Row upon row of city problems

June 20, 1999|By Paul Delaney

FOR sure, Baltimore represents a real piece of work for the next city's mayor.

Nothing illustrates that fact so poignantly than a front-page article in last Sunday's New York Times, which outlined the problem of what to do with the city's trademark rowhouses.

The article pointed out that in what some people have called "a misguided policy of destruction," 20 percent of the "treasured rowhouses" will have succumbed to the wrecking ball by 2004. City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III was quoted as saying that he feels like crying when surveying the rows of abandoned dwellings on his native westside.

The piercing, pained article painted a sad portrait of death and decay of entire neighborhoods, underpinned with confessions by city officials, critics and supporters of policies to destroy the structures, that they have neither plan nor clue as to what happens next.

Obviously, that falls on the next mayor, and if I were a mayor candidate, I would be leading the charge in influencing the debate and ultimate decisions. The silence is deafening and indicative of the dearth of the kind of leadership that is an absolute necessity to tackle and solve such overwhelming problems.

What the city needs, and what it won't get, is a combination of the best traits of successful big-city mayors, past and present. A key trait of such mayors is the understanding of how to make the various sectors of a city -- despite conflicts, contradictions and competing interests -- work together cohesively and effectively for the great body of residents.

A few personal observations and examples from a long career covering urban America as a newspaper reporter:

Relaxed but intense style: In San Francisco last year, I was having a nightcap at my hotel bar before turning in when, lo and behold, Mayor Willie Brown and a small entourage came in. Admired but unbothered by the sophisticated crowd, the mayor danced a few rounds before taking off, looking chipper and having a ball.

Not afraid to use political clout: Perhaps apocryphal but believable, Mayor Richard J. Daley was faced with threats from suburban Arlington Heights to steal the NFL Bears from downtown Chicago. Mr. Daley played hardball, reportedly telling officials of the suburb that if they took the football team, they should also look for a new source of water because their supplier -- Chicago -- would turn off the tap. End of story.

Sensitive and caring: Many mayors have exhibited this special and delicate attribute, while some others have been lacking. The sense to reach out not only in times of pathos, as at funerals of policemen (sometimes shamefully overdone) and other victims of tragedy, but also on upbeat occasions that deserve attention. (The trick is choosing the right ones because the mayor cannot participate in every worthy affair.)

In fairness, great and merely good mayors have been stymied by the staggering problems that have besieged urban America over the past generation. Cities became shells as much of the rest of the country pigged out on economic good times.

Baltimore's next mayor is going to have to be "mayor pothole," the education mayor and the grass-roots mayor, the organization mayor, ambassador of goodwill, the housing mayor, as well as be a national leader in such groups as the U.S. Conference of Mayors. And more. That is why it is a demanding and daunting job.

But Baltimore is at the point where it deserves nothing less, in fact, cannot afford anything less. If this is Charm City, then the mayor has to be the Top Charmer to not only counter the descent, but also to restore past glory.

The article in the Times noted a lot of frustration. Well, it's justified. If city leaders cannot find a way to preserve a time-honored symbol of Baltimore, how are they going to deal with other extremely serious problems, which, coincidentally, are not exclusive to Baltimore.

Baltimore's renaissance can move beyond the Inner Harbor and a few selected neighborhoods at the direction of enlightened leadership.

Solving the rowhouse problem should be high on the agenda. And perhaps when the Times takes another look -- and it surely will at some point -- Mr. Henson will no longer feel like crying.

Paul Delaney is director of the Center for the Study of Race and Media at Howard University in Washington.

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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