Remember when harmony didn't draw national TV?

August 15, 1999|By Michael Olesker

ON THE DAY his handsome 89-year-old profile graced the front page of the New York Times last week, John Pente, the movie hero of Baltimore's Little Italy and role model for us all, sat at his kitchen table with his daughter Marge and pushed down a button on his telephone answering machine.

"Get a load of this," said Pente.

There came the voice of a television producer with ABC-TV's "World News Tonight." She wondered if ABC could come to Pente's house to interview him. She wondered if they could shoot pictures of the huge Senator Theatre projector that shows movies through Pente's bedroom window to all who gather on Friday nights on Da Mimmo's parking lot below.

She wondered what so many news outlets wonder in the wake of Little Italy's marvelous summer at the outdoor movies: Can they capture some sense of a community's charm, its throwback to another, dimly remembered time when people gathered outdoors, on their front steps and their lawn chairs and their sidewalks on summer evenings, and nobody sensed menace in the air, and it felt like an actual neighborhood?

John Pente's become a symbol of all this. When asked a few months ago if he'd house a 6-foot-high, 300-pound projector in his third-floor bedroom this summer so that movies could be shown on a makeshift screen directly across the street, he graciously said, "I'll do anything to help the neighborhood."

That story's been reported here, and by the Reuters news service and the New York Times and by local TV, and ABC wants a piece of it, and now, the day after the Times story, I met Gilbert Sandler at his office at the Abell Foundation.

"Look at this," Sandler said, his voice a blend of caustic pride. "Who says we have prob- lems in the city of Baltimore?"

He swept a hand across the view from the foundation's 23rd floor Galleria windows: fabulous, glorious, and nothing but. Harborplace and its crowds, pleasure boats on the water and, from a distance, the city's east and west sides glittering in the noonday sun.

But Sandler, 76, one of the great, big-hearted chroniclers of the city's history -- he's written hundreds of op-ed pieces for this newspaper and the classic book on Little Italy, "The Neighborhood" -- is also one who bleeds over Baltimore's enduring troubles.

He remembers the city of children playing in parks after dusk, and parents not having to worry about stray bullets; and folks coming out of steamy rowhouses on summer evenings, not only for the relatively cooler air but the chance to chat with the people next door and across the street, and the night wasn't filled with the sound of sirens.

"Have you been out to that place in White Marsh?" Sandler asked.

He meant The Avenue. Sandler still lives in the city and finds a drive to suburbia a trek to a foreign country. The Avenue, forget it. He's only heard explanations about it.

"I understand it's an attempt to re-create what we used to have in the city," he said.

That's pretty much the concept. Essentially, it's two strip malls face-to-face so that it looks like faux Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown. Only without all the modern vacancies.

The point? We long for what we think we remember, or what we've heard about from people who were in the original cast: a sense of community, of belonging, of living a life beyond moving from an air-conditioned house to an air-conditioned car that takes us to an air-conditioned mall.

The suburbs have their charms, but it's hard to find intimacy with so much space between things. The big lawns get in the way, and the highways and parking lots. People moved out there to avoid the city's troubles, but they also blotted out what remains of its crowded, energetic and spontaneous joys.

Now there are four weeks until the city's primary elections. There is a sense of 12 lost years, with the suburban middle-class migration continuing, and the ruination of entire city blocks while other large American cities seem to blossom.

When you talk to people such as Clarence Blount, or Elijah Cummings or Kweisi Mfume, all of whom grew up in the city, all veterans of the political business but none shy about speaking uncomfortable truths, they each mention driving around the city this summer and wanting to cry bitter tears at what they saw.

Partly, they're talking about houses abandoned, or torn down, and trash tossed onto vacant lots. And partly, they're talking about children who roam the streets with parents otherwise occupied, and grown-ups afraid to come out of their homes because of it.

We long for a sense of safe and joyful community, all of us. Those such as John Pente, with his selfless gesture in Little Italy, bring us a piece of it. As do the reminiscences of Gilbert Sandler. And whoever runs for mayor this summer and gives us the clearest vision of it, of bringing a sense of harmony back to the whole city -- this is the candidate who will touch voters' hearts.

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