Baltimore needs help - not reinvention

The Baltimore Sun

Does Baltimore need to be "remade," as some have recently suggested? The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health is on board, insisting that the basic social organization in the city is out of date, that human capital has been stripped away, and that we need to reinvent something (again).

As a concerned city resident and taxpayer, I disagree. I see a world-class city that has been infected by a drug culture that has been allowed to not just survive but thrive here, causing an expensive public health problem. I see large numbers of both white and black workers who visit the city by day and go home to the suburbs at night. Mostly, I see a relatively small but growing group of poor, violent, angry, young and uneducated people wreaking havoc on an otherwise respectful majority of law-abiding citizens who are trying to work, play, contribute and thrive here.

Taken together, what we are really seeing is the expansion of the urban (and now suburban) underclass, a problem that is as old as cities themselves. While this group will never be eliminated, its numbers can certainly be reduced. But putting the onus on the city of Baltimore alone to solve this problem is not workable, and to suggest that this should somehow be Mayor Dixon's focus is both patronizing to her and insulting to people who pay local taxes. Putting the sole responsibility on the city has always been and will always be a recipe for failure.

What will work? Nothing can be accomplished without first attacking Baltimore's drug problem. At this point, it will probably take something drastic, like armed federal intervention, to begin to eradicate drug dealers from the streets of Baltimore - SWAT-like raids by federal officers working in coordination with local police.

This may sound extreme, but is it worse than letting whole sections of the city be controlled by drug dealers? The other alternative is to simply remove the profit motive by decriminalizing their sale, as was brilliantly suggested by Mayor Kurt Schmoke many years ago.

Only after that task is complete will assisting the underclass yield viable results. It will require thousands of local jobs; better transportation to (and low-cost housing in) the suburbs, where the service jobs are located; a coherent policy that deals with the needs of whole families, not just children; and a focus on drug addiction as a health problem that must be eliminated (as we eliminated polio in the 1950s).

School dropout rates will recede and achievement rates will increase if the basic needs of families (jobs and health) are addressed first. And what about harnessing human capital? It would actually be more practical to pay suburbanites to move back into the city communities they abandoned than it would be for Hopkins to re-engineer the human infrastructure. History tells us that what people really need is the dignity of being drug-free and healthy and having a job to feed, clothe and house their family.

Do we have the will and the money to reduce the underclass in Baltimore? While I see this as a largely federal investment, it will require a regional approach to government to garner the human and financial resources necessary to make the efforts work properly, especially in the areas of housing, transportation and health.

The first step: Stop pretending that the city of Baltimore can do this alone.


Carl Hyman, a former city planner is immediate past president of the Tuscany-Canterbury Neighborhood Association

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