In terrorism war, renewal of city could be a casualty

November 01, 2001|By Michael Olesker

IN THE AFTERNOON chill at Ashland Avenue and Bond Street, Wanda Webster puts her hands under Tim Harrison's feet and lifts them into his wheelchair. Harrison cannot do this for himself. Ten years ago, in a drug beef, he took two bullets in the neck, and two in the back, and he has paid the price forever after.

"Paralyzed," he says with a matter-of-fact tone that comes from years of accustoming himself, "from the top of my belly button down. But, by the grace of God, I'm still here."

Wanda Webster nods her head but says nothing. They sit beneath a squat little tree on a street corner shadowed by four churches. This should be God's country. But behind Harrison there comes another man in a wheelchair, and a few minutes later comes another.

"Baltimore," says Harrison, "got more young men in wheelchairs than anybody. White guys, from riding dirt bikes and falling off horses. Black guys, from drugs and shooting."

Around here, it's drugs and shooting. The neighborhood's been hostage to the drug traffickers for the past few decades. Instead of God's country, it has become the refuge of the desperate and an open sore in a city trying to bring itself back to life.

But now, just as the nation enters a new and costly war against terrorism, the city and nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital announce a great 10-year plan for change in this neighborhood: a biotech park, a mix of new townhouses and apartment buildings, and the demolition of much that exists along Madison Avenue and Ashland Street, in the shadow of the Hopkins medical complex.

"This new housing," Harrison says, "is that subsidized?"

At 34, he lives with his grandmother and his sisters. Housing details, he is told, are being worked out.

"A biotech park," says Webster. "They're not gonna make anthrax there, are they?"

America does not attack its enemies with anthrax - but the connection is clear. In a time of national nervousness, and vast war-related spending, what does this mean for cities struggling to rejuvenate themselves? If Baltimore was just beginning to find new optimism in peacetime, what are its chances now?

A week ago, Mayor Martin O'Malley testified before Sen. Barbara Mikulski's U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Veterans, Housing and Urban Development.

"Every time the attorney general calls on us to go to our highest level of alert, in response to a generalized threat," O'Malley said, "it is a massive unfunded mandate on every city in America."

Four days later, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued precisely such an alert. The nation lives under it now, heightening not only our collective anxiety but our financial costs. Baltimore, for example, provides water for the entire region. The numbers are astonishing.

"Just to secure our water and wastewater system, we will need to spend $28 million in the next year," O'Malley testified last week. "And the steps we've taken since Sept. 11 already have cost the city nearly $2.7 million - largely from police expenses.

"When we go on alert, our police department still has to fight crime," the mayor said. "The chemical attack that has taken the most lives in Baltimore still is heroin and cocaine. So rather than pulling officers away from their duties, we call other officers back, or they work 12-hour shifts. Either way, our overtime goes up. ... Our police department is providing national wartime defense with city resources."

Through the end of the fiscal year, O'Malley said, he anticipates spending about $14 million more than previously anticipated - just on security and preparedness.

All of this brings us back to the places such as Ashland and Bond.

"This isn't Anne Arundel County, it's the city," says Harrison. He motions one big, beefy hand over his shoulder, toward a cluster of people. "He could be at a job. She could be. Here it is, middle of the afternoon, and they're walking around doing what they gotta do to get what they need to get. Instead of getting jobs, they're looking to get that dope."

He and Webster say they are recovering addicts.

"What about the war?" they were asked.

"Some of that dope," says Harrison, "was coming through some of those terrorist countries. But now there's all the new security measures, so the stuff's tougher to get into the country."

"That's when you have people shooting and robbing each other," says Webster.

Thus the terrorism war alters the life of cities once more. It alters the so-called war on drugs, and the so-called war on crime, and the so-called war on poverty. In each of those protracted wars, huge patches of American cities simply died. No bombs were dropped, and no airplanes crashed into buildings. Nobody bothered to send anthrax through the mail.

But we watched the fighting through the eyes of mothers grieving over kids who lost their lives in street-corner disputes. Or we discovered entire blocks where the houses had been turned into shooting galleries. Or we noticed so many young men in wheelchairs, and wondered how such numbers could accumulate.

And now, as plans are hatched for the redemption of this neighborhood in the shadows of Johns Hopkins Hospital, on a street corner with churches everywhere, we wonder: In a time of war, have such hopes of salvation really got a prayer?

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