Citizens' group wants to restore sense of hope

February 28, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

A roomful of people seemed to ask the same question: What has happened to our city?

All around Baltimore, this troubling observation comes up in conversation. You walk or drive down a city street and see the ominous blue flashing light of a police car. And why does it seem that so many people you know or are related to have been the victim of a holdup, purse snatch, auto theft or worse?

There is a sky-is-falling sense in city neighborhoods this winter. There is lack of confidence, a sense of instability, a perception that the valued connection between people and their city government is fraying.

In short, morale stinks.

And the places that have provided leadership -- neighborhood associations, civic betterment groups and City Hall itself -- seem to be on the defensive, powerless, stuck in neutral, directionless.

The words of Townes Coates, a Johns Hopkins Hospital employee and resident of the 2800 block of N. Howard St., hit home: "All of us here are die-hards. We haven't given up because we believe the strength of this city extends far beyond the Inner Harbor."

He was talking to about 65 persons who attended the organizational meeting of Citizens United for the Revitalization of Baltimore (CURB). This initial meeting was held earlier this month. A follow up is planned at 7:45 p.m. March 24 at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, St. Paul and 20th streets.

People attending the meeting is sued a litany of ills. They said that the feisty neighborhood spirit, which enjoyed an uplift in the 1970s and 80s, is evaporating today. Individuals cited crime, educational worries, poor sanitation and a depressed real estate market. The city's zealous corps of parking monitors came in for heavy complaint as well.

Union Square's Ardebella Fox vented her frustration about brazen drug dealing along McHenry Street and at the corner of Hollins and Payson streets in Southwest Baltimore:

"The dealers literally chased down my car," she said.

Dorothy Johnson, of the Greenmount West neighborhood, spoke of her campaign against trash and of her attempts to get tenants to keep their back yards clean.

There were unallied individuals from Mount Vernon, Rutland-Lafayette, Canton, Charles Village, the Southwest Community Council, Ridgely's Delight and Butchers Hill.

There was also a political side to the session. City Council President Mary Pat Clarke stepped in and exhorted the group to remember how neighborhoods pulled themselves up 25 years ago.

"What we haven't done, what we must do, is cross the lines -- the lines that divide us, by neighborhood, by economics, by race, by social group, by political or religious affiliation and on and on," Mr. Coates said. "It's been easier to keep us divided, because there's always someone else to blame." he said.

"When we cross those lines, we begin to ask the questions of each other that we all ask of ourselves: What has happened to our clean streets? What has happened to our safe parks? What has happened to our local industries? What has happened to our shopping districts? What has happened to our city?" Mr. Coates asked.

These voices exhibited a collective pride in the city's accomplishments in its neighborhoods during the past two decades. But recently, those accomplishments seem to be regressing. Another opinion that found wide agreement was that too much attention was being spent on high-profile downtown showcase projects and not enough on streets where people live.

Mr. Townes said his group's goal was to bring residential, business and institutional communities together: "Business people are feeling as ignored and out in the cold as community groups are," he said.

At the end, there was a call for renewal, change and action:

"We've survived the Dark Ages of rotting piers and crumbling districts. We've felt the excitement of a renaissance, full of promise and hope and renewal. Now the time has come to share what we've learned and recapture that spirit and begin Baltimore's Enlightenment," Mr. Coates said.

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