Chocolate cake in a beer is a cultural high of 1995


For my money, the cultural high point of 1995 arrives on a muggy May night in East Baltimore, when I share a chocolate cake with Lois Garey, the City Council member, and a fellow named Pete, no last name.

The cake has been made by a neighborhood lady, and it melts in the mouth. But this Pete fellow manages to find fault with it. Too dry, he declares through delicate taste buds. Chocolate cake should be moister. Lois Garey shoots him a look.

"If it's too dry," she declares, "do what my husband does."

"What's that?" inquires Pete.

"Dunks it in his beer," says Garey.

In this city, in this time, you grab your moments of small pleasure when you can. On the night in question, which was May 7, there were maybe a hundred people gathered at Tiffany East in Highlandtown to talk about the various cancers eating at their neighborhood, a scene repeated in communities throughout this city and increasingly in surrounding counties over the course of 1995.

The dope dealers naturally were mentioned, and then the kids running with guns instead of bats and balls, and the trash that goes uncollected in the streets, and now here was Vince Johns, a neighborhood guy who had collected some statistics from City Hall that made everybody in attendance feel naked and vulnerable and wondering why they still were holding onto hopes of a turnaround.

"Within walking distance of here," said Johns, "there are 266 homes for sale. And, in this ZIP code [21224], there are 1,179 homes for sale. Why? Safety and drugs. And we have people leaving homes they've owned for years, and renting to anybody just to get out, because they know they can't sell. We've got to make people want to come back, want to stay."

Eleven months ago, the U.S. Census Bureau issued its own ominous figures. Since the dawning of the second half of the 20th century, the population of this city has dropped like a body thrown out a window: from 900,000 people in 1950, down to 703,057. That was in February. By now, it's likely below 700,000.

Those who bolt for suburbia now begin to bypass Baltimore County. It's too close to the city's troubles. They choose Howard and Harford and Carroll, where they can buy some time.

In Baltimore County, Dutch Ruppersberger, the county executive, grapples with the kind of problems the city bungled 30 years ago: not only a deterioration of aging neighborhoods, but the ancient problem of blacks and whites learning to give each other a chance.

A quarter-century ago, the county's black population was 3.5 percent. Five years ago, it was 15 percent. In June, a study said it will be 30 percent by 2005. The great suburban migration, we have learned, is multiracial.

The great question is: Can the county make it work better than the city has? Many of those now arriving in the county have incomes under $20,000 a year. That's black and white people. You can see some of them out by the traffic lights, out in Towson and Rosedale, out in Essex, white guys with signs saying they're homeless and broke. They all need government services the county says it can't afford. Never mind, says the city, and declares its intention to send some of its troubled public housing residents into suburbia.

The county cringes. Residents point to Section 8 housing, claiming it inflicts problems onto neighborhoods. Maybe, City Hall says, but we're talking about so few people. Can't they be absorbed peacefully? Can't the city's problems be spread around a little?

The old year ends with such nervous questions hanging in the air. A fellow named David Rusk writes a book, "Cities Without Suburbs," about the impending Baltimore demise if it fails to change course. The metro area has to share its problems, Rusk says, or the city will drag down all the surrounding counties. It's happened elsewhere around the nation. The book is described by every politician in sight as terrifically smart, marvelously insightful and completely unworkable.

Some of this is race-based; we still hold each other at arm's length. There was a time when the noblest of our political leaders attempted to bridge that gap, but we haven't seen so much of this lately.

The New Year arrives with Baltimoreans wondering which character is the real mayor of Baltimore: the young man of vast promise, named Schmoke, who once seemed a ray of hope to an entire city; or the fellow who willfully divided us by race last summer? In the weeks since his election, he's given mixed signals.

So we reach for the small signs of hope around here: vagrant reports from Realtors in East Baltimore that, what do you know, they're beginning to see some young people buying homes in the neighborhood; or calming words from county leaders who understand they've got to carry some of the load, if they can just convince nervous residents.

Or, just for kicks, a tiny moment with a Lois Garey, whose husband dips his chocolate cake in his beer, when some of us would drink enough to blot out the wintry realities around us.

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