Saving soul of Baltimore starts with saving kids

September 06, 2001|By Michael Olesker

AND SO WE FIND the city of Baltimore performing one of its poignant little dances yet again: patching together a mayoral "brainstorming" commission to attract new residents and simultaneously hold on to those hardy souls who have not yet fled the premises.

For a community that lost nearly 85,000 of its residents in the past decade -- more than any other American city -- this is not only good news, but hopeful at its core. The thinkers at City Hall realize Baltimore is poised for a renaissance unseen since the earliest, headiest days of the last one, when William Donald Schaefer was a young man just beginning to cast flirtatious glances at his first municipal pothole.

In Eric Siegel's account in Tuesday's Sun, the new brainstorming committee has latched on to a number of catchy ideas, all of which seem splendid, and all of which seem slightly beside the central point.

Because, while they mention financial assistance for neighborhoods that are shaky, such as Patterson Park and Reservoir Hill, they willfully sidestep the troubles of places such as North Avenue.

And, while they mention tax-incentive programs for young people wanting to buy their own homes, and suggest sprucing up thoroughfares leading into the city, they pointedly do not address the catastrophe of Greenmount Avenue in the heart of the city, where entire blocks are darkened by abandoned homes and the only beacons of light shine from corner liquor stores.

And, while they acknowledge the problems in the public schools, they do not touch on such troubles as could be seen Tuesday, the first night after the city's children returned to school.

For here was Greenmount Avenue from 25th Street down to Gay Street, and here was North Avenue from Greenmount east past Broadway, and on almost every block there were young people who surely want something better in their lives.

And it was after 10 o'clock at night.

At Greenmount and 24th, five teen-age girls, one holding an infant on her lap, sat on front stoops amid rowhouses that were boarded up. At Preston Street, young people loitered outside the Avenue Bar. At Chase Street, half a dozen children, all elementary-school age, strolled up the block. At Eager Street, a couple of teen-age boys on motor scooters zipped past. At Madison, two teenage girls walked with babies in their arms. At Biddle, four little boys walked with a teen-age girl, all of them eating from bags of potato chips. At North and Aisquith, outside the Royal Star Carry-Out, the parking lot and nearby rowhouse front stoops were alive with people in their teens and younger.

All of which brings mixed emotions.

There is something fundamentally sweet about a front-stoop kind of culture. At its most congenial, the city is not suburbia, where families duck into the air conditioning and lock the doors after dark. There are city neighborhoods where life goes on when the weather is balmy, where neighbors gather to chat about the day's events, and their children play nearby, and such places carry the feel of extended family instead of isolation.

But this is past 10 o'clock at night after the first day of school. And a couple of generations of city school teachers can vouch for the thing that will follow: The kids will stay on the street until late at night, and homework will go undone, and in the morning the children will be roused from bed, not fully rested, and will make up for the lost hours by sleeping their way through the various classroom lessons of the day.

From such behavior, we have schools where the best intentions of professional educators are thwarted by parents shortchanging their children's lives. The kids cannot learn if they cannot keep their eyes open.

And from such surroundings, we have another lesson. Every day, suburbanites by the thousands drive into the city along these very streets, and they pass the rows of abandoned houses and a collective shudder can be felt. How can any community be allowed to fall into such disrepair and decay?

So it's nice that the mayor has a new brainstorming committee, and it's encouraging that they think the time is ripe to draw suburbanites into town.

The fact is, the city has some fabulous neighborhoods, and some neighborhoods with grand, untapped potential, and other neighborhoods with wondrous legacies they're trying to hold on to. That's why the committee is looking so intently at places such as Patterson Park and Reservoir Hill, for example. And nobody wants to denigrate their efforts encouraging city living. Nearly half a century after the suburban exodus commenced, it is long past time to restore some of the city's greatness.

But it can't happen when even the most casual observer links any mention of the city with its failing schools, its street-corner crime, and its thousands of abandoned homes. And it can't change when we look at its upcoming generation of residents, and they're out on the street late at night while the future slips irretrievably from their hands, vanishing somewhere in the dark.

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