OUR CITY IS DECAYING. But in nature, decay seeds new growth. Take a walk through a forest. Green shoots rise from fallen trees. Last year's leaves nourish the soil and plants. Can we not take this lesson from nature and use it to regenerate our city?

Every day I drive from my home in Northeast Baltimore downtown to work. I drive through a section of the city that looks like a war zone. The majestic National Brewery, an architectural treasure, towers above the devastation and in its rotting glory reflects the decay that surrounds it -- the boarded-up, abandoned houses, the burned-out Baptist church, the piles of rubble.

When I look at the National Brewery, I think of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations," the bitter old lady brooding endlessly upon her past, horrible in her decayed wedding finery, waiting fruitlessly amid the wreckage for the return of a lost destiny.

A different fate is possible for Baltimore, if we turn our eyes from the past and look to the future. The reduction in our population and the immense acreage now cluttered with decrepit buildings that we don't need and can't afford to rehabilitate presents an unlooked-for opportunity.

We can recycle our city. We can build a new, more livable urban environment, keeping the best of the old while creating something entirely new. We can make our city a garden.

This is not an unprecedented undertaking. Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, was essentially recreated in the 19th century by Baron Hausmann, a city planner who tore down rotting slums and planned broad boulevards, gardens, parks and public squares.

Today our task is more urgent. Our unlivable city is just one aspect of an increasingly unlivable world. Scientists everywhere are concluding that unless we radically alter our style of living, we are doomed. We cannot continue to burn fossil fuels, to foul the air, water and soil, to consume at present rates.

Imagine an ecologically wise city in which people ride bicycles to work. Where citizens mingle in parks with fountains and shop at open-air markets. Where children play safely on playgrounds surrounded by grass and flowers and trees. It's only a utopian dream if we are too hopeless, too cynical or too lazy to imagine new possibilities and work to make them real. We have the opportunity to build a 21st-century city, if we can only stop blaming the past and regretting the present. We can imagine a future.

Take 100 acres in Baltimore -- the 100 acres that surround the old National Brewery perhaps. Consider it a test case. Tear down what cannot or should not be saved. Use the tremendous talent in the city -- the architects, engineers, landscape designers, naturalists and artists.

Draw up blueprints and tap into some of the city's tremendous untapped human potential, which sits rotting just as surely as our housing stock -- the young men bored and desperate for work, the young women without hope or dreams of a fulfilling and productive life. Train them to build and plant and plan. Create a Civilian Construction and Conservation Corps to make this 100 acres a beautiful and livable space, with well-constructed dwellings, gardens and markets, safe streets and schools. And then clone it, recycling our city 100 acres at a time.

If we rouse ourselves from our current stupor of helplessness and despair, we can work together to recreate Baltimore, recycling the past to construct a livable future. This work, once begun, will last well into the next century as we move throughout the city, parcel by parcel, demolishing the unnecessary and creating the essential. Our diversity is our strength. Building a true community is our only hope. In this, the year of our bicentennial, let us take upon our greatest task -- the creation of a new Baltimore, which honors its past by believing in its future.

Deborah Rudacille is a science writer at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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