Poised On Edge Of Lost Glory, New Awakening

May 05, 1991|By Neal Peirce and Curtis W. Johnson

Baltimore, from the air, presents a tableau rare among cities. The silvery surface of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the world's greatest protected estuaries, stretches past Fort McHenry, past great port facilities, straight to the city's front step at the Inner Harbor.

On a crisp autumn day, we toured the Baltimore region from a helicopter looking down on the city and surrounding counties, above buildings and greenery and water.

The sight's intriguing. At the center there's not just renewed downtown Baltimore but the old settlements rolling over the city's hills, church-and-steeple neighborhoods that evoke flavors of Old Europe. And out beyond, clusters of development emerging from the area's necklace of green spaces -- the Owings Mills and Hunt Valleys and Columbias that have begun to define the new regional lifestyle and economy.

From an aircraft, you can imagine all the world is above average in income. You see no strife in the metropolis, no drug wars, no educational disparities, no race problem.

But two hours later, on the ground, in a van for a closer look, we pass through the dilapidated Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, take a turn onto Argyle Avenue and see a drug deal in process. Around the corner, we see public housing high-rises, once a monument to society's outreach to the poor, now ravaged by wanton destruction, drug-dealing and fear.

We pass by the Lexington Terrace Elementary School, where we'll later learn the average age of the kindergarten children's mothers is 20. Corner after corner, hovering over bedraggled or boarded-up shops, mini-billboards push booze, cigarette and sex -- a display of capitalism's most exploitative side.

Yet rounding another corner, we come upon a housing rehabilitation dedication by the New Song Community Church, attended by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Jack F. Kemp, the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development. We're reminded that Baltimore, during the years of William Donald Schaefer's mayoralty, registered more low-income housing renewal per capita than any other U.S. city. The good results, in spruced-up homes, are still to be seen, block by block across the inner-city neighborhoods.

Crisscrossing the city that afternoon, we found ourselves constantly shifting between neighborhoods burnished like old heirlooms -- comfortable, well-maintained, even tony -- and others where the paint was peeling, the masonry deteriorating, the curtains tattered.

For architecture and history, our favorite is Mount Vernon. From his perch atop Baltimore's own Washington Monument (older than the upstart obelisk in the nation's capital), the father of our country has been gazing down Charles Street toward the Inner Harbor since 1829. How many cities can match that?

Down by the waterside there now loom the behemoths of Legg Mason and Signet bank. There's the new Gallery that adjoins Stouffer's Hotel, four floors of finery and boutiques and eateries, antiseptic ambience encapsulated.

Yet a few blocks distant, the great old Lexington Market still displays fresh fruits and Chesapeake shellfish delights and meats, sold by merchants with stained white aprons and the smell of an old Baltimore no one in his right mind would want to lose.

Just north of the Inner Harbor is Baltimore's majestic City Hall -- faced with brilliantly white Baltimore County marble, adorned with a central dome and clock and belfry. Nearby is The Block, once a prime stop on the national burlesque tour, now a seedy strip of peep shows and sex shops, prostitutes and drug dealers.

It's a poignant contrast, the rich history and dangerous decline. Is this a city and region in disintegration? Or one awakening?

The next morning we began a week and more of intensive interviews of business leaders, county executives, the mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland, neighborhood activists, environmentalists, philanthropists and civic group leaders. So that they would be candid, we guaranteed that their comments would be used anonymously.

We brought to Baltimore our perspective as outsiders, comparing this city and metropolitan region with others across the nation.

To each person, we posed fundamental questions: Are Baltimore city and the counties doomed to ever-deepening conflict, racial tensions, a cataclysmic parting of the ways? Or are there ways the city and counties can build on mutual interests, forge common agendas, find their way into the 21st century as a cohesive unit in the new world economy?

If the reader finds our series prickly or rawly prescriptive, we plead guilty. Baltimore, city and county, are passing through some rough waters; worse may be coming. If we didn't like Baltimore so much, we might have shown more proper Baltimorean reserve.

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