. Not all owner-occupants could afford to upgrade their properties and, according to the film, some landlords and tenants simply declined to participate. The film ends on an optimistic note, however, even showing a cigar-chomping slumlord transform into a smiling landlord who keeps his properties in good shape.
But Baltimore’s housing issues were still too much for the Baltimore Plan to solve. Discouraged with a lack of results, Rouse soon left his position, eventually becoming one of the country’s most important real estate developers and eventually kickstarting the rebirth of Baltimore’s inner harbor.
Fifty years later, poverty and inequality still plague much of east Baltimore. In the film, one shot zooms in on a paint bucket labeled for 1819 E. Biddle St. during a “blitzblock” cleanup. Today, the house and nearly every remaining property on the block stand vacant.