Whenever Washington-based foreign journalists want to escape the inside-the-beltway myopia and sample real America, they take a 45-minute ride up the parkway. In Baltimore, where nearly one-fifth of the population is on government assistance, they find a microcosm of the nation's urban problems -- and promises.
More than 200 mayors from America's biggest cities will conduct a similar reality check today as part of the the U.S. Conference of Mayors' winter meeting in Washington.
Only last night, the mayors were watching fireworks over Washington's monuments during a pig roast and catfish buffet. In Baltimore, they will be treated with traditional hospitality during a black-tie affair for 2,000. But there will be no fireworks, just casual reminders of the challenges the nation's big cities face as a result of decades of suburban flight of both people and capital -- as well as over a decade of neglect under the Reagan and Bush administrations. "What Baltimore symbolizes are the kinds of things cities are fighting for," said one planner of the event.
This is the largest gathering of big-city mayors and networkers Baltimore has hosted in memory. The timing could not be more fortuitous.
A new administration is about to take office in Washington (which is now in the same metropolitan statistical area with this city) amid hopes that it can stop the devastating decline of cities. Indeed, developer James W. Rouse (who has done several pioneering turn-around projects here) has been warning for months that conditions in America's cities are far worse than in comparable major cities elsewhere in industrialized nations.
This is a crisis that will never be ended unless a concentrated and radical policy of action is developed. A policy that streamlines the outdated and unrealistic federal rules and regulations which have paralyzed even the best efforts to reform unworkable programs and practices. A policy that again directs private investment toward urban centers, be it by big corporations or by modest families. A policy that recognizes cities as deserving of attention and urgency.
These are matters appropriate to discuss in Baltimore. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is the chair of the mayors' standing committee on community development and housing. When that panel meets tomorrow, Henry Cisneros, the incoming Clinton administration's secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development will be among the speakers.
Enjoy your evening here, mayors! We count on your help in lobbying for cities like Baltimore. We are still looking for a place called hope.