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Activist turns eyes on home


He was a lieutenant in the 1960s war on poverty. He got a man off death row. He helped make landlords more responsible for lead paint in rental units. He trained lawyers in South Africa as the sun was setting on apartheid.

And at 76, attorney E. Clinton Bamberger Jr. is still active. Only now he practices some of his activism much closer to home - in the blocks around his Inner Harbor condominium.

Working from a cubbyhole in a spare bedroom, the genial, white-haired Bamberger has campaigned against parking garage designs, illegal parking lots and a proposed road. He fires off e-mail, demands public records, seeks the aid of influential friends and, of course, calls the news media.

It's not quite the little-guy advocacy he once waged, though he has gone up against the powerful developer David Cordish and the city's often-secretive Baltimore Development Corp. - and gotten results.

If his newest causes lack the moral righteousness of, say, fighting lead poisoning or getting legal aid for the poor, they are not entirely dissimilar. Principle and emotion are still his guides, he says.

The principle in this case is that the law should be obeyed, and he has wielded a 1971 urban renewal ordinance to show that has not always happened in recent years. And the emotion?

"I believe in the city," he said over coffee on Pier 5. "I love downtown."

Bamberger thinks the waterfront is getting too commercialized and wants to slow the trend. Although he self-deprecatingly calls himself a "mosquito" and is dismissed by some as a gadfly, others are quick to recall the sharpness of his bite.

The consensus seems to be that Bamberger acts in good faith, usually knows what he is talking about and performs a sort of civic service.

"It's not pleasant all the time," conceded Andrew B. Frank, BDC's executive vice president. "But I think the Inner Harbor benefits from that kind of vigilance, and we could probably use more of it."

Cordish, who has known Bamberger for years, said: "He's had an illustrious career, and if he wants to make this his new career, God bless. The city can always use activists."

Cordish did note that "sometimes he was a little out of the loop and didn't have all the facts. Once we've communicated with him directly and he got the facts, there hasn't been a problem."

Told that, Bamberger's blue eyes twinkled, and his bushy eyebrows rose ever so slightly. The trial lawyer in him stirred anew. "He got it wrong," he said bluntly. It was the other way around, he said. Cordish didn't have the facts.

The proof: A parking garage Cordish is building on Pier 5 next to the Columbus Center will have a roof and louvers to screen it from public view - as required under the urban renewal plan.

The original design had neither roof nor louvers. The credit for raising the issue, Frank said, is due Bamberger. "You can certainly trace it back to him," he said.

Nor was it coincidence that the Pier 5 Hotel recently stopped parking cars on a formerly grassy spot behind the Columbus Center, but only after Bamberger pointed out that the law forbade it.

BDC gave its blessing for the temporary parking arrangement but told the hotel that it had to get permits first. "That apparently wasn't done," Frank said, and Bamberger ferreted it out.

The relentless style does not surprise his wife of 50 years, Katharine. "This is not out of character," she said. "He is always on the lookout for things that could be made better, in every country we've lived in and certainly here in Baltimore."

Part of what drives Bamberger's passion is an enduring fondness for his hometown. He spent his early years in a rowhouse on Calvert Street and happily recalls gorging himself on junk food at his grandfather's shop at Calvert and Read.

One in a five-generation string of "Edwards," Bamberger attended Loyola High School, Loyola College and Georgetown University Law Center. He went to work for the city's top law firm, Piper & Marbury, and made partner by his mid-30s.

Then in 1965, Sargent Shriver tapped him for the war on poverty. His job was to direct the legal services program at the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity. It was a chance to set up the first federal program to help the poor with civil legal problems.

Life-changing event

He calls it a life-changing event that made him sleep better. "I thought my life was more productive if I was using the law in some way that was helping people and society," he said, "rather than merely making rich people richer."

Bamberger eventually left Piper & Marbury, made an unsuccessful bid for state attorney general ("We don't talk about that," he joked) and served as dean of Catholic University's law school. Right along, he pursued what he viewed as social justice.

In 1968, he discovered that prosecutors had withheld information in the murder trial of John Leo Brady, who was on death row, and that Brady had been present but had not killed anyone. The maximum sentence for being an accomplice was life in prison, not death. Brady's sentence was reduced.

In 1984, he successfully represented a West Baltimore woman in a lead paint case that gave tenants greater power over landlords. Before, landlords had to remove lead paint only if it was peeling or chipping or if a child had high levels of lead in its blood.

Under a judge's ruling in the case, tenants were allowed to put rent money in escrow if lead-based paint was "easily accessible to a child," even if there were no signs of poisoning.

Back to his roots

By 1989, as a University of Maryland law professor, he was in South Africa training lawyers in how to help the poor once the repressive apartheid era ended, as it did soon after.

There were other overseas teaching stints, in Nepal and the Czech Republic. But the Bambergers, who have a son and grandchildren, always returned to Baltimore and their home in Bolton Hill.

Two years ago they moved to a 10th-floor condo in Scarlett Place. It did not take long for him to become an Inner Harbor activist. His neighbors were concerned about the Cordish garage. They saw no way to stop it, but then Bamberger read the urban renewal plan.

Maybe it couldn't be stopped, but its design could be altered with a roof and screening.

Since then, Bamberger has campaigned for a roof and screening on an existing garage at Pratt and President streets. The city, which says it overlooked the requirements, is exploring a retrofit, Frank said.

This past summer, Bamberger sounded alarms about the parking on Pier 5. He has raised new concerns over a proposed drive connecting Pratt to Eastern Avenue and a planned Volkswagen dealership in the Pratt and President garage.

The dealership is to sit across Pratt from the soon-to-rise Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Bamberger called an old friend from Piper & Marbury, George L. Russell Jr., who is leading the museum effort.

"He knows the bells to push so they ring and make noise," Russell said. "He sure rang my bell when he called me and told me. 'Disgraceful,' he said."

Russell does not oppose the dealership if it is a "good neighbor." And BDC's Frank said Bamberger is off base on the driveway and dealership, though neither is resolved.

No matter. Bamberger is on another quest. He thinks traffic lights should be changed to give pedestrians more time to cross busy President Street. Often he and others make it only halfway before the lights change.

"See that poor lady," he said the other day, pointing to a woman trapped on the median. "She's stuck."

Perhaps not for long.

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