Opinion | A Hidden Reason Cities Fall Apart

In December 1967, DeFilippo published in the News American a groundbreaking two-part series on Baltimore’s then-powerful establishment, revealing the interlocking directorates of the city’s five major banks, the two top law firms, The Baltimore Sun and the city’s major corporations:

Describe them by any name — the power elite, the status seekers, the organization men, the establishment — an inbred and exclusive clique of 133 businessmen and lawyers controls Baltimore, its government, its commerce, its culture, educational and social institutions.

In turn, this select corps of interlocking and overlapping corporate agents is dominated by a half-dozen men who emerge at the apex of the city’s pyramidical power structure.

More than a half-century later, DeFilippo looked back on the fate of Baltimore’s establishment in a 2019 essay for Maryland Matters, “When Powerbrokers Ruled Baltimore.”

“Today, the captains of industry and the institutions they headed are all gone,” DeFilippo wrote. “The banks, the law firms, the insurance companies and the major industries either disappeared or were subsumed by larger, out-of-state logos, or, as many of the old titans faded out, the heirs decided to cash in.”

The Baltimore Sun was sold to out-of-towners, DeFilippo noted, and “the five major banks — Mercantile, Equitable, First National, Union Trust and Maryland National — were all gobbled up by out-of-state behemoths. And the city’s two largest law firms, Venable, Baetjer & Howard and Piper, Marbury, merged with even larger national law firms.”

The Baltimore establishment, like its counterparts in other cities, was shot through with conflicts of interest, self-dealing and the exercise of power by a group characterized by, in DeFilippo’s words, “a kind of hand-me-down inbreeding.”

These negative attributes were counterbalanced, at least in part, by the pluses:

The accumulation of power, in those days, brought with it a certain corporate responsibility and civic obligation. The departure of corporate Baltimore, one way or another, also led to the collapse of corporate giving and the support of charitable and cultural institutions as is evidenced by the financial squeeze of the Baltimore Symphony. …

It was usually the local banks that spearheaded civic fund-raising drives, not only as a display of civic good will and corporate citizenship but because it was good business. And the trick was that they donated to each other’s pet projects, providing a steady lifeline of financial support to keep cultural institutions alive.

At the same time, DeFilippo pointed out,

there was a provincial side to the do-gooder impression. Local banks stunted commercial development in the city by denying loans to outside interests that wanted to locate in Baltimore. Local money was viewed as vital to establishing a connection to the community, but the local banks were more interested in protecting their fellow Baltimoreans (and clients) from outside competition.

Baltimore’s population became majority Black in the mid-1970s, and African American voters became the dominant political force in the 1980s, culminating with the election of Kurt Schmoke, a Rhodes scholar and Harvard Law School graduate, as mayor in 1987.