Baltimore's challenge to revitalize

June 21, 1996|By Murray Saltzman

I WON'T BELIEVE IT. The city is not doomed. Baltimore, like other such cities, is not bereft of the resources to revitalize itself.

Nineteen years ago, when considering whether or not to move from Indianapolis to Baltimore, my wife and I spoke with my cherished friend Clarence Mitchell Jr. Wise, as always, he urged us to come and participate in what was sure to be a great adventure: the creation of a new Baltimore for the next millennium.

''Live in the city,'' he pleaded. ''Its future will require leadership that speaks above political favoritism yet with moral fervor.'' We moved to the city, not so much because I saw myself as such a leader, but because Clarence's faith in the city's future ignited in me a strong desire to participate in the vision seen by this great humanitarian and committed citizen.

Now 18 years after arriving in Baltimore I see significantly positive evidence of the city's efforts to uplift itself. Eighteen years ago a lifeless downtown had lost its identity. The landmarks of a once gracious community of stores, restaurants, gathering places were shut down one by one.

Today, impressive new structures, spaces and business have emerged to give the skyline a distinctive appearance. It boldly announces a new Baltimore of fascinating diversity and complexity.

But there are many negative forces at work. They drag most American cities, Baltimore included, into a morass of economic stagnation, educational decline, criminal violence, class and racial hostility, impoverished resources and bankrupt leadership.

I insist that the future is at risk not so much because of external forces but as a result of confused internal perceptions and shriveling enthusiasm afflicting the modern city.

The fact is, our nations' Baltimores are at risk. Were the impending threat to arise from some external military source, we would readily muster the resources necessary to overcome it. But the contemporary danger is far more intangible and far more insidious.

The healing remedies will emerge out of a threefold spiritual regeneration. We must become a community. Community bonds build in us loyalty, pride and a shared destiny. These evoke in us a conscious caring about the place and the people around us.

When we live next door to each other without knowing our neighbors; when we fear gathering together in public parks, streets and entertainment centers, lest we endanger our lives or HTC our children's lives; when we unfeelingly ignore broken sidewalks, littered yards, burned-out human beings whose faces stare blankly at us; when the drug dealers own the corners; when our eyes see poverty, dirt and pain and our conscience feels nothing -- then there is no community, there is no shared destiny, and then indeed the city is doomed, and so are we all.

The city represents the core structure of human civilization. Without its culture, excitement, creativity, we are back where were our ancestors whose home was the isolated cave.

We must commit ourselves to building community. We must demand of our political leaders an ambience that promotes community. The academicians must accept a role to stimulate the higher learning sector to join in advancing literacy and life competency.

Children must have community centers and playgrounds to belong, to know they are secure, to occupy their time by constructive interaction with other children from the many cultures and races that are represented in our city.

The medical sector, hospitals and physicians, must play a role in giving all members of the community access to adequate health care. The commercial sector must invest its best talents and know-how to help those seeking jobs, as their opening to security and dignity.

Community conscious

Each of us must be community conscious, even on so trivial an issue as litter in the streets, taking responsibility for removing refuse. All of the city's agencies must be energized by caring civil servants to monitor and advance community building. No segment of the population is excluded. Everyone must be included.

Inclusiveness and pride must become the imperative pulpit message of our religious leadership, whose words and deeds must incite their constituencies.

Secondly, the city must project itself as a place of opportunity. We have the talent, wisdom and technology to provide every child with an education to meet his needs. A society that neglects its children's education will be condemned to build more jails than schools.

Housing opportunities, as well as educational and employment possibilities, are equally crucial to infusing the city with a spirit of ''can do'' optimism. The climate of the city must announce: ''Baltimore is a place of opportunity!''

Toward this end, citizens can be tutors and boosters of one another, and especially of children. We must foster hope for a better tomorrow, through the availability of job security, decent housing, and cultural involvement.

Finally, we require perseverance. The task is of enormous proportion. We will falter and sometimes even take a wrong turn. But if the vision is clearly defined, and the determination to persevere is deeply embedded in us, we Americans can capture tomorrow's radiant promise.

The American Revolution was won by dint of the perseverance of George Washington and a small band of patriots as much as by anything else. There are no single remedies and certainly no single panacea to overcome our times' challenge. Most often, those who persevere win the day.

Murray Saltzman retires this weekend after 18 years as rabbi of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

Pub Date: 6/21/96

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