Frustrated residents form `Congress' in city

Growing coalition targets crime, trash

June 07, 1999|By Jamie Stiehm and Gerard Shields | Jamie Stiehm and Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore residents frustrated with City Hall are creating a "Neighborhood Congress," a grass-roots political movement that they hope will grow into a groundswell before September's primary election for mayor.

"People are sick of beating their heads against the wall," said Odette Ramos, an organizer for Greater Homewood Community Corp. The shared goal of the growing coalition of individuals and community groups, she said, is simple: "a clean, safe, well-run city."

A newly charged activism is evident. To vent anger recently, Baltimore residents carried an abandoned couch and dropped it on the sidewalk of City Hall.

A group complaining about illegal pay phones used for drug deals forced the city to cut them from their metal pedestals on West Fayette Street.

On Tuesday, at Union Baptist Church in the 1200 block of Druid Hill Ave., neighborhood activists registered 500 city voters, promising to recruit an army of 6,000 more to play a role in city elections.

This week, three meetings are planned to hone strategies for the main event: the first Neighborhood Congress on June 28 at Baltimore City College.

Baltimore's rising community dissatisfaction -- which cuts across geography, class and race -- occurs as the city prepares for its first mayoral race without an incumbent in 28 years. Many residents hope the next city leader will focus on chronic problems, such as trash and drug-related crime, and make city agencies more responsive.

"We need real action out of politicians and bureaucrats," said Joseph L. Henley, 65, president of the Forest Park Neighborhood Association and a core organizer. "It's a good time to get started, with a complete turnover.

"I'm a life-timer," he added, "and this is one of the most positive citywide organizing efforts I've ever seen."

Cheryl Casciani, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, said momentum for a citywide congress developed last year. "There's a common and consistent level of frustration throughout the neighborhoods," she said. At the same time, she said, "There is a real recognition that citizens have responsibilities, too."

Along with CPHA, the congress has attracted support from the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation and dozens of umbrella groups throughout the city.

Organizers say the emphasis is not only on what city officials can do, but on what residents can do to offer solutions in four areas: crime and drugs, sanitation, housing and open space, and youth and education.

"We need to develop a way to hold each other accountable," said Ramos. "We can't just rely on the city anymore."

Elected officials, city agency heads and candidates are welcome to attend the forums and congress, but are not specifically invited, organizers said.

The first of three "solutions forums" will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. today at Frederick Douglass High School at 2301 Gwynns Falls Parkway. At the large convention June 28 at City College, action plans will be presented and approved.

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor with the Johns Hopkins University, said Baltimore neighborhood activism is the most vibrant in 20 years. In 1983, Crenson wrote the book on the issue, called "Neighborhood Politics."

In it, he noted how similar movements sprouted in the late 1960s and 1970s, efforts that former city Mayor William Donald Schaefer capitalized on to mobilize political power. Crenson said the latest surge from Baltimore neighborhoods can be partly attributed to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's departure after 12 years in office. Crenson, and Schaefer, agree that the next mayor must address the concerns of neighborhood groups.

"The community is the key," Schaefer said. "The next mayor is going to have to go out and restore that neighborhood pride."

One city official, planning director Charles Graves, said he hopes Neighborhood Congress organizers take note of a newly finished comprehensive plan.

"I would hope they would build on the recommendations from PlanBaltimore, vs. trying to start anew."

Pub Date: 6/07/99

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