Mr. Clinton: We can't let our cities die

MICHAEL OLESKER

July 16, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On a frigid morning last winter when the sun was not shining on the city of Baltimore and this nomination business was still very iffy, Kurt L. Schmoke sat in his City Hall office and quietly mentioned the man he would like to be president.

"Bill Clinton," he said.

"You've already made up your mind?" somebody asked.

The mayor said he'd been talking with several of the Democratic contenders. They were all nice men, he said, all very bright, all eager for the support of the mayor of a large American collection of potential voters. But there was one thing that set Clinton apart.

"Clinton's the only one," said Schmoke, "who understands what's happening in the cities."

Well, we shall see.

On Presstman Street this morning, they're wiping away the blood of a 15-year old girl shot to death with a baby in her arms as she sat in front of her friend's home. In New York City, if anyone has mentioned the phrase "gun control" at the Democratic National Convention this week, I must have been dozing.

In West Baltimore's blighted Sandtown neighborhood, where suburban real estate figures read like misprints from some distant, dazzling culture, the average price of a house is $7,421.

A few weeks ago, Jimmy Carter showed up to help build new homes for poor people there. This man's post-presidency is wrapped in nobility. He goes to Madison Square Garden, though, and he is perceived as a political leper about whom the less said, the better.

In Oldtown Mall in East Baltimore, and in Lexington Terrace and the Poe Homes projects just west of Martin Luther King dTC Boulevard, the median family income today is less than $5,000. Almost everyone there is black.

The mention of color makes many at the Democratic National Convention uneasy, and is often disguised this week merely by inserting the word "city" for "black."

The Democrats are tired of losing elections, but must not lose their souls in the process of trying to win one.

Kurt Schmoke says Bill Clinton understands cities, but there is evidence that much of America, particularly the people living in suburbia and the small towns, does not care: Too many poor people in cities. Too much violence. Too many blacks.

One muggy night in downtown Baltimore, Sen. Paul Sarbanes said, "We have to stop talking about cities and starting talking about metropolitan areas. If we keep saying cities, we reinforce that idea of divisions. We've got to get people to think in terms of a total picture."

Sarbanes' instincts are idealistic, but his words underestimate suburbia's self-protectiveness. America is now a leaky boat. Those at the high end, bailing water frantically to keep themselves afloat, do not particularly worry about those at the drowning edge. Distance is all.

At conventions past, the Democrats talked about such things and promptly self-destructed. America did not wish to be reminded. Now the Democrats dance delicately about such matters, hoping that liberals will instinctively vote for Clinton while the rest of the country tells itself, "Maybe we can trust them now."

It's reminiscent of George Bush, four years ago, declaring he wanted a "kinder, gentler" nation. It seemed a code word to those who remembered eight years of Republican disdain for the country's neglected. Trust me, he seemed to be saying. In my heart, I'm not like these other nasties. I'm a middle of the road guy.

So we now have the Democrats, always great ones for defending the have-nots, soft-peddling the issues that always get them into trouble. Their platform calls for economic growth but not redistribution of wealth.

Who could argue with economic growth? But shifting the money around, even in a time of obscene gaps between the wealthy and everybody else, still makes too many voters nervous.

Likewise, the Democratic platform stresses the need for military might. The Cold War is over, the Russians are broke, and now the Democrats are talking of a strong military? George Bush, we have learned, is oblivious to the needs of cities and unaware of the phrase "peace dividend," but Democrats used to talk a different language.

But cities have become such an inconvenient item for them. Voters have not only fled to suburbia, but taken their hearts along. Their mind-set is no longer: Here is the place where my forebears first put down roots. It's: How far away can I move, and still commute to work comfortably?

On Presstman Street Tuesday night, 15-year old Adrian Edmonds was shot in front of a friend's house while holding her toddler son. She is at least the 20th shooting victim in Baltimore this year under the age of 15. She was also an unwed teen-age mother, in a city where two-thirds of all births are to unwed mothers.

In Sandtown several weeks ago, Jimmy Carter bent over wooden boards with a hammer in his hand and pounded away all day long. He seemed as oblivious to surrounding photographers and public relations people as Washington seems uncaring of the problems of poor communities.

At the low-rent Lexington Terrace and Poe Homes projects, residents with $5,000 annual family incomes can look out their windows and see the outlines of the vastly expensive new baseball park. Cars zip past on Martin Luther King Boulevard. The broad thruway seems a buffer between cultures in a city wondering how long it can keep the peace before help shows up.

And tonight Bill Clinton will formally present himself as the Democratic nominee for president, and in the coming weeks we will begin to find out if the mayor of Baltimore is right, that this man understands cities, and understands that if the cities die, then America cannot be far behind.

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