Arik Raz knew there was American poverty just beyond the Inner Harbor, and it didn't take him and a bus load of other Israeli mayors long to find it. After a luncheon speech from William Donald Schaefer and a walk through Harborplace yesterday, the tour arrived on the west side of downtown, where Mr. Raz was not surprised at the depth of the problem, only that it commanded so large an area.
"I thought it would be a number of homes, not a whole region," he said, looking out the window at gutted and boarded-up properties along Fulton Avenue. "There are almost as many people living here as my whole [town]."
The area Mr. Raz governs, the Misgav region near Galilee, is a sister city of Baltimore through a project of the local Associated Jewish Community Federation. The mayors were in Baltimore to pick up tips for making life better back home.
But things looked bleak on the edges of Sandtown-Winchester; bleak indeed until the bus stopped and they got off to meet Elder Clyde Harris.
A Christian minister who directs "family nurturing" at Sandtown's Habitat for Humanity housing project, Mr. Harris began explaining how good people were turning the neighborhood around one brick at a time when Mr. Raz called out: "Who is responsible?"
He wanted to know who was to blame for turning a once respectable, working-class neighborhood into a slum. As Mr. Harris began to tell stories from his 45 years in West Baltimore, Arik Raz began to understand.
"Before segregation, all black people were in the ghetto together, the rich and the intellectuals along with the poor. After integration, they left the poor behind," Mr. Harris said. "We were full up with hatred when Martin Luther King [was assassinated] and that was the spark that ignited, and we just burned everything. He was our light, and when they took that away we just didn't care anymore and we destroyed everything."
And then Mr. Harris took the mayors on a short walk a couple blocks away, where workers and neighbors were dedicating a newly rehabbed rowhouse at 1514 N. Stricker St. to Sophia Turner, who earned the home with sweat equity.
"I have seen a lot of the world, and I am incredibly impressed," said Joel Siegel, the group's interpreter.
Visibly impressed by the feat, especially as it sat in midst of houses falling in upon themselves, Mr. Raz said he could understand how people could become so frustrated by poverty that they burned their own neighborhoods, as Mr. Harris had once done before faith changed his life.
"We face the same situations at home sometimes, but the extremes here are larger than what we have," he said. "I see that [Mr. Harris] is a real community leader and he came through a long way of frustration to get there. He rebuilt himself after being at the lowest point a human being can be and he is enthusiastic enough to take others with him."
The mayors were in Baltimore through the 21st Century Forum of Mayors program financed by the Lyn P. Meyerhoff Fund. Among them were men governing Jewish, Arab, Druze and Bedouin communities who were looking at urban problems and ways to address them.
"I think they can learn from us regardless of where they're from," Mr. Harris said. "The common cause is humanity. If you raise a hammer or use a shovel to build people up, it breaks down barriers, you get to know one another."
To which Mr. Raz replied, before getting back on the bus for the ride downtown:
"I wish you the hope and the energy that is needed for your holy work. If you come to Israel, please call on me. You will be my guest."