Mayor's address hits all the right notes

January 27, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

UNTIL WE heard Martin O'Malley deliver his State of the City address Monday afternoon, we knew something was missing from the last 12 years at City Hall, but maybe we couldn't say exactly what. Now we know. It is called a voice, and on Monday the new mayor used his with conviction, and with passion, and it was nice to hear it if you could.

(Those who tried to hear it on the city's cable television channel unfortunately could not. The sound was not connected. This was believed to be one more sign of lingering municipal incompetence, or else it was O'Malley deciding to join the Silent Majority.)

In any case, this mayor hit all the right emotional notes. By acknowledging the city's problems, some of them in painful mathematical detail, and by laying out current efforts to fix them, he did a couple of important things: He let everyone know that he is not oblivious to reality, and he gave personal and official vent to community anguish. It is the end of the Schmoke-screen as public policy.

For all of Kurt L. Schmoke's good intentions, he never seemed to understand the need for words, which are the public measurement of where we are and where we need to go, as well as emotional charge that binds and inspires us.

With the old mayor, a generation's heartbreaking failure in the classroom was reduced to a sweet, but transparently fraudulent, slogan: The City That Reads. The new mayor declared, for everyone to hear, the arithmetic of the city's gravest failure: "Only 16 percent of our children meet state reading standards in the third grade. This is by far the worst in the state ... only 25 percent of the young people in our zoned high schools earn a diploma. And employers consistently tell us that those who do graduate are unequipped for the workplace."

The old mayor talked bravely, but too briefly, of a new approach to narcotics abuse. Then he silenced himself in the face of criticism. The new mayor acknowledged in public, "60,000 city residents addicted to drugs," and then reiterated his promise to close down 10 open-air drug markets in the next six months.

The old mayor seemed oblivious to neighborhoods in terminal malignancy. This mayor sadly acknowledged "at least 10,000, and maybe as many as 40,000 vacant homes ... whole blocks abandoned and allowed to fall into a blight of decay and grime." The he vowed a spring cleanup of city streets and noted that in a preliminary clean up of one section of East Baltimore, in his first week in office, Public Works crews picked up "more trash in one week than it did last year in the entire month of January."

The old mayor watched as 90,000 jobs disappeared from the city. The new mayor declared to the business community: "Now is not the time to leave Baltimore -- not just because of civic responsibility, but because of economic reality. You don't dump a stock just when the value begins to rise."

The old mayor never said a thing about crossing racial divides: It was one of his biggest failures. This mayor talked of meeting with "my friend, Rev. Frank Reid," who is the old mayor's stepbrother. Then he invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a "colorblind nation." He said he was "absolutely committed to helping to build and sustain a strong minority business community."

All of these things are important to hear. In the silence of the last 12 years, we were left to wonder: Doesn't anybody at City Hall see the things the rest of us see? Doesn't anyone care? The silence descends not only on those who live in the city, but those who police its streets, who collect the trash, who teach the children.

As everybody knows, talk is cheap. But, in the absence of words, and of passion, there are no official standards. William Donald Schaefer used words to strike fear in the hearts of his bureaucrats. Schmoke was a nice man who assumed, not always correctly, that city employees were grown-ups who would always work to the best of their abilities.

A week ago, O'Malley declared his frustration with the continuing high count of homicides. He wanted quicker results from his police. Some said this was unfair, that the new command staff hadn't had enough time to make an impact.

That's not the point. In 10 years, we've had 3,000 homicides and thousands more people who were shot but lived only because of the miracles of modern medical care. O'Malley was expressing the frustration of an entire city that has been told, by silent implication, that things were about as good as any reasonable person could expect.

What O'Malley declared Monday was: expect better. In a city where more than 120,000 people moved out in the last decade -- "the second highest rate of population loss in America," O'Malley said -- just hearing the honest recitation of trouble, and the earnest vows to change things, gives us a sense of hope.

At least we know where we are. And we know that someone in charge knows it, and says that it doesn't have to be this way.

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