BBC's Welsh perspective on 'big league' Baltimore


A Welsh division of the British Broadcasting Corp. requested a sampling of the "news of Baltimore" for a 10-minute radio interview. I was asked to relate by telephone the highlights of city life from the summer of 1996. (BEGIN ITALICS) ("I read the news today, oh boy BEGIN ELLIPSIS ... END ELLIPSIS ") (END ITALICS) Apparently the people of Cardiff, the old industrial port and capital of Wales, have a keen interest in Baltimore because they've modeled their urban renaissance after ours.

So I prepared a short list: the made-for-TV implosion of the Lafayette Courts public high-rises and the federally funded efforts to continue Baltimore's renaissance; the debate over slot machines; the call for a zero-tolerance crime policy; the city's homicide rate; the Ravens and the return of the National Football League; and, because dogs are so adored in the ole U.K., I thought I'd throw in the story of Barkley, the Chesapeake Bay retriever whose paw pads were rubbed raw when his owner walked him while driving a car.

In which subject do you think my Welsh interviewer was most interested? Homicide. The NBC television series by that name is very popular over there. Public officials and business leaders in Wales are well aware of the glories of the Inner Harbor and the city's allure for tourists. But it's "Homicide: Life on the Street," a production of home boy Barry Levinson, with which Baltimore is most readily identified in Cardiff.

So, my interviewer wanted to know, how many homicides have there been in Baltimore? (There were 325 in 1995; 234 so far this year.) Why are there so many? Why are so many young men the victims as well as the perpetrators of these crimes? How do we feel about Baltimore's identification with a TV show that presents the darkest side of American urban life to millions of viewers, not only in the United States but across the Atlantic?

The interviewer persisted on the subject until it became clear that his interest in crime surpassed his interest in everything else my list.

I understood his fascination. But at some point -- about seven minutes into a 10-minute conversation -- I started to feel defensive. I noted that violent crime has a geographic dynamic; where and how well you live in Baltimore influences how many -- if any -- body bags you see. And even as I made that point, in the hopes of steering the interviewer into another neighborhood of conversation, I knew how hollow it sounded.

What does it matter where homicides occur? They occur in Baltimore at a per capita rate to rival any in the United States. Guns, drugs and young men who use both -- that was the lead story, as far my Welsh interviewer was concerned. Everything else seemed trivial by comparison.

"Everything else" never got discussed.

And I never got to mention the Ravens.

Which provides a lesson in understanding why some people, even fans of football, are slow to warm up to the re-entry of Baltimore in the NFL.

Getting a team back here, after the Colts' departure in 1984, amounted to nothing short of a crusade, led mainly by politicians, business leaders and the media. It resulted in Camden Yards (as much a tourist attraction as it is a sports complex), new surges of people in downtown Baltimore and what might be described as "that big league feeling." I heard a radio sports guy say that -- "We're big league, man" -- when a caller complained about the huge public investment in a football team "with everything else going on in the city."

By "everything else" he might have meant crime. He could have meant a lot of things. Take your pick.

To get more money out of the state for its public schools, the city has to go to court this fall. Some fire engines and trucks have been put out of service temporarily because of budget restraints. Library branches have been closed. The police commissioner says he would need another 550 cops to implement a zero-tolerance policy. There are an estimated 50,000 drug addicts in the city and hardly any easy access to drug treatment. We have, from Congress and the president, welfare reform that forces recipients to work when, even in a resurgent economy, there are not enough jobs for unskilled workers and hardly enough money to train them. We have too many kids living in poverty, too many kids getting an insufficient education, too many kids getting involved in drug commerce and committing violent crimes. And none of these problems is confined to the city anymore.

Of course, to mention these things with the Oakland Raiders coming to town for the Ravens' home opener is to be the biggest pill at the party.

But don't get me wrong. I love fun. I love sports. Love baseball, love ice hockey, love college hoops, love football during the playoffs, love the Olympics despite NBC's coverage.

But, like a lot of people, I have a conflict: I resent the idea that taxpayers have to subsidize professional sports franchises and, at the same time, I want to be identified with a city identified as big league. Right or wrong, our identity and civic pride is tied to media, money and sports; that's a hard and simple American truth. (Quality of life is great, but try selling quality of life to the networks.) I want government to subsidize the needy not the wealthy, yet I know we never would have attracted the Modell family to Baltimore without a sweet pot of money and a new stadium. Those were the conditions for the hunt for a new franchise. We got in the hunt, played hard ball with the big boys and won. That makes us big league.

So we have an NFL team again, and that's good for the city, good for the entire region. I'm glad this day is here. Finally. Now, can we please do something about everything else?

Pub Date: 8/30/96

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