City's poor need hope, not empty promises

CITY DIARY: BrendanWalsh & Willa Bickham

October 23, 2002

THE HEAT was fierce in Baltimore that August afternoon.

We were walking to the corner of Mount and Lombard streets when we saw a man crouched on the sidewalk. He was slurping water from a white plastic bowl that had been placed in the shade of an anemic tree. An elderly neighbor regularly filled the bowl with water for stray cats and dogs. But this day a full-grown man beat them to it. We helped him to his feet and offered him a cold soda. A small comfort.

This is how extreme we've made it for Baltimore's poor. Imagine someone so thirsty, so desperate, that he's reduced to this.

Union Square Park is a block away. Its drinking fountain has not worked for years. Its public bathrooms are locked. Its magnificent fountain, refurbished decades ago, is on three or four times a year. Free drinking water is hard to find. Public restrooms are becoming a memory. But we will arrest people for public urination and deem it a "quality of life offense."

Even after 34 years at Viva House, we still have much to learn about Baltimore.

And there have been painful lessons. On our block, on Mount Street, or within a block of our house, seven people have been killed, five civilians and two police officers.

In 1975, we helped bury the frozen remains of a man who had been a frequent guest at our house. He died homeless in an abandoned building on West Baltimore Street, in the shadow of H.L. Mencken's house. The area had just been designated "historic."

Nothing has changed for the poor in the last three decades. Poverty is Baltimore's manifest destiny. No administration, from William Donald Schaefer's to Martin O'Malley's, has ever seriously addressed this crisis.

The only constant has been the grim reality that one out of four Baltimoreans lives in poverty. Every mayor has asked us to believe in the trickle-down theory of economics.

The belief is that while the developers skim off the rich cream, the milk will then flow freely to the common laborers. So we've been treated to historic preservation, gentrification, "shop-steading," homesteading, Harborplace, hotels galore, not one but two new stadiums, a convention center plus expansion. Yet nothing has trickled down to "Sowebo," as Southwest Baltimore is known to many.

Our "working neighbors" (about half of the residents) only have minimum-wage, mostly part-time, employment. Baltimore cannot replace the 120,000 manufacturing jobs it has lost over the past 34 years. When they padlocked the mills, it meant the workers could no longer pay the bills. Sowebo residents have become "expendable labor," and this is not an omen for future progress and stability.

Now Mayor O'Malley wants us to "Believe" in the police. He has latched on to a Pentagon mentality. Give the police the lion's share of the city budget, lock up half the poor and intimidate the other half. This belief is closely wedded to violence and is doomed to failure.

The "Believe" campaign mistakenly portrays the city's problems as if they were individual, not systemic. Fundamental changes, top to bottom, are required. We need a maximum wage as well as a living wage. We need a system of justice that is restorative, not punitive. We need to instill hope in our children and allocate resources as if we mean it. More police, more jails, more executions just beget more violence in our city.

So, we don't "Believe," but we do hope. This hope is an extremely fragile flower. Just recently we saw the grain of a grain of hope.

One afternoon a man knocked at the door with a pressing need. He needed to play the piano. Not a want, a need. We invited him in, offered him the use of the piano and gave him his private space. He needed some beauty and truth, not money or food or water.

He played the piano for well over an hour, and several times he exploded into song. When he finished his one-person symphony, he thanked us and left.

There is hope here. It is chancy and seemingly insignificant. Perhaps it is hoping against hope. Sowebo needs hope in large doses. We do not need one more clenched fist.

Today's writers

Brendan Walsh and Willa Bickham founded and have run Viva, a Baltimore Catholic Worker hospitality house in Southwest Baltimore, since 1968. He has worked as a teacher of English and theology and she has worked as a nurse. They have provided nearly 1 million meals for the needy.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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