Baltimoreans march to save their city

October 13, 1991|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Except for yesterday, walking is a depressing chore for Carol Henry.

Usually, she walks alone from her home near Memorial Stadium to her job on Greenmount Avenue past deteriorating, vacant houses and homeless people begging for money. And at night, on her way back, she avoids eye contact with the drug dealers on the corners -- most of whom played high school football with her son.

But yesterday Mrs. Henry wasn't alone. She walked with more than 3,000 others, most from the Baltimore area, hoping to bring the cold realities of life to the attention of the

federal government.

They converged on the nation's capital to demand more federal money for urban centers with a disproportionate amount of poverty, crime and failing schools. The demonstrators boarded buses at Memorial Stadium, at churches or at community centers across the city. Others drove their own cars. And a group of about 50 had left Baltimore on foot last Wednesday; they were cheered as they walked onto the Mall.

The crowd -- which included clergy, teachers, welfare mothers, businessmen, youth counselors, drug addicts and doctors -- was substantially smaller than the 10,000 predicted by organizers. They were not greeted by officials from the Bush administration, nor was the president even in town to hear their shouts and chants.

But they hoped their determination would be infectious and lead to a national movement that would "shake the windows and rattle the walls" of the nation's political leaders, persuading them to stop the withdrawal of federal funds from cities that began 10 years ago, said Representative Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th.

"This is a start, and it's an important start," said Anita Sterrette, a 59-year-old veteran demonstrator who marched with the late Martin Luther King Jr. "We have got to get the message across to the politicians who are riding around in their limousines, going from meeting to meeting and eating in fancy restaurants. Meanwhile, they are driving by homeless children and drug dealers."

Baltimore has suffered a 75 percent cut in federal funds between 1980 and 1990. And, the city faces the loss of $25 million in state funds because of Maryland's worsening budget crisis.

"These are times that mayors are having to choose between school textbooks and hiring additional police, between freezing teacher salaries and laying off sanitation workers, between closing libraries and closing recreation centers," said an emotional Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"Ronald Reagan and George Bush have tried to build Berlin Walls around our cities to cut off supplies," added former Representative Parren J. Mitchell.

Mr. Mitchell is credited with inspiring residents to organize the rally during a speech in a church last April. More than 100 local and national organizations responded by providing volunteers and donations to pay for printing leaflets, fliers and transportation.

Those fliers reached people like Ms. Henry, a cook who is working on her GED at the Waverly Family Center. She rode on a bus to Washington with other clients of the center, leaders of the City-wide Insurance Coalition and parents seeking more affordable day-care centers.

One of those lounging in the sunshine was Philip Howard, a city employee who counsels youths not to drop out of school. He said Baltimore's fiscal crisis not only threatens his job, but dashesthe hopes of teen-agers who struggle to stay in school.

"I have a hard time convincing them that if they stay in school they can get out and get good jobs, because there just aren't any jobs," said Mr. Howard, wrapped in a blue poncho.

Yesterday's rally was the prelude for a national Save Our Cities march to be held in April, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Political leaders and activists in cities across the country are demanding that because the declining threat of war against the United States, that a "peace dividend" of about $50 billion be returned to cities.

Leslaw Werpachowski and Stanislaw Szmagalski, Johns Hopkins University students from Poland who are spending a year in Baltimore, were among the group of demonstrators who walked to Washington. And, they felt torn.

"We can sympathize with your cause," Mr. Szmagalski said. "But our country also needs money very badly and we feel it's important that your country be in touch with our problems."

"But after today," added Mr. Werpachowski, "We know that Americans really love their country."

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