City's troubles beyond belief

May 14, 2002|By Ed Burns

HELP ME out here.

Someone has taken the trouble to send the people of metropolitan Baltimore a message. The theme has to do with believing, and it appears to be a well intentioned, thought-provoking effort. But one point eludes me: Who is the intended target of this message?

Is it meant for those last remaining families in those beat-down, boarded-up blocks in our fair city's mean ghettos? Are these folk supposed to believe that if they get involved in the process, perhaps pick up the phone and alert the authorities to the drug activity that any blind person can see, that the endless drone for pink tops would soon fade?

Is that what is needed, to have an already overburdened Police Department bring an additional 10,000 or 20,000 drug arrests to the fractured steps of our courthouses? Or are these folk supposed to believe that if they take extraordinary measures that no right-thinking person living across the city line would ever consider and walk right up on those corners and confront those gun-wielding drug dealers, the problem will abate?

Is the message meant for those thousands who flee the city every year in search of decent schools?

Are these folks to believe that if they were to stay put, risk the future of their children in a system that has an obscene dropout rate of 72 percent and join the PTA, that the presence of underpaid, overworked working-class parents haunting the hallways of what passes for our middle schools would miraculously be able to turn around what the experts at the puzzle palace on North Avenue have failed to do?

Is the message aimed at the addict population?

Will the low-bottom fiend, who in the past 20 years has seen the quantity of heroin in his daily blast skyrocket from 4 percent to 12 percent to 60 percent to 80 percent, suddenly find the strength from this message to believe that he can put down that syringe, abandon the shooting galleries and begin a new life at a rehab center?

Will the monumental effort of his singular journey be able to erase the social stigma attached to the drug culture, will it lose him the rap sheet that will deny him employment, will it get him beyond a GED? And, in the end, will it guarantee that if he does everything asked of him, when he lines up at the rusted gate of a deserted factory, his belief will get him that good union wage?

Or is the message directed to the middle class?

Will Mr. Suburbanite believe that if he stops fertilizing his lawn, leaves the safety of the county estate after an arduous day in the salt mines of corporate America, ventures down to somewhere like Riggs Avenue and Calhoun Street and finds a program, he can make a difference?

If that's the case, what's the need for the message? Didn't the clarion call of George I with his "thousand points of light" and George II with his faith-based program already energize that initiative?

Two things can be said for the good people at Baltimore Community Foundation, the Office of National Drug Control Policy -- Executive Office of the President and the Baltimore Believe Leadership Committee (sponsors of the "Believe" program): one, they spent serious money to get it out on the airwaves, and two, not a single penny of what must be millions of dollars for this campaign went into the pockets of the poor.

And point two is the message that I got from the message.

Every year, billions of dollars are spent by the government and the nonprofits in entitlements and grants to help those trapped in poverty. But just like the other poverty-generated economy -- the illegal drug trade -- whatever money is pumped into the ghetto has, by the end of every month, found its way out of the ghetto.

Where the drug money goes might be something of a mystery. But where most of all that clean money ends up isn't. It pays the salaries of those well-meaning people who might have come into the city to do good but have stayed to do well.

I believe that the message, no matter how poignant, is not as relevant as who it is aimed at. This particular message targets us -- Joan and John Q. Average Mope. If only we believe that we can rise above the mundane of everyday life to reach and sustain a level of superhuman effort, then we could triumph over the maelstrom that is consuming our city.

And, of course, if we can't do that, then the fault is ours. It is the logic of Nancy Reagan. Just say no, and the drug problem will go away.

For 40 years, that kind of thinking hasn't begun to turn around the plight of those stuck in the mire of poverty. Perhaps we need to target another group. Why not send a wake-up call to those who benefit from the systemic failure of unresponsive institutions? That would be novel, it would be listened to and people might even start to believe.

Ed Burns is a writer and a former teacher who lives in Baltimore. He co-authored with David Simon The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood.

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