Lost in Yonkers -- and Baltimore

November 11, 1995|By Andrew Ratner

WHEN DANIEL Henson, Baltimore's public-housing chief, visited The Sun's editorial board last month, he remarked that he hoped Baltimore could look to other cities that had dealt positively with the relocation of public-housing tenants. He mentioned, among other places, Yonkers, New York.

Having grown up there, I know that Baltimore, now grappling with a housing controversy of its own, would not want to follow in Yonkers' footsteps.

Like Baltimore, Yonkers prides itself on a blue-collar, ethnic quirkiness. Baltimore long sat in Washington's shadow; Yonkers is dwarfed by New York next door.

Ten years ago, a federal judge named Leonard Sand opined that Yonkers had deliberately segregated blacks and whites by concentrating public housing in the southwest part of the city. His decree that the city fix that imbalance touched off a decade in which Yonkers became a byword for racial strife in America.

Council members dared to be thrown in jail rather than accede to the order. Whites, whose neighborhoods were going to get public housing, got violent at council meetings. The city's tormented young mayor killed himself. And although some people who initially fought the shift of subsidized housing say it hasn't been as bad as they thought, race remains a festering wound. Weeks ago, the New York chapter of the NAACP suspended the head of the Yonkers branch for suggesting publicly that a decade of forced busing hadn't helped Yonkers' minority students and the money would be better spent in the classroom.

This is public housing?

For me, the irony is that I grew up in the area that apparently harbored all the public housing, only I didn't realize it. In fact, the public high-rises, like the kind being detonated in Baltimore, looked a whole lot more inviting back then. A football coach of mine lived there. We'd drop him off after practice occasionally. Fifteen stories tall, with balconies, it was a fancy place, I thought.

But that was the '70s, before crack cocaine, kids packing Uzis and the collapse of blue-collar opportunity. Being poor in urban America ain't what it used to be.

Here does Yonkers' strife relate to Baltimore? If Mayor Kurt Schmoke fails to take a more personal role in working out the current dispute, if Dutch Ruppersberger keeps shedding crocodile tears for Baltimore County, if Eileen Rehrmann and Chuck Ecker and John Gary in the other outer suburbs merely decry ''social engineering,'' if the Carroll commissioners don't come out of hiding, if Rep. Bob Ehrlich continues to cleave rather than conciliate, Baltimore can forget about a future as a region. We're just islands of race and class.

Mr. Ruppersberger's solution, that the city fix up thousands of its abandoned shells to house the folks who used in live in the projects, is no solution. The children of those families would still go to crummy schools in dangerous neighborhoods. Everyone agrees that the public housing of the '60s, the towers I admired as a kid, have failed, so let's put money into something that works.

In Chicago, where a 19-year-old public-housing relocation program is one of the few that's been around long enough to measure, the children of families who moved into more stable suburban neighborhoods went on to college or higher-paying jobs at far greater rates than families who didn't move. The Chicago program also worked because relocated families were distributed so as not to change the nature of their new neighborhoods.

After Baltimore stole Cleveland's Browns, many people said we had become Indianapolis.

We don't want to become Yonkers next.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

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