The Cities: Getting Past 'Benign Neglect'

BARRY RASCOVAR

May 10, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of "benign neglect." The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over by hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.

It has been 22 years since Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1970 memo to President Richard Nixon mentioned the need for a cooling-off period in race relations, urging that deeds replace angry words. The motivation behind the Moynihan memo was well-meaning and sensible.

But America, and elected officials, misunderstood the message. "Benign neglect" has come to represent an attitude toward minorities, and especially toward older American cities, in which their problems are simply swept under the rug.

The riots in Los Angeles have once again focused light on the lack of attention paid to urban miseries over the past two decades. Take Baltimore City's case.

Not only has the federal government withdrawn financial support from urban areas, the state government in Annapolis has displayed decreasing interest, too. Suburban legislators are exhibiting a form of fiscal selfishness that can only be accomplished by slighting the city.

These legislators want more from state coffers. They want to solve all their own jurisdiction's problems, and to heck with the state's real needs. One Montgomery County legislator, for instance, proposed a "Robin Hood in reverse" bill that would reward counties where school attendance is excellent with millions of extra dollars -- and take money away from subdivisions where attendance is low.

Now that's a novel way to attack the school dropout epidemic -- punish the city for having this problem. The approach is no longer benign neglect, but malign neglect.

Do these legislators believe that by ignoring the city's most pressing shortcomings things will improve on their own? That the crime rate will drop? That the drug frenzy will abate? That the social welfare dependency cycle will be broken? That the schools will improve?

Or that the deep discontent and anger that surfaced in Los Angeles won't reach Baltimore?

Los Angeles demonstrated that ignoring the urban crisis has a painful cost. The longer things fester, the more violent the eruption. As the old auto-repair commercial put it, "You can pay me now, or pay me [much more] later."

Preventive medicine is the wisest approach. But which politicians have the courage to face up to it?

Certainly Gov. William Donald Schaefer does. He's tried to help the city in the past, only to be shot down by the legislature. Metropolitan legislators have given lip service to helping the city -- and then have turned on the city at budget time.

The reaction of Baltimore County legislators this past session illustrates the depth of the city's isolation. These lawmakers saw no reason to raise taxes or help the poor city. All that mattered was quieting the tax protesters back home.

In the past month, I have twice spoken before groups of Montgomery County residents. Each time, the idea of helping the city drew the same reaction: "Why should we see our hard-earned tax dollars poured into the city? We have needs of our own. All we care about is our own community. The city should take care of itself."

Citizens don't feel any strong connection with the city. Nor do they understand how costly it will be later on to address these problems.

They have been persuaded by elected leaders that you can, indeed, get something for nothing. That you can attend baseball games in the city -- and never pay a cent for the police protection, city roads and other services. That you can visit the Inner Harbor for entertainment -- and never pay a penny for the infrastructure. That you can visit the theater, opera, museums and symphony -- and never pay anything for wear and tear on the city. And that you can commute to work in the city -- and use the good roads and public services for free.

Perhaps the only way to drive home the interdependence is to start taxing county residents for using city services. How about a stiff parking-lot tax on non-city residents? A surtax on cultural and sporting events for non-city residents? A surtax on all sales in Inner Harbor shops for non-Baltimore City folks? A hefty tax on books borrowed from the Pratt Library? And special police patrols aimed at nabbing non-city traffic violators?

Some way has to be found to wake up the suburbs to the fact that the city is so impoverished it cannot solve its problems without outside help. Some of Baltimore's cultural venues are going to suffer if officials in the suburbs don't start sharing the financial burden. Business leaders who have fled the inner city may discover that neglecting the city's needs only lowers the quality of life throughout the region.

And we all may discover that without curing the city's ills, the disease spreads rapidly across city-county lines. Drugs and crime and welfare dependency and disruptive schools and high unemployment are surfacing in the suburbs.

What happened in Los Angeles can happen anywhere.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

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