Lives of poor unchanged by Schmoke

August 04, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE 4,360TH issue since its founding in 1914, the New Republic magazine has belatedly glanced this way and discovered that the mayor of Baltimore is a disappointment. Their brain trust should have inquired hereabout maybe 40 or 50 issues ago. Ironically, the magazine is taking a shot at Kurt L. Schmoke just as he's getting better.

In a five-page spread called "Up In Schmoke," reporter Jason Zengerle looks all the way back to the future mayor's legendary high school days at City College, and the Lancers Boys Club years with Judge Robert Hammerman, and the golden promise of Yale and the Rhodes Scholarship, before declaring:

"When Schmoke became mayor a decade ago, Baltimore's white establishment believed his ascension heralded a new era of harmonious, biracial politics that could rescue the city. But the harmony was illusory, and the rescue never came."

Zengerle's right about some things, including race. The last mayoral campaign was a heartache. The recent Schmoke suggestion of racist motives behind a federal investigation of city housing was beneath him. And, if the mayor has made any grand pronouncements about racial harmony during his City Hall days, they've gone unnoticed, though many have been listening quite intently.

Also, though, when the New Republic says the city's rescue never came, they've got it wrong: In many ways, Baltimore's in the midst of a new renaissance. And Schmoke should get some credit for it. But it's not precisely the renaissance he once had in mind.

Ironically, the mayor's on the cover of another national publication this week, In These Times, with a story that gets us closer to his successes and his disappointments.

The piece, written by Salim Muwakkil, is called, "A New Class: Black mayors move away from racial politics." It's about all the post-civil rights-era black mayors who took office amid fervent African-American anticipation of breakthroughs.

"By the mid-'80s," Muwakkil writes, "black constituents began expressing some discontent over these mayors' failures to significantly improve black communities' overall quality of life. The reality of municipal management in the United States has little room for the extravagancies of ideology. Mayors must govern a broad and diverse constituency including the interests of real estate, banking and corporate sectors."

This is not exactly news to the mayor. As everybody knows, he's a smart guy who's been to college. But, over the years, business leaders here have gone ballistic over what they believe has been his history of ignoring them, or playing hardball with them when it makes no sense. Remember USF&G feeling ignored? Remember folks from the Convention Center and tourism business going bananas?

Now, though, there dawns a twinkly new day in Baltimore. It's not exactly the day Schmoke imagined, and it doesn't arrive with, say, the brass bands that a Don Schaefer might have brought to it. But it's here.

The country's economic boom has reached Baltimore, in ways we haven't seen since the earliest talk of a thing called Harborplace. You can smell money in the air. You can hear the sound of hammers and drills from Federal Hill's newly refurbished rowhouses to the new Inner Harbor hangouts to Fells Point spots to marinas and homes and book stores in Canton.

But, does anybody know what these neighborhoods have in common?

In the New Republic, Schmoke says, "I can't seem to disabuse some people of the notion that I'm like Huey Newton or someone."

Actually, nobody's ever confused the button-down Schmoke with the former Black Panther leader. But he's speaking in shorthand. He means some white people tend to stereotype black people -- and their accomplishments.

If there's success in white-majority neighborhoods, or the crowds are thick at white-controlled Harborplace, many assume it's happened in spite of City Hall. They assume an end run by white business people tired of dealing with the ponderous City Hall, or they assume market forces have simply rolled over the clumsy city bureaucracies.

That's unfair to Schmoke, but it touches on a big problem: He's got two cities. One is learning to feel pretty good about itself; the other can't get out of its own way.

There are plenty of middle-class neighborhoods, black and white and mixed, where the living's delightful. But there are neighborhoods, mostly black, where this administration hasn't made a dent in long-standing troubles. The crime is frightening, the drugs are sold openly, and children are on the street all night.

What's more, the institutions that touch the lives of great numbers of black citizens are a mirror of tragedy: the public schools, now in their third decade of dying; the Police Department and the courts, overwhelmed by the terrible self-destruction in the roughest black neighborhoods; and the social service agencies, where most of the poorest, neediest clients are black.

This mayoral administration hasn't reached those citizens who have needed him the most. The second renaissance has arrived without their participation.

"For a man who was supposed to represent the color-blind ideal," Jason Zengerle writes in the New Republic, "Schmoke is now remarkably haunted by questions of race."

It comes from the last campaign, and the latest housing troubles, and it comes from Schmoke's complete inarticulateness, these past 10 years, on matters of racial harmony.

But the great irony is this: In measurable terms, middle-class white and black Baltimore's doing pretty well under Schmoke. Its that permanent black underclass that he hasn't been able to touch.

Pub Date: 8/04/98

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