Firm foundation helps sagging city keep its balance

DAN RODRICKS

October 10, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

A contractor took a break from his recent job building a large addition on a 70-year-old Baltimore house to admire its foundation. It was a solid foundation of dragonhead stone, crowned with brick. That foundation, the contractor remarked, will be there long after we're gone.

Around the time the contractor was saying this, the city of Baltimore was experiencing more madness. In two days, two city police officers had been shot, one fatally. A young woman had been attacked in Little Italy, long regarded as one of the city's safest neighborhoods. A new report had been published on the further decline in average income of city residents. The mayor was talking about increasing the city's piggyback tax.

It was one of those periods when we travel through a gloomy tunnel of bad news, and people who care become even more pessimistic about the city and regard its future as absolutely bleak.

Still, the contractor did his work, building something new off the foundation of a house that had been constructed in the 1920s, back when the city was still growing, still the robust centerpiece of the region.

That a homeowner would further invest in Baltimore in 1992, with all its social problems and high property tax rate, must seem ridiculous to people who live in the suburbs and consider them safer places to live, more stable places to invest.

"As soon as I can get a car, I'm moving out to Owings Mills," a young fellow named Lionel told me recently. He lives in Bolton Hill and works at a downtown florist shop. He had been robbed at gunpoint in the shop a week before we spoke. He had been mugged two other times on the city streets. As soon as he had the means, he was gone.

And yet, back at that city house, the contractor did his work. Up the street, roofers put new slate on another old house. A block away, a real estate agent escorted prospective homeowners into a four-bedroom colonial up for sale.

The city might continue to lose middle-class homeowners, but others remain and newcomers arrive. Baltimore still has a strong foundation, and thousands of people continue to build on it -- by choice.

It needs to be said, especially after another trip through the tunnel of bad news. It's at times like these when those of us who could afford to live elsewhere -- and that certainly does not cover all Baltimoreans -- assess why we continue to make this choice. City homeowners take stock of these things more frequently than our counterparts in the suburbs do because we are more frequently challenged to answer the questions: Why stay with all that crime? Why stay when you can't trust the public schools to educate your kids? Why pay all those taxes?

When he was mayor, William Donald Schaefer heralded all that was right with Baltimore. And he complained, sometimes bitterly, that Sun reporters who chronicled Baltimore's ills were themselves suburbanites and, therefore, opposed to Baltimore's progress.

But while he complained on those grounds, Schaefer himself did not live as his constituents did. He had no children who attended city schools, and he lived on Edgewood Street with a 24-hour police post outside his door. To point this out was to reveal the wizard behind the drapes. It spoiled the illusion Schaefer wanted to create: Baltimore is fun, a good place to raise a family.

A lot of people felt differently. Despite Schaefer's pleas, thousands of middle-class people gave up and left. They return to Baltimore only to visit -- either for eight hours of work or a few hours of pleasure. Or to show off the "good Baltimore" to out-of-town guests.

Why do the rest of us stay?

I know why I do.

I love Baltimore. I moved here 16 years ago and found a big city that felt like a small town. I found friendly, interesting, sentimental and kooky people; neighborhoods where men and women still speak to each other; bars and restaurants and shops where people remember names; a Great Good Place, or two, to hang out. I discovered Cross Street Market, the Senator Theatre, the Swallow at the Hollow, Mugs' place in Little Italy, Charles Village when the Bradford pear trees are in bloom, Apicella's and Mastellone's delis, Lexington Market, Attman's, St. Mary's in Govans, Fells Point and the aroma of H&S Bakery, Mambo Combo, Randy Milligan and about a thousand other good things.

Baltimore is still the centerpiece of life in our part of the world. With all its problems and all its desperate needs, the city endures through people who still believe in it. The Formstone front might be cracking, but the foundation is still solid. It will be here long after we're gone.

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