Bush visits Rome as hope of saving our cities burns

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 12, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The lady on Battery Avenue says she has taken enough. The burglars came twice, and once they left her dog collapsed in the yard, and now the city will get meaner than ever as the cops and the schools and the firefighters tighten their belts.

The lady on Battery Avenue says she wants some place safer. The cops who work South Baltimore say they know the creeps who broke into her house, but knowing it and proving it are two different things. They say this as they rush off to solve some other, more pressing crisis of the moment.

"I want a safer place," says the lady on Battery Avenue. "Maybe Harford County or maybe Westminster. Some place where there's a lot of trees and Andy Griffith's the sheriff."

A few blocks away, in the 1400 block of Fort Avenue, there are people marching in a little circle in front of a firehouse. The firehouse is to be closed in the new austerity. Among those marching is an elderly lady with a metal walker in front of her.

"They're closing my firehouse," she says. She mentions industries in the neighborhood. Those things can go up any time, and how will she get away? A few feet behind her marches a city councilman, Nick D'Adamo, who has the same question: How can anyone get away from this darkness descending on the city of Baltimore?

We are now one week past the re-election of Kurt L. Schmoke as mayor, one week since Sen. Paul Sarbanes exited early from election headquarters.

"Gotta find a radio," said Sarbanes, as he raced to his car on North Charles Street. "Want to see about Thornburgh."

In Pennsylvania that night, the voters were sending a message to George Bush that gives hope in the places like Baltimore: The president had better start paying attention to domestic problems.

Nobody knows if the president is listening, as he was in Rome over the weekend, and speaking the language of one who has lost his mind.

"It is not recession," the president declared. "It . . . does not fit the definition of recession. And yet you have plenty of people around saying we are in recession."

Call it whatever you want, but Bush's man, former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, was crushed by Harris Wofford in last week's Pennsylvania U.S. Senate election after leading in the opinion polls by 40 points. Many think it's the first significant political signal of anger with the White House.

The president troops about the world, and the cities go to hell. We're closing firehouses on Fort Avenue while the president sends money to Gorbachev. They're breaking into houses on Battery Avenue, and the cops haven't got time to pursue the suspects, while the president asks: What problems at home?

"He has no feel for cities," Paul Sarbanes was saying as he raced for his car. But then he quickly caught himself. "See, that's not the problem. We've got to stop thinking of it as cities, and start seeing it as metropolitan areas. What happens to Baltimore happens to the counties around it. The city's health eventually becomes the counties' health.

"It's all related, so let's not drive a wedge between city and county. Of course, this White House has no feel at all for cities. Suburbs, they understand. But you can't have a suburb if you don't have an urb. And our urbs are in deep trouble."

Precisely how deep, we're beginning to learn. Last Friday, the mayor announced he's cutting 571 city jobs. That means more people looking for work in an economy where no one is hiring.

At the same time, the mayor said he would do this: Close the central library one day each week and shut down seven branches in The City That Reads; close schools for a week; disband 13 fire companies and close five firehouses while abolishing 252 fire department positions; close the Museum of Art for two weeks; maintain the hiring freeze in the overworked police department.

And this, the mayor warns us, is just for openers.

"When they broke in the first time," the lady on Battery Avenue was saying now, "I got home and all my neighbors were milling around outside. The police were there. One of them said, 'It's OK. They kicked in the back door, but your dog chased them away.'

"The next time, a few days later, they came back and gassed my dog and left him lying there in the yard. Then they cleaned us out."

The lady on Battery Avenue glances up and down the block. It's beautiful here. There's a playground at the corner of Battery and Gittings, and you can hear the symphony of children's laughter. There are little grocery stores here and there, and the Cross Street Market's nearby, and people live close enough to each other that they cross-fertilize the richness of each other's backgrounds and cultures.

That's the joy of city living. The lady on Battery Avenue is like others on this block who quit the sterility of suburbia, who got caught up in the dream of a city renaissance.

And now she says she's leaving.

"I'm afraid," she says. "They wrecked my house the last time. My boyfriend said, 'OK, then we'll fight back. We'll get you a gun.' Well, I don't want to get a gun. I just want to go away now."

Those at City Hall already understand something: Baltimore cannot survive like this. It cannot afford to lose people like the lady on Battery Avenue. Those outside the city limits, faced with the state budget problems, are just beginning to understand: If Baltimore falls, the counties will follow.

And now we all wait for the man in the White House, wondering if he'll ever figure it out. Because the next step is the decay of the whole damned country, which already has begun.

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