Congressman's old neighborhood is still the focus

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 13, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

From Robert and Division streets, where he grew up in West Baltimore, Rep. Kweisi Mfume turns his car down an alley and sees this crippled old man walking through the frigid, scattery raindrops.

''Bop,'' the congressman cries, lowering his car window. ''Hey, Bop.''

The old man looks up from a metal walker he's leaning on for support. His eyes take a moment to focus, and then they light up. Immediately, the two men enter a comfort zone, with talk of old times, treasured hangouts, absent friends.

''It's good to see you,'' the old man says. The congressman nods his head. Bop looks over Mfume's car, eyes his suit of clothes.

''Listen,'' he says, not quite choking on sentiment. ''Could I have a dollar?''

''Huh?''

''I'm not going to the liquor store with it,'' he assures, though no one has asked.

Mfume reaches into his pocket, pulls out some money, hands it to his old friend. He holds the man's hand, and then holds it a little longer. The old man walks away then, and Mfume slowly puts his car into gear.

''Ol' Bop,'' he says after a few silent moments. He sighs. ''You know something? He's 15 years younger than me. He's 29 years old.''

In Mfume's old neighborhood, people sometimes age in terrible ways. So has the neighborhood. In a cold drizzle, Mfume gets out of his car on Division Street and points out remembrances of things past: Over here was a grocery store, now boarded up; over there a tuxedo rental shop, grown over with weeds now, burned out in the riots of nearly a quarter-century ago and ignored ever since; a few doors away, the rowhouse where Mfume lived his adolescent years until one night his mother died right there in his arms.

He seems to have come back here from some other world, but not so he'd want to stress it. This is still psychological home. Last week in Washington, Mfume was voted head of the Congressional Black Caucus, a position likely to give him considerable visibility in the coming months.

But all political instincts still flow from here, or else they mean nothing. The past dozen years, while Mfume was learning the political ropes in the Baltimore City Council and the U.S. Congress, American cities were being ignored by those in power, and American race relations, once full of idealistic promise, were growing distant and edgy.

These streets are the evidence. Mfume is still a child of another mind-set, Martin Luther King's vision of people learning to get along with each other or perishing as fools. But that kind of thinking has been shouted down in the past decade.

''The people in power have found it easier to look the other way,'' Mfume says now, slowly pulling his car through mournful-looking streets. He shakes his head at the sights, finds himself muttering, ''This is my neighborhood'' in tones of disbelief.

The country's come to a kind of crossroads. The incoming president claims to care about the future of cities and talks compellingly of racial wounds that have to be healed. This is language unheard from the White House in too many seasons, and Mfume now finds himself with potential influence he's never even imagined.

On Laurens Street, he recites the familiar litany of urban problems: no jobs, high cost of education, family breakdowns. They were there in Mfume's youth, too, but back then, he says, there was hope that he no longer senses down here.

Once, there was talk of racial integration. Now, on these streets, Mfume says, there's too much talk of white conspiracies designed to keep blacks poor.

Once, there was talk of inner city development. Now, he says, you can't get anyone to invest money below Park Circle.

''All the businesses that pulled out,'' he says, sweeping a hand down the block, ''and all the middle- class families that left. The streets were left to babies, and to the angry. When a laundry is burned out, and a school firebombed, and a grocery store shut, you move out if you can. But look what's left.

''And then all the anger that comes out of the pop culture today, the violence. To kids down here, there's a sense that society doesn't care. We've got to get past that. I'm not saying it's all the government's responsibility. It's not. It's really on all of us.

''To wait for the government to do anything is almost suicidal. They're not the end-all. And you can't put your fate in someone else's hands.''

And yet, and yet . . .

For the first time in years, the government will be headed by someone who seems to care. For the first time in his life, Mfume's in a position to influence the national debate. It's a long way from Robert and Division streets.

And yet, for Mfume, that's still the focus for everything that will follow.

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