Political Theater at High Rises

January 26, 1993

Stop the presses: City Council President Mary Pat Clarke spent a night at a troubled public housing high-rise and lived to tell about it. Saw trash, smelled decay. Got stuck in an elevator.

Meanwhile, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who is to spend Thursday night at a public housing project, apologized to tenants for the conditions at Lexington Terrace. "I couldn't believe what my eyes were seeing," he said. "No wonder you're angry. It looks like a place we forgot."

Political theater is an essential part of the American democratic process. The powerless cry and moan before television cameras and the print media, hoping that they are noticed and their concerns heard. The powerful call news conferences to announce, highlight, underscore, explain or put it in perspective. The more dramatic the backdrop, the more likely such an event is going to make the evening news.

The question is whether the real message reaches the audience. When The Sun ran a full-page photo essay about Lexington Terrace last week, the paper received five calls from readers. None of them was worried about the tenants but voiced concern about a stray cat mentioned in the accompanying story.

Deteriorating conditions at Lexington Terrace and at other housing projects have been well known for years. They have been repeatedly reported on by the media, studied by blue-ribbon commissions. In no way are those conditions shocking in their newness; they are shocking because they have been disregarded so long.

Some of the dismay and disbelief expressed by city officials may indeed be genuine. But some of it is calculated posturing. It is aimed to defuse a call for a citywide rent strike and demonstrations by public housing tenants.

Many of the immediate problems at Lexington Terrace appear to be matters of simple but long-neglected maintenance. A new 5-cent washer may stop a running spigot. A swift cleanup will take care of the trash. This time. But none of these problems is limited to Lexington Terrace. They are part of the Housing Authority's failure to properly manage many of its 18,300 units. The whole system is broken down.

We were encouraged to hear some words of outrage from Mayor Schmoke. For too long during his five years in power a sense of outrage and urgency has been missing from his government's problem solving. We urge him to act on his emotions by making sure reforms are not merely talked about but actually carried out.

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