Amid gloom, the city psyche struggles not to despair


And so the news came from City Hall: fewer workers, fewer libraries, fewer firehouses and fewer school days for Baltimore. The sweeping budget cuts may not be fatal to urban life. But they surely are another assault on the city's spirit.

Not so long ago, City Hall joyously preached "Baltimore Is Best" until many citizens found themselves believing it. Now, Baltimoreans find themselves listening to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke lecturing on the politics of downsizing, of streamlining, of making do with less.

"It hurts my heart," Carl Hyman, a Cheswolde resident whose forebears settled in Baltimore in the 1700s, said of the pressures -- fiscal and social -- facing the city. "This is my family, and it saddens me a great deal. Baltimore City is my home."

If the civic psyche is not despairing, it is discouraged. Baltimore's schools flunk state standards. More and more homeless people trudge through the streets. Taxes are high. So is the crime rate. Everyone knows someone whose car has been stolen or whose house has been broken into.

For some Baltimoreans, it has become too much. They are ready to flee to the suburbs, where life seems much easier and the tax bills are lower.

Others are concerned about the cuts but have no intention of leaving. For many, that is not an option. They are too poor to move to the more expensive suburbs. Or their neighborhoods have always been their home and they don't want to start over.

In the West Baltimore community of Panway, Nathaniel DeVoe, vice president of his neighborhood association, views the latest cuts with the gritty resignation of a 30-year city resident.

You learn to live with things, he said, and hope for the best. "If you're digging a hole and look up and [you see] you can't get out, you keep digging, continuing to go deeper, hoping and praying maybe you'll reach another way [out]."

But in Brooklyn, Carol and Tim O'Malley aren't sure they can stay. They have lived there their entire lives, except for one year early in their marriage when they rented a house in Locust Point.

In the last year, their car has been stolen. Then, they came home one evening and found the house burglarized, with everything from the kitchen to the baby's changing table ransacked. They have been to court three times, and three times the case has been postponed.

Their neighborhood, once considered a kind of suburb within the city, is riddled with the problems endemic to big cities, including prostitution, crack, absentee landlords and drive-by shootings, said Mr. O'Malley, 30.

"I don't feel safe here day or night," said Mrs. O'Malley, 31. "The sad thing about the neighborhood is decent people living here are moving out, people who have lived here all their lives."

"I just am concerned it's going to get worse with the layoffs. It's like our whole neighborhood is being taken away from us," said Mr. O'Malley, who is active in community and political organizations and aspires to elected office. "Maybe I can stay and make a difference, or maybe I better get the hell out."

In Federal Hill, with its charming brick town houses and postcard views of the Inner Harbor, architect Debra Alms and her husband, Steven, say they love the neighborhood -- and are planning a move to Howard County.

"I think people are more outraged" about the budget cuts, she said, "particularly on my street with recent break-ins." The policewere sympathetic when she called, she said, but the result left Mrs. Alms dissatisfied. "They said they'd come to talk to us about setting up a neighborhood watch," she said. "They say with the budget cuts there's not much else they can do."

She is pregnant with their first child. Her husband's family lives in Howard County. "We're going to hate to leave. But we don't want to send our kids to public school" in the city, Mrs. Alms said.

In Canton, Jonathan Spencer, a 29-year-old minister, enjoys his work at the Canton Baptist Center, the ethnic flavor of Baltimore's neighborhoods, the accepting nature of their people. But he says that if it weren't for his special calling, he is not sure he would live in the city.

"We wanted to be part of the community that we were ministering. We know we're going to have to make some decision in the next few years. As we look into the future, trying to imagine what it might be like to live here in a few years, that does concern us," said Mr. Spencer, whose wife, Sarah, is expecting their first child.

That anxiety has become a refrain for many residents. At the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, director Lester Salamon said of Baltimore's mood, "I don't know that I sense despair. I sense frustration, but I think there is a risk of despair."

The problems of the city are not new. Dr. Salamon and other urban researchers trace the latest woes -- in the midst of a recession with more people in need and less federal help -- to the policies of the Reagan administration. Ten years ago, Washington began cutting aid to the cities. The results are now apparent, theresearchers and politicians say.

No longer can Baltimore's mayor be the kind of relentless urban cheerleader that William Donald Schaefer was in the 1970s and 1980s.

As recently as four years ago, in his first campaign for mayor, Kurt Schmoke acknowledged the problems confronting the city but still saw a "wonderful" future for Baltimore. "I am not running for mayor in order to administer the last rites to the city that has been my home for the past 37 years," he said.

But Mr. Schmoke finds himself talking tough now, cutting deep into the budgets of the schools, which he promised to champion, and the libraries of "The City That Reads."

The straight talk is appropriate, said Dr. Matthew Crenson, head of the Johns Hopkins University political science department. "I think it's time for public officials to stop playing Dr. Feelgood," he said. "Now, I think people want to hear real news."

What should city leaders say to people anxious about the future of the city and wearied by talk of tighter budgets and fewer services?

"I would say to them, 'Don't run,' " said Linneal Henderson of the Schaefer Center for Urban Policy at the University of Baltimore. Crime, drugs, guns and poverty are everywhere, Mr. Henderson said, and "you can run to another place, but it's going to confront you there."

"What we've got to do is pull together," he said. "The civic psyche has got to be upbeat."

Indeed, many city residents find themselves remaining loyal to Baltimore. "There's a lot of neat things about living in this neighborhood," said Mary Zimmerman, 30, a real estate agent from Federal Hill. "You can walk to the market and people know you. They're friendly to you. There's camaraderie."

"We made a specific decision when we decided to have a family that we were going to stay in the city," said Hillary Jacobs, head of the Mount Washington Elementary School Parents Teachers Organization.

"We both have a commitment to the city. I haven't heard anyone talk about 'I've had it with the city and I have to leave,' " she added. "In fact, at Mount Washington I hear more of a rallying cry. It happens to be a group of parents that wants to work."

In Panway, Marian Scarborough, a city school employee, isn't interested in bemoaning the state of the city. "We all have to band together," said Mrs. Scarborough, a member of the board of the Panway Neighborhood Association.

"I'm not minimizing the crime or the trouble out here," said Mrs. Scarborough, who recently found that the lock on her car had been tampered with. "But we have to use our heads, not our hearts."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad