`The other Baltimore' needs help, not disdain

Moralizing won't cure this city's social ills

July 04, 2005|By Dan Rodricks

AWILD GUESS maybe, but until this newspaper reported last week on the 13-year-old accused in the fatal shooting of one man and the attempted murder of another, I'll bet most people expressing outrage about the boy and his mother's apparent lack of control over him never heard of Oswego Mall.

That's not the boy's name, but the name of the modest townhouse development in Northwest Baltimore where the shootings occurred. It exists in what we sometimes refer to as "the other Baltimore," far in distance and spirit from Harborplace, Camden Yards or Canton.

Oswego Mall was built during the Nixon administration, tucked behind a church and some much older rowhouses, many now abandoned and dilapidated, along Park Heights Avenue. It's a small public housing project, a cluster of 35 two- and three-story brick units where poor people live. The area has one of the highest rates of poverty and single-parent households in the city, as well as - here's a shocker - serious crime and drug dealing. The mother of the 13-year-old told The Sun that her child hung with older guys and probably sold dope.

It is a sad, documented truth about Baltimore: Where nothing but poor people live, problems flourish. Where you have concentrated poverty, you have crime, drug addiction, family dysfunction, truancy and low academic achievement.

Yet the outraged and the indignant seem to regard this 13-year-old murder suspect as the offspring of moral failure, or willfully negligent parenting. I've heard people who know next to nothing about the boy or the environment in which he was raised offer ready judgments about him and his mother, and harsh ones at that.

That's an easy trap to fall into. I've been there myself, calling for criminal prosecution of parents who leave their kids, 12 and younger, to the streets. It's a tempting idea. But there are already statutory remedies in place for saving kids from neglectful parents, and what at-risk kids and their underskilled parents need is serious intervention, early and often, not more incarceration.

And what we all need, instead of long-distance moralizing, is a history lesson on Baltimore's complex and persistent social problems, and an acknowledgement of the impact poverty has on kids and how it too often leads to dismal stories like this one.

Baltimore's biggest critics - in my experience, people who do not live here - have a habit of forgetting facts: The city has experienced a chronically high concentration of poverty (about 20 percent of its citizens, according to latest census), a high rate of drug addiction, persistently high unemployment, and it is still recovering from the staggering flight of residents to the suburbs and the loss of manufacturing jobs dating back to the 1960s. For decades, public housing concentrated - and compounded - social problems associated with the poor.

Several years ago, author David Rusk, in Baltimore Unbound, offered his politically unacceptable argument that it is the concentration of black poverty that makes social problems so intractable in Baltimore and that poor black families should be dispersed around the region.

Public housing projects have been imploded since then - the best thing to happen during the Schmoke years in City Hall, under the watch of former housing commissioner Dan Henson - and new housing for families of multiple income levels has replaced them.

After a long legal battle, the fierce concentration of poverty - the historic ghettoization of poor black families - has started to be broken by court order and demolition. In the past couple of years, about 500 city public-housing families have quietly moved into dozens of homes and apartments in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, using vouchers that made higher suburban rents affordable. That's nearly twice as many as were relocated in the mid-1990s under the Move to Opportunity program, which was aborted after protests from suburban residents and fear-exploiting politicians.

So some progress has been made, owing to the constant prodding of the American Civil Liberties Union and to the judicial oversight of a consent decree stemming from a federal lawsuit.

But there still needs to be a broader, regional strategy for desegregating public housing in Baltimore, providing multiple levels of housing throughout the metropolitan area and giving poor kids better environments and opportunities. What we need is political leadership that can point all of us to a better region through a better Baltimore, and a better Baltimore through the suburbs of the nation's second most-affluent state sharing the city's burden of housing poor families.

As long as we refuse to acknowledge or deal with that, then we can all sit, cluck our tongues and express outrage - talk, talk, talk - when a 13- year-old shoots somebody. It takes a whole village to raise a child. But if the village is riddled with poverty and dysfunction, don't expect better outcomes.

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