Money is nice, but it can't paper over society's ills

October 23, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the 2200 block of Pennsylvania Ave. yesterday, the two kids stopped their morning odyssey to school and peered through the front window of an abandoned rowhouse across from Paradise Liquors until they heard an older kid in a sweat shirt hollering from half a block away.

"I'm leaving you," the big kid called.

The little ones kept looking through the window and did not move.

"I said ... "

"Whoa," the two of them suddenly cried, backing haphazardly away from the window and bolting up the street to the big kid, half running to the sound of his voice and half running from something in the abandoned house, something real or imagined they'd spotted in the darkness, and now all of them raced to the first sound of the morning school bells.

The grown-ups are talking about education money again. The new figure is more than $45 million. It's geared to teaching kids from poor families, from the neighborhoods like this stretch of West Baltimore, where it sometimes seems as if all the money in all the tight little fists in Annapolis might never make a difference even if it does find its way here.

Outside the abandoned rowhouse on Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday, an old fellow leaned against a wall where somebody had left an empty whiskey bottle wedged into the remains of a rotting windowsill. A skinny woman in a sweat shirt sat on a nearby stoop with a bottle of Clorox in her hands and shivered in the morning chill. A man with a plastic bag said he had $15.50 in rolled-up pennies inside and would somebody be kind enough to take them to a nearby bank, which did not wish to do business with him if it involved only pennies.

There were long, velvety curtains hanging in the window of the rowhouse. The curtains had a kind of tattered elegance. Behind them, there was almost nothing, only this charred, haunting blackness all about and wads of trash that had been dumped between the few remaining boards that once constituted part of a floor.

Now, even the floor was gone, and you could see straight into the basement. Something was scurrying around down there, something on four legs, throwing fleeting shadows here and there, something that might have prompted the two little kids to bolt away so suddenly for school.

The new education plan is supposed to spread money around the state. It's supposed to placate certain counties, which were ticked off a year ago when Nancy S. Grasmick, the state school superintendent, crafted a deal for $254 million over five years to help Baltimore's public schools. "What about us?" the counties were left asking.

"Yeah," Mark Banks said now, looking at the empty Pennsylvania Avenue rowhouse, "they had bars over these windows for a while. But then somebody stole the bars."

"When?" he was asked.

"When?" he laughed. "Who knows? This house has been like this for five years, at least. Just sitting here looking like this, and the whole neighborhood running down around it. Somebody could be living in here. I don't know why they don't. I know know why somebody don't condemn it or rebuild it."

He swept a hand left to right. There were four houses in a row, all of them abandoned, all of them roosting places for any interested junkies, miserable eyesores in a neighborhood that hasn't felt good about itself for at least three decades, haunted houses for little children learning about their community on the way to school.

"You get somebody wandering in there, and they fall through that floor and nobody ever find them," said Banks, 35, an employee of Bush Plumbing and Heating Co.

"After they holler and moan for a while," said James Matthews, 48, "they never hear you again."

They were asked about more kids walking past. The kids had knapsacks on their backs and woolen hats pulled over their heads, and most of them walked in little packs with at least one grown-up accompanying them.

"It's rough for a little kid around here," said Matthews, who works for Peter Pan Bus Co. "It's been rough for a long time now."

Everybody knows about the history of narcotics around here, and all of the failed law enforcement efforts to stop it, and everybody knows about the history of poverty in this neighborhood, too.

The people in Annapolis think they can stop it with education. They think they can stop it with more teachers, and extra classroom hours, and the various gifts in books and computers, and all things bought by money.

And then you see things like abandoned houses, which sit there for years, and there's an empty liquor bottle on the windowsill, and the junkies are dumping trash in the basement, and the little kids on their way to school peer into the window and there's something moving down there, and how does the embrace of a classroom begin to undo the damage in the rest of the world in which these children live every single day?

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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