The free citizens of Sandtown

January 02, 1996|By George F. Will

BALTIMORE -- Winter's cutting cold acquires a serrated edge from the harbor's dampness, and in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood winds whipping through gaping empty windows in abandoned row houses suggest spring never comes here. These 72 square blocks of blight give the impression that all commercial and social energies have congealed like oil in the crankcase of a jalopy: Ignition will be impossible.

That impression is wrong. There is a quickening of community life because Jim Rouse willed it. He knows a thing or two about urban resuscitations.

Building sparkling urban projects around the nation -- for example, Harborplace -- was a piece of cake compared to the challenge of reversing the downward trajectory of this neighborhood where about 10,300 people live.

Almost 13,000 would live here were it to reacquire its vanished strengths. Time was, this was a working-class neighborhood, where Cab Calloway is believed to have been born and Thurgood Marshall did go to school and jazz clubs resembled Harlem's.

That is the way it was as recently as the 1950s. Then manufacturing jobs departed. (Sandtown got its name from sand trucks passing through from a quarry, en route to Bethlehem Steel's plant that no longer makes nearly as much steel as it did.) Drugs arrived. Social pathologies exploded.

What is wrong today? Everything. Where do you start fixing things? Everywhere. ''Everything at once'' could be the motto of Community Building in Partnership, the most ambitious model for neighborhood transformations in 150 cities, that was launched by the Enterprise Foundation that Mr. Rouse created.

Its premise is that poverty is a seamless web and must be combated comprehensively: Low-cost housing will not stabilize a community where there is no commerce; there will be no commerce where crime is rampant; crime will be rampant where schools are bad, drug treatment is inadequate and recreation facilities are negligible. So, everything at once.

Seventy percent of Sandtown-Winchester families are headed by single women. The neighborhood has four times the nation's rate of low-birthweight babies and infant mortality, and many babies are born addicted.

Forty-four percent of the adults receive neither a living wage nor benefits. Twenty-two percent of the neighborhood's houses are vacant, and occupants of houses cannot get insurance if they are next door to an unoccupied house, or on a block with three such houses: Insurers know that trouble eventually fills such voids.

Four years ago Mr. Rouse's initiative entered the void of community -- the dust of individuals -- that Sandtown-Winchester had become. Its strategy has demonstrated the strengths and insufficiencies of different dimensions of Jeffersonian doctrine.

Wise and frugal government

What is needed ''to close the circle of our felicities?'' asked Jefferson, who never saw a place where felicities are as scarce as they are in Sandtown-Winchester. ''A wise and frugal government,'' he answered -- one that restrains men from injuring one another but leaves them otherwise free to regulate their own ''industry and improvement.'' Would it were so.

Here children have babies and the elderly would have to walk past open-air drug markets to get to the supermarket if there were a supermarket. Four years ago 91 percent of the three elementary schools' pupils scored below minimal state standards. Here 9,000 tons of debris (cars, stoves, sofas -- and kitchen sinks) had to be trucked away from seven square blocks before new housing units could be constructed.

Here scarcities of material resources and deficits of social skills are so severe that federal, state and city governments toil to empower people to participate in their own improvement.

However, the high rate of participation may be what Jefferson had in mind as democracy. Residents are a majority of the board of Community Building in Partnership; 100 block captains, some with walkie-talkies, supplement police patrols; neighbors encouraging pregnant women to receive prenatal care at the new clinic have dramatically reduced infant mortality. By one definition of freedom, the participating residents of Sandtown-Winchester are among the freest Americans.

If freedom is more than freedom from restraints imposed by others, if freedom is a consequence of self-government, if freedom is active engagement in the affairs of a community controlling its fate, then the energized residents are free in a way that most Americans, who in most ways are more fortunately situated, are not.

The residents of Sandtown-Winchester lack many things but have something Jefferson sought when he said: Divide the nation not just into states and counties, which are too large for meaningful self-government, divide it into ''wards.'' ''Residents?'' Call them citizens of the Republic of Sandtown-Winchester.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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