City leaders seem ready to lead

The Baltimore Sun

Beyond the dismal graduation rate, attacks on teachers, gangs invading funerals in church and an array of other social pathologies, some see extraordinary opportunity for Baltimore.

The city has a new police commissioner who has presided over a stunning falloff in murders this year. It has a bright, engaging new schools chief reaching out to a city immobilized by a general breakdown in civil behavior.

Despite the idea that Baltimore's problems are just too big for any individual or group, more than 350 Baltimoreans have responded to Andres Alonso's call for volunteers to support teachers - and to show students that someone wants them to succeed.

There's also a relatively new mayor who is reportedly ready to more clearly define her mission. Even among those who wonder if she has any focus, there is widespread acclaim for her selection of Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. She and Mr. Alonso are reportedly "on the same page" as well.

Mayor Sheila Dixon is said to be ready to announce initiatives designed to address deep-seated human problems that have been avoided for decades. In relatively private moments, the mayor has frequently signaled her willingness to call on Baltimoreans to take control of their families and their communities. In a time of recession and anti-tax fervor, the mayor may have far less money than the task before her warrants. But she is not without institutional and individual allies, many of them waiting to find out how they can help her. Some church and civic leaders say they have been discouraged by responses from City Hall when help was offered.

The city's recent high-profile outbursts of violence add urgency to Ms. Dixon's call for cooperation from citizens and the array of social service agencies working in isolation - in "silos," so to speak. A few years ago, during a mayoral election, someone called Baltimore a broken city. Candidates for City Hall, including now-Gov. Martin O'Malley, differed vociferously, as if the observation was a slur that had to be denied. Political campaigns don't offer many moments of truth telling, but moments of truth do come. Ms. Dixon could well be Baltimore's mayor for many years, and she may be - ought to be - eager for a challenge no one has accepted heretofore.

Philip J. Leaf of the Johns Hopkins Hospital's Bloomberg School of Public Health says city leaders must realize that the basic social organization of the city is 30 or 40 years out of date. Drugs, guns, splintered families and death have stripped away human capital - the usual support systems - that make communities function successfully.

The concern about calling Baltimore a "broken city" could complicate the revitalization campaign; perhaps a different way of phrasing the concept would be in order. But the mayor's focus, the drop in the murder toll and the energy displayed by Mr. Alonso and Mr. Bealefeld do much to sustain hope.

A re-make, to be effective, must go deep, Mr. Leaf says. For example, the idea that students start school "ready to learn" is often a fantasy. That means failure begins early. Is enough being done to allow children to catch up?

When William Donald Schaefer was mayor 20 years ago, he struggled against Baltimore's inferiority complex. He tried to reverse it by building things - and he succeeded to a large extent. Mayor Dixon must declare war on the idea that the city is too far gone for a comeback. Her project must be human capital.

"It has not been clear to people what they can do to change things. People have been immobilized because the problems seem so big," Mr. Leaf says.

What the city needs, he says, is habilitation - not rehabilitation. Basic living skills have not been imparted to some young people because their parents were dead, incarcerated or otherwise out of the picture. Many of them have nothing like negotiation skills, ways to defuse a confrontation short of finding a gun.

Without these skills, young people often become "hyper vigilant." If they feel threatened and vulnerable, they go immediately to the most extreme response.

Again, though, there are resources not immediately recognized: Some ex-offenders who were in "the life" of drugs and gangs have aged out of it. They want another life, and they're willing to talk about how they've changed

"If there is a fix," Mr. Leaf says, "we have to create a [human] infrastructure as if everyone is starting from scratch."

It's possible, he says, that Baltimore needs a citywide program akin to Alcoholics Anonymous - a program in which and confession and overcoming denial are key ingredients.

If the city is broken, it has to recognize the break before healing can begin.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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