On a bumpy ride through the back streets of Baltimore, U.S. Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros got a close look yesterday at the city's unvarnished side, the mostly poor and decaying neighborhoods beyond the downtown business district.
Amid the boarded-up rowhouses and overgrown lots, he also glimpsed the redevelopment that the Schmoke administration wants to hasten with an "empowerment zone" designation that could bring as much as $100 million in new federal aid.
Maryland Democratic Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski invited him to visit to see the city's commitment to rebuilding "the other Baltimore" and to solicit a little advice on competing for the aid package. Mr. Cisneros will choose nine locations for empowerment zone grants this fall.
Several hundred community leaders, city officials and business people welcomed the housing secretary with a noon picnic at Harlem Park Elementary School. A marching band played, children held up handmade signs and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke greeted Mr. Cisneros with a smile.
Mr. Cisneros offered no promises but plenty of encouragement after his four-hour visit. He appeared impressed by some of the preliminary plans, which include a community boarding school for troubled youths, a homeownership incentive plan, and a "buy Baltimore" program to encourage businesses to purchase goods and services from each other.
"A major part of the application, or what cities are going to be judged on, is community participation," Mayor Schmoke said. "It's easy to write on paper that there's grass-roots enthusiasm -- but it's much better to show him in person."
In the crowded basement of Unity United Methodist Church, as he thanked the volunteers involved in developing the revitalization plan, Mr. Schmoke was moved to tears
"I just wanted to thank you for keeping my family in your prayers," he said in a cracking voice, referring to the recent death of his half-brother in a road accident in South Africa. Councilwoman Vera P. Hall went over to comfort him as the crowd murmured in sympathy.
Mr. Cisneros warmly praised Mr. Schmoke as "the finest mayor in America today."
"He's a personal hero of mine," said the former mayor of San Antonio. "One of the reasons Baltimore will be so competitive is Kurt Schmoke is mayor here."
Mr. Cisneros conceded that the city faces a tough fight because it doesn't meet the specifications for five of the nine empowerment zones. Three must go to rural areas, one to a city with a population under 500,000 and another to a city that borders on two states.
The nation's biggest cities -- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- are believed to be leading candidates for three of the remaining four zones. However, Mr. Schmoke and city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III say they're optimistic of landing the final spot.
Mr. Henson took Mr. Cisneros on a quick tour through the dilapidated East and West Baltimore neighborhoods that have been selected for the zone. The proposed zone also includes the Fairfield industrial section of South Baltimore.
Chance to rebuild
Both the Sandtown-Winchester area on the west side and the community surrounding the Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore already are in the midst of revitalization efforts. Mr. Henson pointed out some of the progress, including the reconstruction of entire blocks of abandoned homes along North Broadway.
"This is a chance to rebuild this entire city," said Cecelia Walker, a Harlem Park resident whose family has owned a home on Carrollton Avenue since 1929. "We just got to get work and go get it."