Save Our Cities: 'Ordinary people' plan extraordinary steps

October 05, 1991|By Ann LoLordo

When Edward E. Sommerfeldt boards a bus for the Save Our Cities march on Washington Oct. 12, he will be motivated by what he sees every day in his classroom at Coppin State College -- the lack of computer skills in students educated in Baltimore.

Illya Szilak also wants the federal government to pump more money into America's cash-poor cities. As with Mr. Sommerfeldt, her reasons spring from personal experience. The 23-year-old research technician has been helping a single mother to stay out of the ranks of Baltimore's homeless.

Danny Fleisher is going to walk the 38 miles to Washington. Ever since his days in the nuclear freeze movement, the 41-year-old plumber has been waiting for "something big like this" to express his frustration with the political leadership of this country.

Mr. Sommerfeldt, Ms. Szilak and Mr. Fleisher will join thousands of others -- college students and electricians, clergymen and lawyers, teachers and social activists -- who are expected to converge on the west side of the U.S. Capitol for the Save Our Cities march being organized by Baltimoreans to bring the city's needs to the attention of the nation's policy-makers.

What unites them is their concern that America's cities are in a downward spiral, due to the severe cutbacks in federal aid during the Reagan years and the refusal of the Bush administration to replenish the money pot that helped rebuild the country's urban centers. It is thought to be the first time that a single city has organized a demonstration in Washington to call attention to its plight.

"Things have gone so far down," said Mr. Sommerfeldt, who wants to see more federal money go to education. "To save the cities literally, the ordinary people have got to make this happen to get the attention of the federal government."

Since April, when former Baltimore Congressman Parren J. Mitchell challenged an audience of 450 people at a Harford Road church to march on Washington to save their city, a core of about 20 people have been planning to do just that from a small office on South Washington Street.

The march has drawn support from a coalition of Baltimore churches, civic groups, unions and community organizations. The effort has been funded with donations as small as $5 and grants as large as $3,000. It has attracted bishops and plumbers, the unemployed and the businessman, the mayor of Baltimore and a City Paper columnist.

Sympathetic supporters from as far away as Seattle and Atlanta also are expected to join Baltimore's march. The common goal is to reverse the trend of reduced federal dollars to the nation's cities. In Baltimore alone, the amount of federal money has declined 75 percent between 1980 and 1990. And with the newly projected $21 million cut in state funds due to Maryland's worsening budget crisis, the financial health of the city can only get worse.

"Real people who have never been touched before are going to be touched," said Sister Katherine Corr, director of Baltimore Jobs for Peace, who is organizing the Save Our Cities march. "Granted, we're not bankrupt like Bridgeport, Conn., but we could be next."

The rally will set the stage for a national Save Our Cities march on Washington next April under the sponsorship of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

"These are symbolic events I would compare to the way you get the attention of a mule. You have to hit them with a two-by-four," said Osborn Elliott, chairman of the Citizens Committee for New York City, who called for a national march on Washington in a column in Newsweek magazine the same week Mr. Mitchell did here in Baltimore. "This Baltimore march and the one in the spring are really like the two-by-fours you use to get the attention of the national government."

"This stands by itself as a very constructive step for a city to take. It's completely consistent with what the Conference of Mayors is attempting to do this year," said Mike Brown, a conference spokesman. "Mayor [Raymond L.] Flynn [of Boston and conference president] has said that urban issues must be put back on the national agenda. This kind of event helps to do just that."

But even Mr. Mitchell, the former congressman and coordinator of the Baltimore march, realizes the long fight America's cities face. "One march isn't going to do it," Mr. Mitchell said. "One march did not end the war in Vietnam. One march against Richard Nixon did not lead to his impeachment. I see a sustained effort that will go on for quite some time to put cities back on the national priority list."

For Sister Katherine, the march has meant months of preparation, beginning with a May 24 mailing to 300 local organizations -- from the Junior League to the Korean Society of Baltimore -- asking them to join the effort.

In June, about 100 people representing 82 organizations showed up for a meeting and the work groups were formed.

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