Clinton didn't see some sorry sights in West Baltimore

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 25, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Some people have bags under their eyes. Bill Clinton has an entire set of matching luggage. Raw pink bags under both eyes, an endless series of throat lozenges in his mouth, and this old guy with a white beard getting a little too close for comfort Saturday on Calhoun Street in West Baltimore.

"Mister Mayor," the old guy says.

But the mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, playing host to Clinton on this walking tour of the Nehemiah housing project, does not respond. He is telling Clinton of affordable housing for ,, the poor, of hope in the heart of an urban eyesore.

"Mister Mayor," the old guy hollers, "how come the rents are so high?"

The mayor, caught in mid-pitch to a man running for president, suddenly turns.

"They're not," he snaps, "and you know it."

The three of them, the mayor, the old man and the presidential contender Clinton, are walking in this swarm of neighborhood people, reporters, and the traveling TV entourage that follows Clinton everywhere.

"They're too high," the old man insists, "and . . ."

His words die right there. Somebody, a city cop maybe, or a Secret Service agent, grabs him by the front of his Georgetown University sweat shirt, and somebody grabs him by the back, and he is whisked away while crying, "What are you snatching me for?"

Thus, we have a picture of America in the presidential campaign of 1992.

Yes, Enterprise Nehemiah is a prideful housing boast for the mayor of Baltimore. It is home ownership for nearly 300 families who otherwise might never have dreamed of it.

Also, though, it is still a vision out of reach for lots of people kissed off by the White House trickle-down economics of the last decade. Nothing much trickled through here; not money, and not concern.

At Enterprise Nehemiah, you can buy a three-bedroom, two-bath rowhouse for $62,500. The payments are computed according to income: $352 a month at 7.5 percent interest if you're making $26,000 a year; $254 a month at 4 percent interest if you're making $12,000 a year.

If that sounds reasonable -- and, in today's housing market, it sounds like heaven to middle-class home buyers -- then the people running for president need to understand some other numbers that the man in the White House does not and the old man in the Georgetown sweat shirt could explain to him.

Household income in this city has remained virtually unchanged for the last 20 years. Half of all city households earn less than BTC $22,000 a year. About half of all Marylanders living below the poverty level live in this city -- though Baltimore accounts for only 16 percent of the state's population.

"I'm profoundly impressed by this project," Bill Clinton announced when he'd walked through Enterprise Nehemiah.

It was a little tough to hear him. He had a voice grown husky from campaign days and restless nights. The restlessness comes not only from addressing an America trying to balance its haves and have-nots, but also from the so-called character issues: the Vietnam War days, and the tabloid nights.

Meanwhile, we have the places like West Baltimore, where Bill Clinton walked in a protective cocoon: He saw the Nehemiah model home, and he spoke with some residents, but just outside the project were streets that have fallen into shabby decay over the past decade.

"The government says get a job for $200 a week," said one resident, who called himself Wheeler, "but you got 9-year old kids on the corner making that much carrying drugs. Where's the incentive to work five days a week for the same money you can make in a few hours?"

Just off the Nehemiah project, there were back yards piled high with trash. On Laurens Street, in late morning sunshine, half a dozen men crouched on their knees and shot craps, oblivious to a presidential campaign just around the bend. Throughout the area, there were buildings boarded up, condemned, empty of all but the homeless or the junkies looking for a safe spot to shoot up.

Clinton talks pretty eloquently about this. At the Douglas Memorial Community Church, at Madison and Lafayette, he talked about dreams that sometimes seem to have gone away.

"We've had an explosion of poverty," he said, "and yet most poor people work. The great untold heroes of America get up, go to work, support their kids, and still live in poverty. . . . We are coming apart at the seams. We're divided by race, by religion, and by gender. We are, you know we are.

"My state of Arkansas was kept dumb and poor by the politics of division. In the last decade, poor and middle-class Americans have lost ground. Only the wealthiest did better, and their time is coming."

In the meantime, there are the little enclaves like Enterprise Nehemiah offering hope. The mayor was right, it's got reasonable rents. But the old man in the sweat shirt was right, too. These are unreasonable times.

The city is drowning in drug addiction and all the crime it spawns, drowning in poverty and wondering when people in Washington will pay attention. Bill Clinton paid some attention the other day, but it's hard to know how much he digested with all those cameras, with the hectic schedule that's given him those bags under both eyes, and with the guy in the sweat shirt being hustled off for expressing his frustration out of turn.

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