Baltimore offers hope for St. Louis blues Missouri officials see best and worst of city in tour

October 06, 1998|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

At the end of a long day of small epiphanies, Clarence Harmon was dead on his feet yesterday afternoon as he walked into a rundown recreation center in West Baltimore and found something sublime in the pint-sized person of Ashley Fauntleroy.

"Hello, young lady," Harmon said. "What's your name?"

"Ashley," the pig-tailed 10-year-old replied. "And who are you?"

"I'm the mayor of St. Louis," Harmon answered matter-of-factly. "How do you like this place?"

With that, the fourth-grader at nearby Furman L. Templeton Elementary School on Pennsylvania Avenue bubbled over with a resounding endorsement for the city's Police Athletic League program: "It's fun. It's safe. We like it a lot!"

In a city unaccustomed to hearing nice things about itself, Baltimore was lauded yesterday by 123 visiting officials from Missouri's largest and most beleaguered metropolis as they visited a town they hope to one day be.

"Baltimore's quest to reinvent itself has made it one of the most inspiring stories on the East Coast," Harmon said during a brief break in a tour that took him from the shimmering Inner Harbor to the bleakest of the city's slums.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Harmon said. "We are all well aware of that. But to us, this looks really good. Baltimore is on the other side of horizons that we are only now approaching."

Indeed, the group from St. Louis was treated to far more than a Pollyanna civic exchange visit. Over three days and two nights, they heard blunt assessments from Baltimore officials of what is wrong and right with the city -- a warts-and-all confessional that explored some of the deeper wounds in a town badly injured over the past two decades by population loss, racial divisions and botched opportunities.

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who presides over the most visible symptom of the decline, laid out a tale of woe that includes 40,000 vacant houses citywide, a largely segregated population and the persistent drain on the tax base posed by the continuing loss of black and white middle-class families to the suburbs.

Demolition program

The prescription, he said, is a demolition program on a previously unimaginable scale -- about 25,000 units over the next decade -- coupled with construction, marketing and lending programs that break the traditional mold of past public housing efforts by targeting the middle class.

"There is essentially not a lot of integration coming out of this," he told the visiting bankers, civic activists and officials from St. Louis. "What we're getting is black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, but you can not legislate racial tolerance. And the alternative of letting the city die is unacceptable."

Henson's radical departure in philosophy is catching on elsewhere, sped along by twists of fate and geography.

For the first time, several speakers observed, suburban counties are beginning to lose population -- putting mostly white communities in the same boat as their mostly black urban neighbors.

Suburban leaders in Maryland are suddenly more willing to cooperate with the their city counterparts on solving problems such as abandoned housing, drug addiction and crime because they have become regional problems.

"Now, we get to work on some of the problems we helped create," said Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a former Baltimore County executive. "We share this common knowledge that the Orioles and the Ravens are regional sports teams. They don't just belong to Baltimore neither do the city's problems."

"Unfortunately, we've now done a better job of telling this story to the people of St. Louis than we have of telling it to our own population."

But to a city hungry for inspiration, the message was like manna.

The St. Louis delegates burst into spontaneous applause at one stop after another on a bus tour later in the day -- elated to see signs of hope amid the ruins of neighborhoods once all but given up for lost.

Visit to PAL center

At the Robert C. Marshall Police Athletic League Center in Upton, Col. Alvin Winkler of the Baltimore Police Department spoke of the progress his officers have made winning over the trust of local families in a crime-ridden quarter of the city.

"The drug dealers had taken over our recreation centers," he said. "And we've turned them back into what they were supposed to be: safe havens for little kids."

"Amen!" said Pastor B. T. Rice of the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition. "Amen to that! And thank you, Lord, for bringing me to Baltimore."

Pub Date: 10/06/98

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