A weary city can't turn to cynicism when it comes to drugs and violence

July 25, 2005|By Dan Rodricks

A MAN in Federal Hill, one of Baltimore's great neighborhoods, expressed on WYPR-FM an attitude that a lot of people around here - in the city and surrounding counties - share, and many of us are tempted to embrace: Who cares if drug dealers kill each other?

A lot of Baltimoreans can recite the oddly reassuring statistics, reported again yesterday in a Sun story about a longtime heroin addict who was shot to death in January: Between 80 and 85 percent of both homicide victims and suspects have criminal records, and most are involved in drugs. The annual homicide rate here stays between 250 and 300, but hoods are killing hoods, and usually in the 'hood, so why should the rest of us worry?

It's a way of decreasing the surplus population of criminals, isn't it?

City officials remind us that Baltimore's a relatively safe city, if you're not involved in the drug trade. I've told many a visitor what the police say: Most homicides are related to drugs, and most drug assassinations occur within certain ZIP codes, largely to the east and west of downtown. If you're lucky enough to live outside of those ZIP codes, or not have friends or relatives who are stuck there, then things are fine. Such is life in Charm City. What else is new?

After an epoch of drug addiction and violence, right through the first Baltimore Renaissance and now into the sequel, people here have grown weary, and they think nothing can be done about it, so these attitudes are all understandable.

But unacceptable.

This city, this region, has too much going for it - too much that's good and getting better - to allow this cynicism to fester and rule. We really don't need recitations of problems without offers of solutions. We don't need ridicule; we need more action.

That's the main reason Martin O'Malley was elected mayor in 1999 - he promised action after years of complacency in City Hall.

And the O'Malley crackdown on drug corners has been effective.

But it's time for a second punch at this problem, right where it lives. It's time for more drug dealers and addicts to get out of the life, and for those of us with imaginations and resources to help them.

Look around. The average price of houses in the Baltimore metropolitan area blew past the $300,000 mark last month, and here in the silver anniversary year of Harborplace, the city leads the region in home sales volume. There's a waterfront condominium boom. A whole new city within a city is rising east of the Inner Harbor, and a glossy advertisement for a gated community of 88 townhouses along Key Highway begins with the words "From $1 million." The old, crime-ridden public high-rises are gone, replaced with new communities offering rowhouses for people with mixed levels of income. Cool new restaurants and bars are opening all along Charles Street, north and south. I could go fill the rest of this column with a litany of the positive things happening in Baltimore and spilling into its suburbs.

But life would be even better without a stream of poison running through our community.

The fellow in Federal Hill might be happy living there, and pleased with the steady increase in the value of his property. But I'd like to ask him, on purely mathematical terms: Wouldn't you be better off if the druggies in West Baltimore stopped their killing? If your property values are soaring - while Baltimore still has a national rep for heroin and homicides - wouldn't they be even higher if drug addiction and the commensurate violence dropped by, say, 50 percent over the next decade?

What could a homeowner add to the appraised value of a house in, say, Lutherville or Glen Burnie if Baltimore became known for beating its heroin-and-homicide cancer and putting thousands of recovered addicts and former dealers into the productive mainstream?

Excuse me for giving the market argument first.

I believe in the spiritual one, too - the idea that the destruction of any man, however lowly or scorned, diminishes all of us. But I'm being honest: The cynical and drug-war weary are not exactly open to that idea.

And you don't have to be.

You just have to recognize that all of us have something big at stake in getting drug dealers and addicts out of the life. And paying $24,000 a year to house each of them in a Maryland prison is no longer the answer.

The city should keep attacking the demand for drugs with more medical treatment, as it has during the O'Malley era. All who want to see a better Baltimore - individuals or businesses, city or suburban - should support Ehrlich administration reforms to break the cycle of recidivism among the thousands of offenders released each year. And drug dealers and addicts - you need to stop destroying yourselves and others and start believing in something better for yourselves, your families and your city. This is your town, too.

Dan Rodricks can be reached at 410-332-6166. More information about job training and community services available to Baltimoreans with criminal backgrounds may be obtained from the Web page of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, http://www.oedworks.com/exoffender.htm.

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