Hope rising in the city one step at a time

July 23, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

YOU know you're a genuine Baltimorean - in spirit, if not in current residence - if, upon hearing the news of a $250 million, 50-story condominium and hotel skyscraper going "where the News American used to be," you instantly recognize the location - right across from Harborplace, at 300 East Pratt. And you're a genuine Baltimorean if, the more you hear this kind of news (there's a lot of it coming out of downtown these days), you actually allow yourself a guarded moment of optimism.

Guarded, of course, because news of exciting redevelopment projects in Baltimore comes, in the next breath, with all the other stuff.

Vic tells you about the new skyscraper, and Denise tells you about the latest homicide. Marianne tells you about Artscape, and Rod mentions dangerous schools. That's the way it goes around here.

One step up, two steps back.

One block good, one block bad.

Three hundred condos, 250 five-star hotel rooms and 40,000 square feet of shops and restaurants ... and a spate of killings leaves six people dead in a three-day period.

I am never quite certain what "paradox" means. (Some words just bang around in your brain forever, never becoming clear or fixed.) But I believe it's something like a contradictory or counterintuitive statement that holds truth. I associate it with irony, too. I've heard people speak of the Baltimore paradox, presented in different ways: Baltimore is the southernmost northern city.

Baltimore is the northernmost southern city. Some of the finest medical institutions in the world are located in Baltimore, and nearly one in 10 of its citizens is addicted to heroin or cocaine.

Baltimore is one of the most charming violent cities in America.

Of course, it's been this way for a while now, maybe longer than we know.

This is my 30th year in Baltimore. I've lived here longer than I've lived anywhere else. I covered my first homicide in April 1976, and the victim was a police officer. I stood in abandoned Baltimore neighborhoods, some of which have been transformed into solid, even upscale communities since then, and some of which have gotten worse. I remember the News American building and a lot of the people who worked inside before it closed, leaving the city poorer.

Harborplace, Camden Yards, the emerging west side, the violent east side, the loss of corporate headquarters, the growth of Johns Hopkins - I have been on this ride, with thousands of other people, through the Schaefer years, the Schmoke years, the O'Malley years. There have been highs and lows, lots of turbulence, long stretches of bad news, one World Series championship, the loss of a football franchise, the arrival of another, and one Super Bowl victory.

I've heard - as most Baltimoreans have - all the nasty sarcasm and viciously gleeful cracks about the city, mostly from people with limited or no connection to it, and no suggestions for making it better.

I know how we're not Top Ten in enough of the good indexes, and Top Ten in too many of the bad ones.

And I'm still holding out hope. Skyscrapers are great. We need all the redevelopment we can get.

And it's wonderful that the Virgin Festival is coming to Pimlico, with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Who. I'm glad it's a rock concert and not what I thought when I first heard the event's title.

I think Steve McNair represents hope. There doesn't seem to be anything Baltimoreans are more pumped about these days than Air McNair coming to the Ravens. Training camp opens Thursday.

All good.

But there are other ways to measure progress, not all of them quantifiable. Take, for instance, the number of earnest, ex-offender adults. They exist. They're not included in any census that I've ever seen. But they're out there. I've actually met quite a few of them.

Harry Calloway, for instance, is the former drug dealer who was shot nine times in an earlier life. I called him last week, about a year after he first came off the street to get some help. He answered the phone and sounded vigorous. He's still employed, still living in a good environment, still planning on resuming college courses in the fall. He's staying positive.

I feel a little better about Baltimore when Darryl Logan, another former drug dealer and recovering addict, drops me an e-mail and says things are going well. He's still going to work every day and happy about it. He still lives with his mother and "walks past my old life," meaning the streets where just a year ago he was hustling drugs. "Sometimes," Darryl says. "I can't believe I was part of that life."

I like that the phone still rings every day at my desk (410-332-6166) on the second floor of the Baltimore Sun building and that it's a man or woman who just came out of prison, or off the street, and doesn't want to return to the city's drug scene and crime cycle. They want jobs.

I wish I knew of more employers willing to hire them. There are more men and women of this frame of mind than I ever realized. They want to make themselves better, which would make Baltimore better. When I listen to them, and hear the earnestness in their voices, I allow myself a guarded moment of optimism.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Hear Dan Rodricks every Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio (1090 AM) and read his blog at baltimoresun.com/rodricks.

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