Battered Baltimore's best hope to heal itself rests with you and me

Dan Rodricks

September 21, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

How can we look at what happened to two police officers over the weekend in Baltimore and still feel Bill Clinton's military draft record is an important issue facing the American people? How can people reflect on the death of Pam Basu in Howard County two weeks ago and still concern themselves with George Bush's stand on abortion?

The tragedy of the city -- a tragedy that is reaching the suburbs -- renders almost every other issue in the presidential campaign trivial. In the tragedy of the city -- not just Baltimore's, but many cities'; not just today's but yesterday's and tomorrow's -- is the reflection of everything that threatens the American Dream.

And, as you read this, if you feel safe by virtue of social status and geography, then, by all means, have a great life.

But, before you go, at least consider what an affluent, successful businessman, a supporter of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, said Friday afternoon, an hour or so after we heard of the shooting of Baltimore police Officer James E. Young Jr.: "You can have all the money in the world, but if you don't feel safe in your car, even in your own home, what good is it?"

Actually, this is an old story. The city's tragedy has been unfolding for years. We've been in a race to see which Baltimore would survive: The Baltimore of old, enduring neighborhoods, gentrified, new neighborhoods, a terrific Inner Harbor and a busy downtown -- or the other Baltimore of a shrinking middle class, marginal neighborhoods, public housing projects and a permanent, poverty-stricken, illiterate, drug-infested, crime-plagued underclass.

People who live in Baltimore have known of these dynamics for a long time. Politicians and urban planners have studied it. The esteemed urban writer Neal Pierce came to town last year, 30 to 40 years after the great suburban migration started, and concluded: "While the city boasts a glittering chain of waterfront projects, it is also becoming poorer and poorer, losing more middle-class residents every year. Without some real help, Baltimore is in danger of becoming America's next Detroit or Newark, N.J.

"The surrounding counties," Pierce continued, "have developed into economically independent jurisdictions . . . and some county residents, who rarely see a need to go to the city anymore, seem to feel that as long as Harborplace or the Orioles surive, the rest of Baltimore could slide into the bay."

Extreme? I don't think so. American society is in many ways divided, and one of the great divides is urban-suburban. Or so we like to believe. Or so our leaders and the news media have comforted us into believing.

But it takes only common sense and honesty to understand that the problems of Baltimore, manifested over this weekend of police blood, have consequences beyond the city. How long can we go without facing it? Too many problems have been allowed to fester too long. The prisons are full. The public housing projects are full. Too many kids are drop ping out of school. Too many of them live in poverty, and feel hopeless even before they reach their teen years.

What does all that have to do with the criminals who shoot city cops and terrorize suburbanites out of their automobiles? It's not politically correct to say it anymore, but it has everything to do with it. We've been told this for years. And we all know it to be true -- if you grow up around poverty and despair and crime, the chances that you fall into it and perpetuate it are tremendous. If we don't deal immediately with the social problems that eat away at our core, there may be no core left.

John Edgar Wideman, an eminent black writer, recently reflected on the Los Angeles riots: "Could this insurrection be the end of capitalism, the West cracking, capitulating, as dead and impotent at its core as the other evil empire whose downfall we cheered without apprehending how soon our time would come?"

There was a time when the nation, through the president and the Congress, set about to do something about it. It was called the War on Poverty. The Great Society.

Then Ronald Reagan came along, declared the War on Poverty a failure, and started rolling back the clock on government's attempts at social progress. But Reagan had no agenda for cities because he owed nothing to cities. His power base was the suburbs and rural areas. Bush did the same thing.

But sooner or later, we have to pay for the cynicism and selfishness of the politicians we elect.

This is not simply a crime problem, though some people still view it as such. The death penalty has been suggested as a solution. But that's sort of like the war on drugs -- more symbolic than effective. The way to stop the flow of drugs is to stop the demand for them. And that's a tall order, requiring an all-out assault on the social problems that make the human landscape fertile for drug abuse. That's not grandiose. That's common sense.

Look, these problems are huge. We need to form an army of social soldiers willing to mend America at its core, starting in the cities. We need new jobs, solid schools, bold ventures to save kids whose families are failing them. This is a matter of life and death, not just for people who live and die in the cities, but for everyone with a stake in the American future.

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