When light bulbs go off, mayors should pay heed

July 11, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN MATTERS of home improvement, I am known as The Dimwit, a title proudly passed down to me by my father and, for all I know, his father before him. Builders of shelves, we never were. Hammerers and sawyers, not even. When asked about the full range of my household repair skills, I always answer, I can just about screw in a light bulb.

Yet even in the embarrassment of such full disclosure, I can now say this on behalf of myself and all other previously mocked men of my ancestral limitations: At least we can do more than certain city work crews, of whom The Sun's Tom Pelton last week plaintively asked: "How many Baltimore public works employees does it take to screw in a light bulb?"

Answer: Only one, really.

But, like the psychiatric patient in the old light bulb joke, he has to want to.

And maybe somebody has to tell him to.

On Howard Street, nobody has. They've got 29 fabulous arches there, with 341 ornamental light bulbs screwed into them to bring a sense of celebration and life to the bleak one-time grand lady of the downtown shopping district -- but nearly 300 of the bulbs have burned out and gone unreplaced, leaving the sorry look of an upside-down smile with its teeth fallen out from neglect.

The ironies here are remarkable. City Hall is trying to entice developers to build stores and apartments on Howard Street as part of a $350 million west-side renovation -- but they can't even keep the lights on.

They're forcing longtime commercial residents to move out and make room for new, upscale investors, uprooting businesses that hung in through tough times when many others were fleeing to the suburbs -- but the light bulbs give one last, flickering look at the frustrations tenants have faced when dealing with a City Hall forever operating on its own dim-bulb energy wattage.

Are any of the current crop of mayoral contenders paying attention to this?

Because, for all the talk of zero tolerance on crime, somebody needs to talk about zero tolerance of such quality-of-life matters as burned-out lights. On this, contenders will find an audience -- of all those living in the city who wonder why street lights go untended, why thousands of abandoned homes sit for years and create eyesore neighborhoods, why trash goes uncollected and the rat population thus thrives.

Take last week, for example, when the city sanitation crews came down the alley on my block. They emptied trash cans here, and trash cans there. Everywhere, they emptied trash cans. Except mine. Selective hauling, and not the first time this has happened.

So I called City Hall, and I asked for the Sanitation Department.

"Sir, what is your problem?" a nice young man asked.

"My trash didn't get collected," I said.

The nice young man gave me a telephone number to call for my section of town. I called and called, but nobody on the other end answered, not for 20 rings, not for 40 rings. So I'm sitting there, like any frustrated citizen, with several brimming cans of uncollected trash after a long holiday weekend, and the temperature's in the upper 90s, and I'm now anticipating all sorts of unwanted problems before the next scheduled trash collection, which is three days off.

So I call back to City Hall, and I get the same operator.

"There's nobody at that number you gave me," I say. And then, the way these things happen, I find words coming out of my mouth: "My name is Michael Olesker," I say.

Not so much -- "Olesker, of the Baltimore Sun." More like a pitiful -- "Olesker, of the Famously Inept at Household Chores Oleskers."

Because, when you get down to it, this is why we have municipal employees working for us: not to develop grand international policies, but to pick up trash, or put in a light bulb or fill a pothole, or do any of the community chores that the rest of us are simply not equipped to do.

On such matters, the city has routinely fallen on its face over the last dozen years. In his time, William Donald Schaefer was sometimes mocked for his attention to such detail, but it worked. He turned such things as potholes into his municipal fetishes. He'd call department heads and threaten them within an inch of their careers.

Do we have such a voice in the current crop of mayoral contenders? Or do we spend the next four years with another pleasant, buttoned-down personality, too polite to put a light under his employees -- or on a street arch designed to light up a sorry block?

Pub Date: 7/11/99

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