Sondheim's 'small' acts chip away at big-city ills

August 30, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

He is the gray eminence of this city, a legend in his own town.

He was a catalyst for Baltimore's renaissance, the godfather of Charles Center and the Inner Harbor and much that followed.

Walter Sondheim has been an adviser to mayors and governors for more than half a century. He has held powerful positions, everything from president of the city school board to urban renewal czar. His services and advice have been so coveted that politicians actually gain esteem by publicly soliciting them, by associating their names and policies with him.

Asked to describe him, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said, "A wise man. A wise, wise man."

The words Gov. William Donald Schaefer used were, "Integrity. Absolute, total integrity."

So, who is Mr. Sondheim, and why are people saying these nice things about him?

Perhaps it is easier to begin by describing some of what he does. He is the interim president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the business executives' group that helps develop public policy, a job he can surrender safely now that the GBC named a new president on Friday.

He also chairs the Governor's Commission on Higher Education; he runs the Open Meetings Compliance Board, which tries to assure openness in government; he is on the board of Mercy Medical Center and the Joint Committee on Clinical Investigation at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which establishes guidelines for medical experimentation on human beings.

Quite a workload for a man who just turned 85. And that's not all.

Mr. Sondheim's long life of public service has run contemporaneously with the decline of the American city, in his case Baltimore. And yet, if his life has an evident purpose it is found in his unrelenting and possibly quixotic efforts to arrest that decline, or at least soften its effects.

Mr. Sondheim is a man of the city. He has never lived outside it. He was born in Bolton Hill in 1908, lived in Windsor Hills, Mount Washington and in three residences downtown. Currently he lives in an apartment at Tindeco Wharf in Canton.

"I wouldn't move," he said. "Someone once said that what motivates people is how they think of themselves. When I think of myself, I feel I would be deserting some principle. I couldn't consider moving outside the city.

"The city represents something to me. There is something about the intimacy of the city. There's a privacy to living in a rowhouse in a downtown area that you lose in the suburbs." He sees the city as the ideal arrangement for living.

But the city -- well, it is something different these days. Some would say that ideal has been subverted by the decline that began at the end of World War II and was exacerbated over the decades by the flight to the suburbs, the subsequent waves of crime and economic decline accompanied by the withdrawal of federal money.

"The things that have hurt cities all over America are not something anyone of us individually could have done anything about," said Mr. Sondheim, interviewed in his 15th-floor office above the Inner Harbor. "But, because you can't do anything about the bigger or universal problems, you have to take satisfaction in doing the smaller things."

He indicated with a gesture of his head the Inner Harbor as one of these "smaller things."

"If you lie awake at night, you can despair. In the back of our heads we know that the social issues of the great disparity in wealth, and racism, these are things we have to do something about. But we don't have in our hands the means to deal with them.

"So if you can't change the root causes, you begin to see what you can do to tackle the issues on a smaller basis. Sometimes you are treating the results instead of the causes, but these things cry out for attention. We hope that in a way these will at least contribute to solving the larger problem. One thing we know, these problems will not be solved from the top down.

"All this may be a piece of rationalization to justify my existence, but if I didn't believe in it I'd stay home and do cryptic puzzles. That's my form of recreation."

Having an impact

Has Mr. Sondheim been successful in his efforts? Or has he spent his life tilting at windmills?

"If you define that [success] as being true to his principles, the answer is yes," said Robert C. Embry Jr., who heads the A.S. Abell Foundation. He regards Mr. Sondheim as a mentor.

"Has he had an impact on the issues he addressed? Yes.

Can he correct all of society's ills? No."

If there is a Baltimorean around whom impossible expectations gather, though, it is Mr. Sondheim. People who know him often describe his capabilities by referring to those tasks that are beyond him: He cannot multiply loaves and fishes; he cannot raise the dead; he cannot bring about a voluntary political union of Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

"Even he can't manage that," said Gilbert Sandler, a former advertising executive and Baltimore historian. "That's the point where the art of Walter Sondheim stops."

But what exactly is the art of Mr. Sondheim? And how is it exercised?

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