A heavy hitter stirs up hope in Randallstown

May 30, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

REGGIE JACKSON used to call himself the straw that stirs the drink. He was the man who made the Yankees a championship team. He was right often enough.

It's a chemistry thing, and it can work in the modesty-filled world of politics, too.

You could see it along Liberty Road in Randallstown last week. You had many if not all the ingredients: a lineup of long-laboring community all-stars, business leaders and government planners convening in the midst of campaign season.

And the straw? U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a member of the Appropriations Committee, which gives her access to Washington money. She's running for re-election, but never mind the campaign aspect of the visit.

She was there to help a Maryland community that has worked hard to help itself - not to mention a community that needs to address some grave issues with its young people.

A former community activist, Ms. Mikulski's name was attached to a groundswell of opposition that stopped construction of a highway that 25 years or so ago might have annihilated East Baltimore neighborhoods.

So there she was, promising to find the dollars to help the sprawling Randallstown corridor find its center, something the planners call a civic core: a focal point beyond the strip malls, with gathering spaces, public facilities such as libraries, entertainment, recreation, offices, retail businesses and high-density residences.

Candidate Mikulski, sprinkling her presentation with the good quotes for which she is famous, applauded the work of the planners, some of whom had worked for her campaigns in the past. Their plan, she said, would have to deal with the "digital divide" - the notion that some communities have less access to technology than modern people need. It's not just bricks and mortar anymore, she said, it's also "clicks and modems."

"Everyone in this room," she said to those convening at the Urban Blend cafM-i, "puts in three shifts: in the marketplace to earn a living, in the home to make that living worthwhile, and in the community so there can be a quality of life in the Liberty Road corridor."

She got quickly to the point.

"I will commit to bringing funds to Randallstown to help partner with you to do the community development," she said.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. applauded. He applauded the promised money. And he applauded the senator's approach. "This is not somebody coming in and telling people what they ought to do," he said. "This is somebody listening to them."

Federal help, Ms. Mikulski said, has enlivened neighborhoods in many parts of the state; the Patterson Theater project in Highlandtown, for example, focuses on the uplift that the arts can bring to a city.

Would federal money solve the community's problems? This was a room full of realists. A former high school principal said young people in Randallstown need serious attention. They need work force readiness training, among other things. Many of them, he said, have disquieting "attitude." A murmur of agreement greeted his understated observation. A businessman said Randallstown kids don't have any suitable gathering place - something that would be part of the new civic core. Right now, he said, kids socialize in school. It was an even more disquieting recognition of the core value issues that face Randallstown.

That thought and the "attitude" cited by the former high school principal were not addressed directly on this day. But they were the figure in the carpet, the undeniable backdrop for just about any community aspiration now. Four Randallstown High School kids were shot recently when a group of young people fired into a crowd outside their school. The effort to change an attitude that leads to that sort of wanton mayhem will require core commitment to holding everyone accountable for living right.

The senator didn't promise to deliver new values. But implicit in her recitation of community strengths was faith that a community of committed, talented people can help young people to new attitudes of responsibility.

It's only May, but this team seems to have promising chemistry.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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