The new girl at the elite Roland Park Middle School in Baltimore had been there for almost two weeks, sometimes taking three buses to get to school from her home in “Greektown," feeling lost in classes where none of the kids were Greek anymore and going through the soul-searching only an 11-year old can experience (Why am I here? What am I doing?), when one day at lunch one of the girls got up and actually spoke to her: "You want to come sit with us?"
by Dimitri C. Michalakis
The new girl in school was Kaliope Parthemos, the girl with the political skills was Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and they not only became lifelong friends ("She says she only did it for my lunch," says Parthemos), but colleagues when Rawlings-Blake became mayor in 2010, Parthemos became her assistant deputy mayor, and she now serves as deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development, overseeing 17 agencies that affect everything from housing and transportation to tourism and the arts, in a city that has always been an economic hub, but like most major cities of late, has gone through hard times.
"I think Baltimore is in the same situation as the other old manufacturing cities," says Parthemos, 41, from her office, the highest woman of Greek descent working in public service in Maryland, and working late at her office as usual. "But I think we're better positioned. We still have a great port and lots of jobs around our port; we still have a great manufacturing base with access to rail; we have the professionals in terms of finance, and we have one of the great medical institutions in Johns Hopkins, with a very big and growing biotech and biomedicine industry. And our proximity to DC really makes Baltimore such an asset."
She concedes that the city population has declined slightly (less so than other cities and a miracle considering the urban flight that has affected others) and, in fact, Baltimore might be experiencing a resurgence, not just in industry, but in population.
"What is typically pegged, and what most cities call the creative class—our 18 to 34- year-olds—have been our growing population," she says. "Baltimore is very much a college town—we have Johns Hopkins, we have the University of Maryland at Baltimore, all the professional schools--we do have young people moving here. (Besides school, they) have good financial and professional opportunities with the expansion and growth of Under Armour (sports apparel and gear) competing with the Nikes' and Adidas', we have (financial firms like) Legg Mason and Morgan Stanley, we have our energy companies. But we also want the empty nesters, because they want the urban environment, they want the arts and culture, and are the best population to get because they are not using city services: they don't have kids in school and they're usually in condominium complexes that don't require that many city services. So it's really the creative class and the empty nesters and the immigrants."
In her inaugural, the mayor announced a "Grow Baltimore" strategy of boosting the city's population by at least 10,000 residents through a "Vacants to Value" housing and neighborhood revitalization and other initiatives, and as the city's economic and development czar Parthemos is in the thick of making that happen.
The new administration made a splash when it brought Grand Prix racing to Baltimore with its inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix Indy Car and American Le Mans Series race this past September around a temporary circuit in the Inner Harbor.
And it's transforming the landscape big-time with its $238-million Uplands Visionaries real estate development sprouting on 731 acres in southwest Baltimore that will eventually add 1,100 single family homes, townhouses and rentals to the city tax base and restore a prime area of Baltimore. It will be perfect for the young professionals and empty nesters with its walking trails, parks, shops, community rooms, exercise facilities, unlimited bandwith using fiber optics,and access to downtown Baltimore and major corridors like I-95 and I-695 and an east-west transit line called Red Line Metro.
Another is a partnership of the mayor with University of Maryland President Dr. Jay A. Perman on a Westside Task Force to promote development downtown in west Baltimore, which has all the professional schools and a theater row, but also plenty of urban blight and city-owned vacant properties. "We're coming up with a plan to spur development and turn the city-owned property into occupied property, as well as to make renovations to Lexington Market and improve our public markets," says Parthemos. Part of that is a Get Fresh Lexington initiative to increase availability of healthy food at Lexington and make it a model for the city's six public markets.
A longstanding player in efforts to revitalize the city has been John Paterakis of H&S Bakery, who has resurrected the old seaport into the dazzling Inner Harbor, and is currently developing a Harbor Point site that will add over 1 million square feet of new office space, 73,000 square feet of retail space, 270 condominium units, 346 rental apartments, a 260-room hotel and parking for 3,000 vehicles.
"What he's done over there has transformed the city," she says. "It's an amazing story."
Also on the Greek front, Parthemos said she was meeting with people from her old neighborhood in Greektown, as well as AHEPA, to plan a Hellenic Museum for the city "because the generation from the war is dying, and we haven't done a very good job of preserving our history." She feels guilty she didn't listen enough to her yiayia "when she would talk and tell stories and I really regret that. As a community, we haven't done a very good job of telling our story amongst each other, let alone the broader community—of what the Greeks had to endure in Greece, why they came here, who we are here."
She herself started as a girl from Greektown "where you literally kept your door open and if you were outside past a certain time the lady down the street would yell at you and threaten to call your mother." She attended St. Nicholas Church with her parents Constantine and Angelika ("my mother is one of seven children, so I have twenty first cousins") and with her sisters Tasia, Rita and Antonia. Tasia now manages a medical building company; Rita is a real estate broker; and Antonia manages a restaurant in Harbor East.
Kaliope, the second oldest, put herself through college, worked with the Baltimore City Department of Social Services in the foster care division, went back to get her law degree and got a piece of advice from Judge C. Themelis when she clerked for him.
"You belong in the courtroom and you belong as an advocate," he told her. "Don't be one of those who talks about how things should be done, but has never actually worked it and lived it. You know the people. You understand the people. Go fight for the people."
She worked as a public defender for five years (and managed her friend Rawlings-Blake's successful campaign run for City Council in '95) and was about to open her own law practice in 2007 when her friend became president of the City Council and asked Parthemos to help organize her staff. "She told me I can come on board, set up the office, at least get through the election, stay for a year, and by that point the office would be really up and running," says Parthemos, and then, presumably, she would return to private practice. "Of course," she says, "I never saw my office again."
The mayor does dance Greek, and Parthemos says she has been to "every festival, every Greek Independence Day parade; she's very well known in the Greek community. Actually the highest percentage of votes in the election for mayor in September 2011 was in the Greektown neighborhood. She got 78 percent of the vote and that was the highest in any neighborhood."
The mayor, and the job, helped Parthemos get through a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2010 and the subsequent rigors of treatment, including four surgeries, before she was declared cancer-free this past February. "The story got in the papers and next morning (the mayor) had ten resumes on her desk and she's like, 'Can you please tell people you're not dying?'"
The two friends now have busy schedules (Parthemos works most evenings and weekends) and rarely have down time together: and when they talk it's about business. But she says "it's nice to work with somebody that you trust,and she knows I would never make any decision to put her or the city in harm's way. She's a very, very good person who does public service not because she has the ego of a politician, but because it's in her heart of hearts."
The friendship that started in school, and the partnership fostered in public service, are both going strong and Baltimore seems to be the winner.