Citizens' meeting draws 750

Neighborhood Congress demands solutions for chronic city problems

June 29, 1999|By Gerard Shields and Jamie Stiehm | Gerard Shields and Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

About 750 residents from across Baltimore gathered yesterday to demand that the city consistently pick up trash, cut the murder rate, pour more resources into schools and treat drug-addicted neighbors.

The Neighborhood Congress, the latest citizens' group aimed at trying to attract the government's attention to struggling neighborhoods, convened for the first time at City College.

Financially supported by the nonprofit Citizens Planning and Housing Association, members of the coalition of neighborhood groups, wearing purple shirts with the Neighborhood Congress logo, vowed to press city leaders to take action.

Residents were seated by neighborhood in the auditorium, the names of their communities written on placards.

"Everybody is griping about the same thing," said Wendy Kronmiller, president of the Abell Improvement Association. "When you see it across the city, it's kind of striking."

The movement of frustrated citizens comes at an opportune time. The city is in the middle of the first mayoral race without an incumbent in 28 years. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will step down in December after 12 years.

Neighborhood Congress organizers said they want to solve chronic municipal problems, not endorse mayoral candidates.

"In every crisis, there is an opportunity," said Jan Danforth of Woodberry. "We've forgotten how to be a community."

Walking into the magnet school, attendees were handed a folder listing the bad news:

Baltimore has suffered at least 300 murders a year for the past 10 years. An estimated 63,000 residents are addicted to drugs. Less than 40 percent of high school students graduate. And the city has 11,705 vacant or abandoned homes.

Those who attended the meeting heard speeches meant to stir community pride. As they left the meeting, they were asked to vote on what they considered the best solutions to the city's woes.

Solutions range from increasing the number of drug treatment slots to establishing behavior management programs in city schools. Fostering reading, closing drug markets, attracting middle-class families and teaching residents proper trash disposal gained the most votes.

Members will break into smaller groups for four meetings over the next month to tally the votes and present the organization's agenda to city leaders.

"My neighborhood association can't do it all by itself," said Michael Lester, 30, a mapmaker who lives in Union Square. "This is a good opportunity to meet people from other parts of the city."

Mayoral candidates were invited to the event but were asked not to make speeches. Residents hooted and hollered in agreement when speakers criticized elected officials for "serving themselves" and not residents. But politicians in attendance welcomed the enthusiasm.

"I think it's fantastic," said City Council Vice President Agnes B. Welch of West Baltimore. "I started as a neighborhood activist, and this kind of congress will set the tempo for activism."

After the meeting, some residents said they hope the event serves to put city leaders on notice, but acknowledged that residents have to do their part.

"I hope it will pull the residents of the city together and let each one know what their responsibilities are," said Phyllis Green, a retired schoolteacher from Rosemont in West Baltimore.

Pub Date: 6/29/99

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