Washington looks the other way as urban centers die


September 29, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The big hand-painted sign says Clark Food Market, but Neva Clark's not open for business any more. He's 84 years old and walks with a cane and, as of last week, he says he's closed because he's tired of shooting people.

In the late afternoon chill in the 2300 block of Greenmount Avenue, there's a fellow on the sidewalk peering into Clark's store window. The guy is dressed for a balmier climate. He's wearing this sleeveless undershirt, only he missed with one of the shoulder straps, and it's hanging loose beneath his left armpit.

"There's nobody in that store," a woman at a nearby pay telephone, bundled in an Operation Desert Storm sweat shirt, calls to him.

The guy doesn't hear her, and he doesn't see a sign in the window reading: Closed. He's delicately balancing a whiskey bottle between two fingers. The woman in the sweat shirt hangs up the telephone, and she's replaced a minute later by a man. A few minutes later, there's another man at the phone, and he's followed by another woman and then a school kid.

In the 2300 block of Greenmount Avenue, a lot of people use the pay telephones -- trying to communicate between the sighs of exhausted buses and the throaty grumble of trucks and the rap music blaring defiantly from cars -- because they can't afford phones inside their homes.

Everybody's cutting corners. Across from the food market is a little wooden shed where stuff is sold cheap: hot dogs for a buck, corn on the cob for 75 cents. Neva Clark did business on this block until last week, when one of his customers picked up another customer and tossed him over Clark's meat counter.

Clark reacted with the instincts of his 84 years. He grabbed a shotgun under his counter, fired and hit one of the customers in the buttocks.

In the city of Baltimore, such things happen. A wino down on his luck stumbles along the street in an out-of-socket undershirt. A string of people turn to street phones because they can't simultaneously pay for a home telephone and food. An old man in a grocery store packs a shotgun for protection.

In cities across America, these are routine signals of communities coming undone while government looks the other way. Ten years ago, riding the crest of its renaissance, the city of Baltimore got 34 percent of its operating budget from Washington. Now it's 11 percent.

This is not charity money we're talking about, it's tax money paid by people who live in cities and expect to see some of it returned in ways that directly affect their lives.

Instead, what do we have in the last 10 years in Baltimore? Direct federal money for schools is down 32 percent. For health, it's down 37 percent. For job training, it's down 89 percent. Washington shrugs. Until Friday night's speech, George Bush still talked mainly of missile systems and defense contractors, and ignored all that stuff about peace dividends.

Next weekend, the mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, will help lead a demonstration in Washington, called the Save Our Cities March, to find out if anybody in power cares any more about the decay of urban America.

The evidence says they do not. The crime is rampant, and the drug dealers rule entire neighborhoods. The ranks of the impoverished grow and with that the desperation and the anger. thin veneer of civilization is coming undone.

The kids enter schools with security guards at the door, and they sit in crowded classrooms with book shortages and equipment shortages and exhausted teachers, and they leave with only a vague notion of how to survive adulthood, if they've been lucky enough to make it that far.

For 10 years now, it's as if the nice men in the White House have given up on the cities. Save whatever parts of the country we can, they seem to be saying. If the cities make it, they'll have to do it on their own.

Many people in suburbia go along with this. They declare those in the cities dangerous and wish to isolate them. This is lunacy and self-destructiveness on a grand scale. Does anyone think there are drawbridges to be raised, that the criminal and the desperate confine themselves to the innards of the city?

If urban America destructs, the counties will follow. We cannot live in two separate Americas, though that's the implicit message from Washington.

With an election campaign just around the corner, the nation cannot go on being distracted by events overseas, and yet that seems to be George Bush's hope.

On Greenmount Avenue, a woman with a baby in a stroller pauses in front of the Clark Food Market and gazes at the darkness inside.

"Yeah, Mr. Clark," she says. "He knows how to shoot a gun, don't he?"

It's no big deal. Last week, it was the shotgun blast into a customer's buttocks when fighting started. Three years ago, a 16-year-old kid walked into the store with a BB pistol built to look like a .45-caliber semiautomatic. He wanted Clark's money. Clark shot the 16-year-old in the arm with a .32-caliber revolver.

But he was a younger man three years ago, only 81. Now he's had enough. Let somebody else run the market. Let somebody else deal with all those problems on Greenmount Avenue.

Funny thing is, that's the White House attitude, too: Let somebody else deal with it.

The only difference is, Neva Clark gave it a better shot than

George Bush.

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