Name that hippo!

Brendan Walsh

January 15, 1993|By Brendan Walsh

ED Loring, a member of the Open Door Community in Atlanta, wrote a timely parable about a "rather large hippopotamus who occupied a rather large room."

The citizens agreed never to mention this hippo and never call it by name, so while the creature grew larger each day, occupying more and more space, no one ever pointed to it, and no one ever named it.

A prophetess warned the people that they had better name the hippo and then do something about its insatiable appetite. If they kept avoiding the obvious, she said, soon the hippopotamus would take over, crush every citizen and destroy the room. The people did nothing. And quite predictably, the hippo went wild, devouring all the people and leveling the room.

As we head toward Bill Clinton's inauguration, there's a hippo in one of America's large rooms. It's the sickness of our cities. As it grows larger and more dangerous each day, it is crucial that it be named -- and that its alarming growth be addressed.

We experience this sickness every day in the Viva House neighborhood. In an area less than a mile in every direction from the house (in the unit block of South Mount Street in West Baltimore) we see things that assault body and soul.

There is a low-intensity war being waged. Evictions are daily outrages. A family's possessions are piled in the street. People are publicly humiliated. They lose their meager belongings and part of their lives.

Everyone faces the reality of violence -- murder in our homes, on our front stoops, on our corners. "Drive-by" shootings are commonplace. And, given the firepower available to anyone strong enough to pull a trigger, innocent people are butchered. This violence runs top to bottom. The big boys in the Pentagon slaughter people in Iraq. Then youngsters mimic the carnage in Baltimore. Chickens do come home to roost. Residents of our neighborhood are on the bottom side of a caste system. Seventeen percent of the abandoned houses in the city arein our neighborhood. Fifty-five percent of our children live below the poverty level. Half of our people between 16 and 24 are not part of the work force. Only 42 percent of our neighbors above 25 are high school graduates. Thirty-nine percent of our teen-agers are not in school and are not high school graduates. We have a murder every 16 days; a woman is raped every seven days; we have one armed robbery, two assaults, and 11 unarmed thefts each day.

And that is just what is reported.

"Renaissance" Baltimore represents the top side of the caste system. For the past 25 years self-appointed urban saviors have told us repeatedly what they have won for us -- dead-end, non-union, minimum-wage, part-time jobs. These men knew that such jobs could not replace the 100,000 manufacturing jobs lost in the last two decades. They were aware of the huge high school dropout rate and the "work force gap" in Baltimore, where fully a fourth of our citizens lack the education and skills required to perform anything but menial work.

In naming this elephant and addressing its growth, we have to consider the greed factor. During the summer, Sun reporter Joan Jacobson did some of that. In a news story, she documented the number of development projects launched in Baltimore with government (taxpayer) loans that will never be repaid, many of which have been written off by city finance officials. "Greed" was never mentioned by those civic leaders and developers defending the practice, but it should have been.

It is time to name the hippopotamus. Baltimore is nothing more than one large room, and some of us are watching its occupant expand each day. The animal wants more space. When it finally goes on a rampage, everyone will be devoured and everything destroyed -- City Hall and the Murphy Homes, developers and homeless families, governors and prisoners, Republicans and Democrats, the new president and a clerk at Social Security, those who hoard the beans and those who beg for them.

Brendan Walsh heads Viva House, a Catholic Worker shelter and soup kitchen.

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