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News Opinion Editorial

Fixing Oliver

There's no magic bullet that will suddenly solve all the problems in a community like Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood, not even the small army of city officials who descended on the East Baltimore community this week. But the effort is still worth it if it gives city police and social service workers a better understanding of the issues that put residents at risk and allows them to come up with better strategies to help other struggling neighborhoods.

Oliver is not necessarily the city's most troubled community, but its problems are serious and deep-seated: poverty, unemployment, an inventory of more than 200 boarded-up, vacant houses and a flourishing street-corner drug trade that fuels periodic outbursts of deadly gun violence. Last year police recorded nine homicides in Oliver, along with hundreds of less serious crimes.

Coupled with those social ills are an array of public health issues, ranging from high rates of infant mortality, hypertension, diabetes and obesity to drug and alcohol addiction and HIV infections. Life expectancy among Oliver residents is significantly shorter than in more affluent areas of the city, and the neighborhood's young people are less likely to graduate from high school or go on to college. These are not the kinds of problems your typical neighborhood enhancement or beautification programs are likely to resolve.

So what can city officials reasonably expect to accomplish as a result of the intensive efforts now being focused on the community? That will largely depend on how they choose to define their mission. If the goal is to parachute in scores of additional police and social service workers to provide short-term fixes for the community's most pressing problems, residents may indeed temporarily feel their quality of life has improved, at least while the campaign lasts. But any sense that the effort is making an impact is likely to fade quickly once the additional police and others pack up and leave.

If, on the other hand, the city focuses on laying the groundwork for a long-term investment and involvement in addressing the issues that are working against the neighborhood's revival, the outlook is somewhat brighter. Because Oliver's ills are both long-standing and seemingly intractable, it makes sense to understand the city's current mission there as more of an effort to accurately diagnose the problem rather than to cure it. That approach at least has the virtue of recognizing that the health of the community can only be restored through a long-term process of recovery.

When the extra police are withdrawn, the Department of Public Works trash haulers return to the garage and the health care and social service workers go back to their regular duties, there will still be people in Oliver addicted to heroin and crack cocaine, and drug dealers inevitably will return to their corners to supply those customers. People will still be poor and sick and without jobs. There will still be a shortage of stores where people can buy healthy foods for themselves and their families. These are the sorts of issues the city must grapple with on a continuing basis if efforts like the one now unfolding in Oliver are to be more than attention-grabbing gimmicks.

If police can learn from their heavy but temporary presence in Oliver how to establish stronger bonds of trust with community residents and cultivate their willingness to cooperate in identifying criminal suspects, that's an improvement. If health workers can find better ways to sign up pregnant women for prenatal counseling and connect addicts to drug treatment programs, that's all to the good. If the DPW can devise better ways to clear trash from alleys and protect boarded-up houses from vandals, so much the better.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has couched this effort not as a one-and-done operation but as a pilot program for something that could be repeated in other neighborhoods. If, indeed, the Oliver experiment reveals new ways of overcoming old problems, then applying the lessons learned to other distressed communities across the city could be an important new strategy. But we, and city officials, should be wary of the promise of quick fixes.

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