The harbor shines, but poor seek ray of hope

June 29, 2000|By Michael Olesker

ON DRUID Hill Avenue just below North, where the cars charge around that blind little bend in the road so furiously that nobody knows if it's safe to step off the sidewalk, a little boy bolts across the street yesterday morning.

"Davawn," a girl shouts after him too late to make a difference. "Davaawwn."

She shouts it like some kind of prayer. She shouts it like a curse. "Davaawwn." She shouts it because Davawn is 10 years old and rolling the dice with his life, and she is his older sister, given responsibility for getting him through the day in one piece until their mother comes home for supper.

Davawn slips to the other side of Druid Hill Avenue, where somebody has dumped a pile of trash, cups and wrappers and foam containers, the remains of carryout hamburger meals, next to an undernourished little tree. Behind the tree are rowhouses that are boarded up, only some of the boards have been ripped out, and the windows behind them are gone, and a darkened row of empty rooms is visible from the street.

From the basement steps of one of the boarded-up rowhouses, a young man in a T-shirt emerges, looks both ways, walks quickly to another abandoned rowhouse about five doors away. A woman comes out of this house, talks to the young man and ducks back in. Who knows what information, or what goods, they may have exchanged? The most immediate fact is this: People are emerging from buildings that were closed, boarded up, all power turned off, and deemed unfit for habitation.

Davawn runs past them, up the street, past an elderly couple on canes, past little groups of people sitting on front stoops with no particularly place to go, and then out of sight. The young man in the T-shirt ducks back into the basement of his abandoned rowhouse, careful not to trip over a couple of stray bottles on the steps, and a slender woman walks past.

"Who dumped the trash there?" somebody asks.

"The neighbors," says the slender woman.

"Don't talk to nobody, Pam," another woman calls out angrily.

"Who do you think dumped it?" Pam says. "Or maybe it was people who don't live in the neighborhood but think this is some kind of a dumping ground. Inquiring minds want to know."

She offers a wan smile as she says it. We live, as everyone in Baltimore knows, in different cities. All week at the glittery Inner Harbor, the visiting ships arrived and the tourists came to embrace them. The lines merely to board the ships stretched forever. The hotels and restaurants have been filled, and money floated through the air. It is impossible to imagine what this city (and its tax base) might have been like had the naysayers talked Harborplace out of existence 20 years ago - and infuriating to think how little beyond the water the success, and the optimism, have traveled.

Go several blocks from the harbor and it's another world. Everybody knows this, and nobody knows how to change it. For a long time, everybody blamed the tight American economy, or the needs of the Cold War, or some other convenient excuse. Money had to be spent elsewhere. But the economy's been great for a decade, and the Cold War is over. Other cities boast of enormous drops in crime, which encourage home buying, which spreads to many neighborhoods.

Here, the harbor continues to glitter, and the neighborhoods around it - from Canton and Fells Point to Federal Hill and Locust Point - are blossoming. Elsewhere, it continues to be sluggish. Don't even drive along Reisterstown Road from Park Circle to Belvedere Avenue, unless you want your heart broken.

The city was supposed to implode the Flag House Projects on July 4, but cooler heads have decided to wait until fall. On July 8, the last of the Hollander Ridge public housing will be blown up.

But who knows where all those who have lived in these public housing projects will go? Housing officials do not know, and those who live in the counties only know that they do not want them in their neighborhoods. The city has been home to the vast majority of the state's poor people for the past several decades, and the suburban population has grown from all those wishing to escape this poverty, and the problems that continue to come out of it.

Meanwhile, the under-financed public schools, long accustomed to groveling and begging for alms, long accustomed to arguing the connection between spending and academic success, now take their case to court to confront the state over millions it mistakenly assumed was coming their way. In a time of great budget surpluses, is there a better way to spend it?

Well, it's been a beautiful week at the Inner Harbor. The estimates were that $55 million would be spent there this week. There's a sense of festival in the air.

On Druid Hill Avenue below North, Davawn had to make his way back across the street through all that traffic. In this neighborhood, though, crossing the street through traffic is easy. Finding a tiny place in the city that glitters is the tough part.

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