Despite areas of poverty, councilwoman still believes

April 29, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

HERE IN broken West Baltimore, some things never change. The man stands on his North Avenue front porch yesterday morning, with several of its wooden front steps collapsed, and masking tape where a window used to be, and the house looks as if it hasn't seen a paint job since the municipal changeover to electricity. But the man has a sign next to his front door. It says, "Believe."

Who can figure such a sense of faith? Here in West Baltimore, Catherine E. Pugh tries to figure it out sometimes, and it makes her brain ache. She goes to church on Sundays and wonders about it. She drives through some of these neighborhoods, which she represents on the City Council, and sometimes she wants to tear everything down and start over again.

"Pockets," she was saying now.

"Pockets?" she was asked.

"Whenever I drive through the district," she said, "I see the same kinds of pockets. We've managed to create pockets of wealth and pockets of poverty."

For the moment, she is speaking of the whole city. Because, as anyone can see on a typical drive through West Baltimore, there aren't many pockets of wealth around here. Poverty, absolutely. And houses falling down, and schools that should be demolished, and people who live here wondering when some serious reasons to "believe" will come their way.

A week ago, Pugh held an impressive fund-raiser at the downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel, where about 500 of the area's movers and shakers showed up to cover their bets. Pugh is thinking about a run for City Council president, newly important because the current mayor, Martin O'Malley, is widely expected to run for governor halfway through what might be his second City Hall term. If he were to win, the City Council president would then automatically become mayor.

Pugh isn't announcing anything officially yet. But she says she raised about $100,000 that night, a most consequential amount for that office. It says people with money take her seriously. Also, it leaves a question: What might Pugh bring to a city of "pockets" that no one in the modern era has been able to bring to West Baltimore?

"A sense of responsibility," she says. "Everybody has to assume responsibility. Businesses investing in literacy programs, colleges helping children, community associations buying homes when seniors move out, community patrols so people know somebody's out there watching.

"Look at the east side," she says. "Look at the changes that will come with the biotech industry around Johns Hopkins Hospital. That's going to make a huge difference. And we're seeing the University of Maryland making some gestures on the west side. But we've got to get that sense that it's everyone's responsibility."

Including, she says, families mired in poverty across the generations.

"You see these children come to school," she says, "who haven't had breakfast that morning. Kids whose fathers are off somewhere with a drug problem, and the mother's troubled, and the kids take their problems to school. What's our solution? We suspend the kids. Which means, we suspend them to the street corners, where they get into more trouble.

"Why can't we suspend them to facilities where the learning process continues -- and they'd get some kind of counseling help? We have 40,000 suspensions every year. And then, all these children who drop out of school when they turn 16. Why do we let them make life-changing decisions at 16, where they're on the street and have no hope of getting a job? That's the population that's committing the crimes, and going off to prison, and coming back out in 10 years completely unable to cope."

Yesterday on North Avenue, there was the house with the taped-over window and collapsed front steps and the "Believe" sign at the door. It was situated between two abandoned houses. "We have thousands of young people," Pugh says, "who aren't working, and thousands of houses falling down. Why aren't we putting them to work rehabbing some of these places?"

Sometimes Pugh drives through West Baltimore and thinks of Israel. She was there 10 years ago and fell in love with the kibbutz system, "a community of people working and sharing and living together. They eat together, they learn together. I sat up all night talking to them, saying, `Tell me how this works again.'"

As Pugh sees it, there are thousands of delinquent kids removed from their homes when they get into trouble. Clearly, she says, there are family situations where children are headed for trouble, where parents are drug-addicted, where they move every few months to stay a few steps ahead of bill collectors.

"Why not look at a kibbutz type of setting for these children?" she asks. "Not as punishment, goodness, no. More like a boarding school thing, so we can catch the trouble before it happens and give these children a fair shot."

She sees a lot of them in West Baltimore. Some of the troubles persist across generations. As the city enters a primary election summer, and examines the political candidates, it asks the old question: Who can change these things?

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