Racial remark nothing to be proud of either

June 04, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

And so, on a sunlit day with nothing better to do than ruin the next week of my life, I drive over to Park Heights Avenue, where some idiot has placed a "Mayor Schmoke Makes Us Proud" banner over what once was a movie theater called The Avalon, which then became radio station WSID and which now, for maybe the last decade, has been a rotting symbol of the various cancers infecting this city.

In the course of reporting this atrocity -- this notion that any sort of pride should be equated with such filth and decay -- I drive the nine blocks between the abandoned theater and Park Circle. Here, I count 42 vacant houses. I see the broken windows and the yards choked by overgrown weeds. I wonder how people who wish to lead decent lives can exist in such a place. I decide to ask the mayor of Baltimore if he knows.

"The mayor won't be available for comment," says his spokesman, Clint Coleman, explaining that Kurt L. Schmoke has a busy schedule on this day.

I tell Coleman what I have seen on Park Heights, and also tell him that I have spoken with Mary Pat Clarke, the city council president, who has declared "abandonment" by the Schmoke administration is the cause of Park Heights' problems.

"Why don't you talk to Dan Henson?" the city's housing commissioner, Coleman suggests.

Thus begins a marvelous week in which I report Henson's remarks in this newspaper, and Henson responds to this publication by inventing a dialogue that never in this life occurred. I am accused of misquoting him, of deciding, after 29 years as a newsman, after 19 years of writing a newspaper column, after an entire career in which nothing is more important than people believing me, because if they stop believing me they stop reading me, of now deciding, what the hell, let's put some words into somebody's mouth that he never said.

Right.

The truth is this: When I related Mary Pat Clarke's remark about the Schmoke administration's alleged "abandonment" of Park Heights, Henson, as I reported a week ago, replied, "We haven't abandoned Park Heights. The abandonment didn't just start. It was you."

The remark threw me. I thought he was accusing me personally. Henson knows, from previous conversations, that I grew up in Northwest Baltimore. He knows the exact neighborhood, which was nowhere near Park Heights. Why was he saying I abandoned it?

"Me?" I said.

"Yes, you," he repeated.

"I never lived on Park Heights Avenue," I said.

"It was you," he said again.

And then, in the silence that followed, I understood what he was saying.

"Me?" I said. "What do you mean me? You mean white people? You mean Jews?"

"Yes," Henson said.

That's not a general re-creation of a dialogue. It's precisely how it happened, with me taking notes at the very moment the words were spoken. Henson then quickly moved on to a less incendiary topic. The next morning, a Friday, I called Clint Coleman back. I related to him the exact dialogue. It seemed to me it was the sort of thing to which the mayor of Baltimore might want to respond. He is a man who hasn't played the race card, hasn't said anything intended to divided us by race or religion. This was a moment for him to restate such a philosophy.

I waited until 6:30 in the evening, but neither the mayor nor Coleman called back.

And so we now have Daniel P. Henson denying he made any such remarks. He denies it as pickets, whom I have never to this day met, marched around City Hall calling for his resignation, and he denies it with his boss, the mayor of Baltimore, running for re-election. He denies it in a letter that, he purports, is a reconstruction of our conversation.

And here is my problem with all of this: Henson is entitled to defend himself and his department. He is entitled to say the city is trying to improve lower Park Heights Avenue. He is entitled to his view of the history of that neighborhood.

But he is not entitled to lie about me in the process, to create a conversation that never happened. And, as an official of this troubled city, he should know better than to engage in racial or religious scapegoating. In fact, he does know better. And he knew the moment he did it that he'd made an insensitive, divisive remark, but he was too stubborn to say, "Wait a minute, let me rephrase that."

Any time you attempt to blame a specific racial or religious group for a community's problems, you open the door. In this case, you open the door for white people, of whatever religion, to say, "Us? It wasn't us who ruined that neighborhood. We haven't even been there for a quarter of a century."

And thus, we begin to choose up sides along ethnic lines, which has gotten everyone in this country exactly nowhere. So what did we have the rest of the week? Callers filling the talk radio stations for three days. Choosing up sides by race. And, instead of all of us casting a clear eye on Park Heights Avenue's problems in the year 1995, reopening the terrible wounds of 1965.

And that's the thing set off by the housing commissioner of Baltimore that is most indefensible of all.

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