Throughout clamor about race, some stay and try to work it out

MICHAEL OLESKER

June 02, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In a little corner of St. Elizabeth's Roman Catholic Church in East Baltimore, James Radowski holds up one brown hiking shoe. He says someone threw it at his head.

''Those school kids,'' he says.

''Tell him about the folding chair they threw,'' says a woman one seat away.

''Tell him about the textbooks,'' says someone else.

Voices are muted in their anger, because this is a church. But the voices will be rising through this entire evening as the church fills nearly to capacity. East Baltimore has been mobilized, first by the baseball bat clubbing of Expedito ''Pedro'' Lugo, then by the outpouring of voices declaring a general condition of unsafe streets every time the kids from Hampstead Hill Middle School make their way through the neighborhood.

The textbooks,'' a woman says, pulling a few of them out of a brown shopping bag. And now, eyes blazing with outrage, James Radowski holds up one big book and then another.

''They thew this at us,'' he says. The book is ''Life Science'' and it weighs several pounds. ''They threw this at us,'' he says again. This book is ''World History'' and it weighs several pounds more.

Radowski lives on South Robinson Street directly across from Hampstead Hill, where the book-throwers attend school. Standing on his block one afternoon last week, you could hear a voice inside a third-floor classroom bellowing at students for minutes at a time, and when a bell rang to change classes there were sounds like flak bursting inside the building.

''There's the problem,'' City Councilman Carl Stokes was saying later. ''It's not just a problem in the neighborhood. It's a problem for all the kids in the school who are trying to get an education.''

Stokes was standing in front of the big crowd inside St. Elizabeth's. He is black, and most of the crowd is white.

A sense of perspective must be kept here. Yes, most of the kids from Hampstead Hill are black. Yes, the neighbors are mostly white.

But, no, it does not mean that all of these kids are running rampage. And, no, it does not mean that whites who are complaining are merely verbalizing hidden racist inclinations.

A neighborhood has been under siege here, and painting easy racial stereotypes helps nothing.

The issue is those kids who have terrorized a neighborhood for years while people in power were looking the other way, and the issue is what, having finally acknowledged the problem, the city of Baltimore will do to help make it better.

''Let me tell you something,'' says William Bohler. He is 86 years old and peers across a church pew through thick eyeglasses. ''I've lived here all my life, and I didn't see in the riots of 1968 what I see some mornings now, the hollering and the looting.

''But it's not racial, and I'll tell you why. It's black and white. Fairmont and Lakewood, kids banging on everything. Luzerne Avenue, the kids running wild. And then these juvenile courts that don't enforce the law.

"They just release the kids to the parents, who are the ones to blame for not teaching the kids right from wrong in the first place.''

It's instructive to hear a voice like William Bohler's. Resist the temptation to cry race, he is saying. It gets us nowhere. Resist the temptation to call every kid a troublemaker. It just isn't true.

Also, though: Resist the temptation to call white East Baltimore racist because they're asking the removal of some troublesome black kids from their neighborhood. It's too easy, and it isn't fair.

These are the white people who did not desert the city at the first sighting of black faces in their neighborhoods. They're not the ones who found God in suburbia in the great white migration of the last three decades.

They stayed. They aren't the living room liberals who sneaked out of town, who always gave lip service to the philosophy of integration until it actually happened in their own communities.

These are the ones who didn't talk a good game, they just stayed and lived their lives and tried to cope with tensions passed down to them from a succession of previous generations.

''Can we make it work?'' Ed Rutkowski asks. He thinks about the question for a moment. Rutkowski is president of the Baltimore-Linwood Neighborhood Association. He's an engineer by profession, a man who grew up in Highlandtown and chaired last week's meeting at St. Elizabeth's.

''Yeah,'' he says, ''we can make it work. The schools will be integrated, and the neighborhood will be integrated, and that's OK. Integration is workable. It's already here. People here won't move because of integration. Those who do, we can live without.

''It isn't the color of people, it's the kind of people. It's absentee landlords who don't care what kind of people they rent to. It doesn't take very many tenants who aren't good, who don't take care of the property, before people start moving.''

In East Baltimore, you can feel it quicker than in many neighborhoods. On little streets of row houses packed tightly together, intimacy is automatic. There's a ripple effect every time something goes wrong.

In America, we tend to translate lots of problems into racial differences. East Baltimore can do it differently. There's an edginess in the air, but there's also a sense of working things out without hostilities.

If they can, it'll be a lesson to the rest of this race-obsessed nation.

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