After a Record Year for Murder, Baltimore Considers the Crime Epidemic Tackling Crime Through Community Building

PATRICK M. COSTIGAN

January 13, 1993|By PATRICK M. COSTIGAN

The murder rate in Baltimore raises a deeply troubling question -- what can be done in our violence-torn neighborhoods?

To compound the question, violence is not the only crime scourging these communities. They are also marked by persistent poverty, shoddy housing, joblessness, poor schools, health care via emergency rooms, and overwhelmed human services.

There is a temptation to conclude that nothing can be done. This is unacceptable. No other country in the industrialized world tolerates these conditions in its cities; nor should we.

Something can be done. The answer, however, lies not just in more police on the streets or a more punitive criminal-justice system, but in working with communities to tackle all the conditions in a comprehensive fashion.

Decent, affordable housing is critical, but the children who live in it must have suitable schools to attend. Unemployed people can't make use of job training and placement assistance unless day care, transportation and health care are accessible. A child with a reading disability can't be helped by an illiterate parent. And the violence can't be stopped until kids and adults have reason to hope that life can be better.

Across the country communities have demonstrated that a school can be improved, that a job-training program can be effective, that housing can be rehabilitated, or that human services can work. But nowhere have we worked in a single neighborhood on all these fronts at once over a sustained period of time.

There is an effort under way in Baltimore right now to work in this way. Ironically -- and intentionally -- it is happening in one of the neighborhoods found by a recent Sun investigation to be among Baltimore's most violent. Led by Mayor Schmoke with support from the Enterprise Foundation, the residents of the Sandtown-Winchester community on the city's west side have committed themselves to transforming all the conditions that trouble their neighborhood.

Under the name ''Community Building in Partnership,'' residents, the city, Enterprise and other supporters are working together to set goals and propose programs to make all housing fit and affordable; to improve schools so that all students graduate ready to work or continue on to college; to make health care, including substance-abuse treatment, available to all residents who The answer lies not just in more police or a more punitive criminal-justice system, but in working with communities to tackle comprehensively all unfavorable conditions.

to provide job training and placement services right in the neighborhood along with small-business assistance for resident entrepreneurs; to better integrate the human-services network to support the needs of whole families; to work with police on new approaches to community policing; and much more.

Because of the scope of this vision, this initiative requires the sustained commitment of Mayor Schmoke, other governmental leaders, private agencies, funders and residents.

As hope is restored over the long term, violence and crime will give way to an empowered community. The proof of this approach will be the results produced in Sandtown-Winchester. And though work has just begun, there already are many successes.

Since the partnership began: 227 new Nehemiah town homes were built through the initiative of BUILD; former President Carter led Sandtown Habitat to begin renovation on 30 homes for low-income purchasers; the Sandtown Winchester Community Development Corporation and other non-profits are planning a half-dozen housing projects; the city school system introduced the Tesseract private management approach in two of its schools; the Baltimore Project has made a significant impact on infant mortality; the city has opened a new community support center for families and at-risk youth, and neighborhood churches and community organizations have committed themselves to the fight against drugs and crime.

Perhaps the most nagging question is what will it cost? The Bush administration has estimated that the miserable conditions our inner cities cost $750 billion a year. It is a reasonable bet that if those resources could be invested in efforts to transform neighborhoods in a manner similar to what is proposed for Sandtown-Winchester, the costs would be far outstripped by the benefits of reduced violence, healthy children, public-school graduates in the labor force and communities with the capacity to solve their own problems.

Patrick M. Costigan directs The Enterprise Foundation's role in the Community Building in Partnership initiative in Sandtown-Winchester.

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