You can deal with a mugger if you find him


February 02, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Seven o'clock yesterday morning, with the city beginning to stir all about him, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke raced to a meeting with oil company officials. They have a problem. They try to deliver oil in this city, and their drivers keep getting mugged.

This escapes most public notice, as it is considered a trifling problem to everyone but the oil deliverymen and, presumably, their customers. Everything is relative. You lose 350 people a year to homicides, a few muggings become an afterthought.

To the mayor, though, still cringing from the weekend, this is part of a pattern: his city, trying not to come undone; and, all those in the suburbs who deal with Baltimore, trying to remain sympathetic to its plight.

The supply of sympathy is dwindling. The economy sputters, and people not independently wealthy worry about their own troubles. A lifeboat mentality prevails: Let the city take care of itself.

Over the weekend, the mayor went to the Lexington Terrace public housing complex, where tenants have flirted with the notion of a rent strike. In middle-class suburbia, those who do not yawn over this feel the hackles rising on their skin.

Some at Lexington Terrace escorted the mayor through dark hallways and apartments with leaking gas, faulty wiring, broken windows, infestations of roaches. They talked about violence, about drug dealers who have taken control of entire buildings with the power of the gun.

In suburbia, there are some who hear this and feel fury: not merely with these frightful living conditions, but with the notion that those living in public housing are not at least partly responsible for their own environment.

"Oh, that's a part of the problem," the mayor said yesterday morning. "The tenant mix in some of the high-rises has changed. There was one lady we met, very young, and she already had six kids. Two had asthma. Others were riding up and down the elevators, throwing trash. Now, if we could just get them working with us. . ."

His tone sounded almost wistful, a dream of cooperation that once existed in many heads but now threatens to drift away. In suburbia, the dream is replaced by fear and emotional distance. The mayor knows this, and worries about the politics in Annapolis and Washington. The idea of the poor as victims is changing, replaced by that of the poor as parasites.

The mayor mentions an old proposal: Give a rent discount to tenants who help keep the low-rent housing projects clean. Once, such a notion appealed to peoples' idealism: Yes, yes, help for the poor while encouraging cleanliness. Now it calls forth cynicism: What about rent help for the struggling middle class, they ask.

In any event, the rent assistance was shot down. The IRS said the discount was considered income -- which moved too many tenants just over the poverty level, and thus made them no longer eligible for public housing.

And so the poor -- in Lexington Terrace, the average family income is about $6,000 a year -- grow more despairing, even as middle-class cynicism mounts.

"I get letters and calls," Schmoke said yesterday. "People want to help, but they want the tenants to help themselves. There's rampant cynicism. People have their own problems, and they want to know, how could things have gotten so bad?"

Some of it is already known: the drug dealers. The mayor was told of maintenance men who cannot do their jobs because armed drug traffickers block their path.

"They let them in on their own schedules, not the maintenance needs," the mayor said.

Thus, entire developments are held hostage to the dealers' whims. Once, Schmoke talked in public about decriminalizing drugs. Though he has since lowered his voice, he says he's got health officials here working on a specific national plan, which he'd like to present to President Clinton. Clinton is not entirely on the mayor's side here, owing to politics and the possibility of a social nightmare. What if decriminalization helped create a new generation of zombies?

At 7 yesterday morning, all of this was a full plate for the mayor to consider. Drugs and decayed housing and young women with too many children, and suburbia distancing itself.

In the face of this, talking about the mugging of oil delivery men might have seemed practically a relief.

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