New hope glimmers for future


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

The soul of Baltimore is in its neighborhoods. There's Fells Point by the water, where the city began. Tree-shaded Mount Washington. Ashburton, home to many prominent West

Baltimore families. Or Highlandtown, a historic and present-day melange of Germans and Italians, Greeks and Poles and West Virginians, where cobblestoned streets run beside infinities of white marble steps.

It's true, of course, that these neighborhoods have often been fiercely defensive enclaves, rigidly segregated by ethnicity or race. But they have also been cohesive and supportive, offering a far stronger sense of community than American society typically does today.

The neighborhoods not only defined Baltimore. They helped open the city to successive waves of immigrants. And with their grit and character, they held the town together through good times and bad.

It wasn't surprising that when community-based economic development organizations sprang up in U.S. cities in the late '60s and early '70s, Baltimore groups won national recognition. From the Southeast Community Organization to the Greater Homewood Corporation to COIL (Communities Organized to Improve Life), many showed remarkable spunk.

Even William Donald Schaefer, the man who'd earn his national reputation remaking the Inner Harbor, began his mayoralty in the early '70s seeking to restore the city's flagging confidence by rebuilding pride in neighborhoods across the city.

Sadly, the Schaefer embrace turned out to be an oppressive bearhug for a number of community organizations. As his mayoralty flourished, and surely with an eye to keeping as many influential people as he could in his own happy political family, Mr. Schaefer started putting neighborhood activists onto city payrolls. Many of the city's once-vaunted neighborhood organizations became co-opted, losing their spirit and ability to carry off entrepreneurial projects.

Today, Baltimore neighborhood organizations almost never crop up in lists of the country's most active. Nor does Baltimore have strong networks of community development organizations comparable to those in such cities as Boston, Cleveland and Chicago.

There's one big exception. It is BUILD -- Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, the church-based group that started making waves in the Baltimore of the '80s with unconventional challenges to the establishment.

While still mayor, Mr. Schaefer found BUILD so obstreperous he'd have nothing to do with it.

His difficulty in accepting and working with strong neighborhood organizations is a striking irony of recent-day Baltimore history. The Schaefer name would top any short list of mayors who grew up in humble neighborhoods, never moved away, and for years seemed obsessed with their welfare.

To this day, it's easy to get Baltimore's famed mayor-turned-governor to talk about the 600 block of Edgewood Street.

"I was on my block when I was the only person with an automobile," Mr. Schaefer told us. "I was there when low-income people moved in and there was broken glass all over. But then people started to take pride in it again. Now the house across from me is as pretty as any house in Roland Park.

"There are still some houses where nobody seems to care, just rent them out. The neighbor on my right -- he's dead now -- worked himself until he died of exhaustion putting his kids through college. I saw another neighbor sweep the gutter every darn day of his life. Across the street was a prostitute. Drug addicts and murders.

"My street's where I learned about teen-aged pregnancy, saw 14-year-olds having babies and treating them like rag dolls. I've seen kids dumped out of the house at 7 a.m. and let back in at night. I saw chickens dumped out of second-story windows. I didn't read about urban life. I lived it."

The several dozen Baltimore region leaders we met were as quick to talk about the city's neighborhoods and speculate about their future as the former mayor was to reminisce about his own home street.

And a clear difference of attitude struck us. On schools, Baltimore City's other compelling problem of the '90s, virtually no one was optimistic. Instead, we heard despair, sometimes disgust, never hope.

Yet when talk turned to neighborhoods, even if the diagnosis was just as serious, people started talking about the cure, as if it could happen.

Why? A consensus, however fragile, is forming around a common-sense strategy to help the city's most troubled neighborhoods. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, BUILD, and James Rouse's Enterprise Foundation agree on the plan.

The idea is to reach, in a very personal way, the neighborhood people who need help the most. Examples might include a mother and her two children who lose their apartment in a fire. A young woman who is routinely beaten by a boyfriend. A teen-age dropout who knows there's no future in drugs, but still sells crack because he likes the cash. Or a young girl given no road to self-esteem except an early demonstration of her fertility.

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