Learning to believe in Baltimore - and appreciate its charms


IS A NEW evangelism sweeping Baltimore?

When I first arrived last summer as a graduate student interested in serving poor kids in a poor city, it seemed that wherever I looked I saw cars with the same sticker. Multiple offices and public buildings flew banners proclaiming the same message. Pinned on backpacks and even business suits were black buttons with the starkly written word "BELIEVE" in white letters.

I'm not talking about religion. I'm talking about community service. When a new classmate invited me to volunteer to repair bathrooms at an elementary school, I then learned that BELIEVE spoke of a different fervor. I was impressed to learn of the city's campaign to engage citizens in taking responsibility for their public schools.

In his latest State of the City speech, Mayor Martin O'Malley summarized the efforts of his Believe in Our Schools campaign. About 5,700 volunteers worked 40,000 hours to help paint 2 million square feet of classrooms and hallways, he reported.

Critics, shhh! We all know that open wiring and broken windows still exist in our classrooms. We know that the surfaces of our high school track fields have ankle-swallowing holes. We know that schools are too large, textbooks unavailable, teachers undertrained and security shaky. Public rallies in Baltimore and Annapolis decry administrative waste and broken school-funding promises.

But volunteers are working hard - quietly and deliberately - to help the schools and Baltimore's students. A welder left his top-scale union pay to start a mentoring program for boys. Universities now offer free tuition to students from the city. I could embarrass someone by naming who secretly shoveled snow from his neighborhood school's walkway.

Mayor O'Malley has done well using the BELIEVE campaign, following the precedent of William Donald Schaefer's "Baltimore is Best." Mr. O'Malley's idealism articulates the key to Baltimore's prosperity - the sports-fan, sentimental pride of its native citizens.

Strangers to Baltimore hear plenty about the John Hopkins' medical campus and Camden Yards, but unfortunately they listen more to crime reports and statistics of homes abandoned to cat-killing rats. After all, what city besides New York has had so many crime shows situated in it? When I moved to the city, my car insurance company raised my rates and warned me to get a club device.

The insurance company did not prepare me for the pride that some in Baltimore would use to celebrate the colorful and tough image of their city. Baltimoreans do not love their tall buildings, but they savor Mount Vernon Square and the authentic Washington Monument. They revel in the particular speech of neighborhoods, and every "hon" gives them goose bumps. At night, some drivers gaze admiringly at the neon "Domino Sugars" sign and think home.

Baltimore natives would not want an outsider to tell them how to improve their schools or their city. They are skeptical of changes not homegrown in their own streets.

But what amazes me is how quickly newcomers adopt the city and the city adopts them.

I find myself defending Baltimore's charms, even the Formstone rowhouses.

The Believe in Our Schools campaign will work if Mayor O'Malley stays on message. He misunderstood when he ended his State of the City address by calling Baltimore the "Greatest City in America." We all would be happier if it was simply the "Great City of Baltimore."

Adam Donaldson is the Sargent Shriver Peaceworker Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

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