In `Believe' effort, inspiration for change

This Just In...

May 08, 2002|By Dan Rodricks

I LIKE THE "Believe" campaign. I like what it says and what it asks of the Baltimoreans who live here or within drive-in-and-cop-some-dope distance of the city: Get treatment, if you're among the addicted, and get off drugs; get off drugs and the drug dealers start to disappear, and a lot of the violence with them, and Baltimore becomes a better place.

Hard to argue against that one.

But it's not so simple, of course. The city's overseers can't just launch a campaign on television and billboards and expect to end a debilitating epoch of human failure, dysfunction, illness, poverty and criminality. But I like the intent, and the execution. It's as if we're trying to plant the seeds for 100,000 individual epiphanies, hoping that those who have not yet seen the light will look up and see how their messed-up lives keep Baltimore down.

It's tough to plant these seeds with, for instance, more news of more decline in the city's population. I saw how this story was presented on a local television station. The reporter related the facts with some sort of odd glee. I'm sure this wasn't the intent - perhaps I misread the reporter's zeal as glee - but I find it hard to stomach dramatic city-going-to-hell stories on local television when this same medium devotes so much time and effort to presenting such a skewed picture of Baltimore life.

"Believe," in a way, counters that - not with feel-good, Schaefer-era boosterism but with O'Malley-era acknowledgment of the city's potential and the great caveats: If only drug addicts came in for treatment. If only more Baltimoreans reported drug activity in their neighborhoods. If only more junkies experienced epiphanies.

Poster child for the latter could be Rachel Rogers, a drug addict who recently testified for the prosecution against one of her old drug-dealing friends, Howard Whitworth, later convicted of killing police officer Michael Cowdery on Harford Road. Rogers turned out to be the key eyewitness, and she testified against Whitworth, one of her drug suppliers, only after seeing the light. "'Cause it's not right," she told the jury. "It's not fair. He died for nothing, Officer Mike."

So, having seen Rachel Rogers' wrenching testimony, having heard numerous positive reports of the men and women getting treatment through the city's Drug Court, having lived to see a city health commissioner, Peter Beilenson, launch a frontal attack on heroin and cocaine addictions - the city, with the help of the Abell Foundation, opened its first residential treatment center in 30 years last week - I hold out hope for other such epiphanies.

"Unless people believe in the city, it's not going to get much better," Beilenson said of "Baltimore Believe" recently. "This isn't just a `Just Say No' campaign. It's much bigger. I don't want to sound corny, but we want people to buy into the city."

For those who live in the suburbs - and use Baltimore only for work, for play (the Inner Harbor, the Orioles, the Ravens) and for the punch line of cynical jokes - I don't think Beilenson necessarily means "buy a house" in the city. I think he means buying into the idea that the region's future is tied to Baltimore's future. It's fine to brag about Johns Hopkins, the Walters, the Ravens, the Orioles, the Preakness and the restaurants. But we'd feel a lot better about it if this city did not compete annually for distinctions in homicide totals and drug abuse.

So "Believe" appeals to the Our Town feeling in almost all of us.

No doubt, people who live in Linthicum and Lutherville, Cockeysville, Columbia and Fallston feel rooted there, connected to the places where they live and their kids play soccer.

But, even for those who have never lived in a Baltimore rowhouse or had a library card at the Enoch Pratt, there's a connection of some kind to the city, either real or spiritual.

"For several years it has been our plan to move from the Baltimore area to Florida," Judy Rausch wrote me in a letter seven years ago. "I've ridden the roller coaster of conflicting emotions many times while trying to make the decision to leave. I've bid a bittersweet farewell to a dirty, crime-ridden, poverty-stricken disaster of a city. I've stood on Federal Hill and lost sight of the beautiful harbor in a blur of tears.

"One of the best views of Baltimore, night or day, is from the building where I work: St. Agnes Hospital. I've seen the city in all seasons, all weather - sunrise, sunset, full moon, snow, thunderstorms, fog so thick there was no city to see.

"While I've come to terms with leaving the city of my birth, there are moments when I'm still not sure.

"The city played a trick on me Wednesday afternoon," Rausch added, referring to a January day in 1995. "It was one of those clear days and I could see all the way to the Key Bridge. I could see the big cranes on the water's edge, clear across the harbor. There's a certain time of day and a certain slant of sunlight when the city sparkles and the water of the harbor looks blue. I happened to look out the window at the right moment and Baltimore caught me. In my mind, I said to the city, `I get the message, Baltimore. No matter where I go, you'll be with me.'"

Nostalgia fed Rausch's epiphany. But there's a lot more to it, that intangible thing a lot of us feel when we look at the sweet, grand vistas of Baltimore, here and now. We feel connected and optimistic. It's not perfect. A lot of it is broken and sad. But it's ours, and, hard as it is, we still believe in its future.

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