They cast blame on the babies

Dan Rodricks

July 13, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

The drive-by judgment is one we make make while driving through the "rough" neighborhoods of Baltimore, usually on the way home to some relatively nice, relatively safe place, usually beyond the city limits.

The drive-by judgment is important because it forms the basis for grander judgments about the poor, especially the poor minority population and the part of Baltimore they inhabit.

Nearly a decade ago, Billy Murphy, candidate for mayor, dubbed it the "other Baltimore," a Jacksonian (Jesse) term that meant the part of Baltimore visitors pass as they head to, until this year, Memorial Stadium or the Museum of Art or downtown and the Inner Harbor. Every day, an estimated 250,000 people come from adjoining counties to Baltimore to work. We pass by or over the "other Baltimore." What little we see of it forms the basis for our judgments about it.

Recently, I heard someone say what Baltimore needed was a few tons of dynamite for the Jones Falls Expressway. The destruction of the highway would force suburbanites to travel streets through the "other Baltimore," the idea being that this would open more eyes -- the eyes of intelligent, politically potent, relatively affluent Americans -- to the dire problems that afflict the urban poor.

Those who advocate that the counties make a greater investment in the city's human needs know the argument can be made only to people who are paying attention. And not enough people, starting with those in the present White House, are paying attention. They are not in touch with how the "other Baltimore" really lives. They are driving right by it.

Consider the host of reactions to the shooting of Michael Gordon and other children in Baltimore. I've observed ambivalence, anger, yawns of indifference, sighs of frustration, scorn for the men who do the shooting and scorn for the women who allow their children to be on the streets at night, when most of the gunfights occur.

This last reaction is particularly interesting because I've heard it expressed by people who consider themselves informed, astute and relatively sensitive to problems that face the urban poor. It's also interesting because it implies a judgment about the behavior of people they do not know.

Even from their remote vantages, these people understand that drug dealers come out at night, that they carry automatic weapons, and that they are absolutely mad about defending their businesses. They know that this happens virtually nowhere other than in cities, more specifically in the poorest neighborhoods of cities.

What they don't understand is how so many parents could allow their children to be in harm's way.

"Irresponsible people," was what I heard the other night. "Babies out on the sidewalk at 11 o'clock. No wonder kids get shot."

Last week, a day after another wild gun battle resulted in the wounding of 2-year-old Michael Gordon, I was driving through Baltimore and noticed several kids on the street after 11 p.m. Some of the kids appeared to be age 2 or 3.

There isn't a person who has been in Baltimore at night -- and I don't mean on the Jones Falls Expressway -- who has not seen it. Women and children, and a few men, sitting on the steps of rowhouses, or on lawn chairs on sidewalks, until midnight or even beyond, especially during the spring and summer.

There was a time in Baltimore when no one thought twice about this. There were fewer TVs, no air conditioning. People sat outside at night to cool off, to talk with their neighbors. Kids very often were a part of that scene.

Maybe, in the old days, kids went to bed earlier. But I'll venture that, during summer months, they might have ambled about the sidewalk till 9 or 10. And, after they went to bed, there wasn't as much noise to keep them awake. Fewer police sirens. Fewer ambulance sirens. Fewer gunshots. No police helicopters shaking the rooftops.

In the old days, of course, there weren't as many drug dealers, either. The corner gun battle was rare.

The intensity of urban street crime has escalated by virtue of, if nothing else, the greater use of automatic weapons. Behind that is a new and more dangerous criminal, full of rage and recklessness, who sees the street not as someone's home but as commercial territory.

Given all that, why would people in such a drug-infested neighborhood stay on the street past dusk? And why on earth would they have their kids with them?

Those are reasonable questions. But ask yourself this one: Why should people be prisoners in their own homes? Isn't the real problem the lunatic drug dealer and his automatic weapon? It's a sad day when we condemn people, especially the poor, for sitting on their front steps.

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