Down and Out in Baltimore


The area surrounding my Baltimore city neighborhood is so poor that women offer sex acts for anything between the price of a pack of cigarettes and $4, which buys the cheapest fix of crack cocaine.

The culture of abuse is so ingrained that the other night I heard a man shouting at the top of his lungs, "You whore, do what I tell you to do!"

He was trying to train a dog.

One of my area's 13 census tracts shows no residents with high school degrees.

Think about it. Weep about it.

My area is not a typical Baltimore neighborhood. But as poverty of means, minds and spirit keeps increasing throughout the city more and more communities will share some of the characteristics of that neighborhood. The end result is predictable: a city that is dominated by a largely dysfunctional population will become a dysfunctional city.

None of this analysis is new or startling.

Urbanologist Neal Peirce predicted this situation in a 1991 study that was shrugged off by most Baltimore decision-makers.

"While the city boasts a glittering chain of waterside projects, it also is becoming poorer and poorer, losing more middle-class residents every year," he wrote. "Without some real help, Baltimore is in danger of becoming America's next Detroit or Newark, New Jersey."

David Rusk, another astute student of urban America, lists Baltimore among cities whose decline has reached a point of no return.

Baltimore is in the midst of a city election campaign, yet there is little sense of crisis or urgency.

Instead of spelling out a forceful blueprint of change, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke seems to be promising he will somehow muddle through a third term, if re-elected. His challenger, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, has so far failed to present a compelling case for her election.

The lack of real enthusiasm for the two mayoral candidates is so pervasive that an African-American member of the Maryland General Assembly, an ally of Mayor Schmoke, says of the voters' choice: "It's the lesser of two evils. I just have to look at whether I want to die by poison or by sword."

This sense that nothing will change explains the feeling of hopelessness that engulfs Baltimore. People vote with their feet.

"I get disgusted just by thinking about the number of people in Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development who have moved out of the city in the past four years," one activist says.

There is relatively little Mr. Schmoke or any mayor can do about many of the city's fundamental problems. Drugs, violence and poverty, for example.

Yet there are things he can -- and ought to -- do that would help his own political situation and improve the mood of the electorate.

For starters he should commit himself publicly to a total overhaul of his administration.

Mr. Schmoke's biggest weakness as mayor has been his inability to pick good people to run city departments. He prefers lackeys to proven performers -- and then sticks with them far too long. Such former officials as Superintendent Richard Hunter, Police Commissioner Eddie Woods and Housing Commissioner Robert Hearn are case studies.

If he is re-elected, Mr. Schmoke should find a capable administrator to do for him what Mike Mallinoff so successfully does for Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins.

The overhaul of the Schmoke administration should go far deeper than personnel selection, however. Contributing to the poor performance of many departments is their haphazard bureaucratic structure that has developed by happenstance. The housing department is a good example: So many jobs have been cut during budget squeezes that much of the original intent of its organizational chart has been lost.

When Daniel P. Henson III took over the housing bureaucracy in March 1993, he came to the agency with a tight time-table. Hoping to erase the memories of Mr. Hearn's failures, he was interested only in doable projects that were funded. He did not want to waste his time in daydreaming -- or the tedious job of recasting the agency's structure.

Mr. Henson is now paying a heavy penalty for not having addressed that basic problem. A capable and hard-working man, he is drowning -- because he cannot do everything himself and too many of his underlings are incompetent.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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