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Baltimore can improve from crucible forged by Freddie Gray

The arrests of a police lieutenant, a sergeant and four officers in the death of Freddie Gray take Baltimore deeper into the crucible, where everything is being tested, everything is on the line -- the system of criminal justice and civil order, the relationships between the black and white citizens who live and work here, the very future of the city and perhaps the nation.

There's an aspiration I've called the Next Baltimore. If you squint you can still see it: a better, safer and healthier city where more children excel in school and chase their dreams, where more of the poor break out of poverty, where neighborhoods on the eastside and westside finally get the attention and investment they deserve. It's a place where more middle-class families stay for the long haul, where a new generation of multiracial Baltimoreans take charge and make big, holistic changes that improve life here — from the level of crime to the quality of the bike lanes.

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That Next Baltimore is a real vision based on trends that have been developing for several years; they are palpable and positive. If you walked around with me, and met some of the people who have given their hearts and minds to this city, you'd feel the energy.

Of course, all of this has been slow in coming and spreading — Harborplace opened 35 years ago this summer — and large swaths of this sprawling city have been left out of the vision.

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The Freddie Gray case and the turmoil that followed his funeral made it clear: A lot of Baltimore is cracked or broken, starting with the relationship between police and the majority population they are supposed to serve. You can't fix that quickly, with a new building or a tax break for a developer. That requires wholesale reform, new strategies and profound changes in attitudes — hard stuff.

But I'm here to say it can be done. Baltimore can be fixed. We have an opportunity to push the restart button, and get it right. Everyone who marched in the streets, who came out this past week to pray and hold hands and clean up the mess from ugly Monday must believe that.

We have landed in a crucible.

Here are two definitions for that word from an online dictionary: "An extremely difficult experience or situation; a severe test or trial," and "A place, time or situation in which different social forces or intellectual influences come together and cause new developments."

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Both describe where we are this weekend — a Baltimore crucible, with the outcome having everything to do with the city's future. It could very well be a national crucible, too. Everyone is watching. We have a chance to lead here, and the people of Baltimore — especially its young, from the kids at Forest Park High to those college students who marched down St. Paul Street the other night to the new millennials who live and work here — have a chance to take this city and the nation to a higher ground within the next decade.

From what I've seen, heard and read this past week — not from the national media or politicians, but from ordinary citizens — is a combination of anxiety, heartbreak and genuine love for this tough, old city. Eyes are wide open now, and apparently a lot of hearts are, too.

We should make the most of this: forceful but peaceful demonstrations, followed by sustained determination to make some lasting changes.

Criminal justice: A Harvard University survey released this week found that nearly one in two millennials believes America's criminal justice system is unfair, and two out of three black millennials had little to no confidence in the justice system. The long war on drugs and the periods of zero-tolerance policing practiced in Baltimore and elsewhere — major factors in making the U.S. the world leader in per capita incarceration — have soured many young Americans, and growing numbers of their parents, on the criminal justice system. So I'm not surprised at the survey. And, given how powerless people feel about the political system, I'm not surprised that few of the 18-to-29-year-olds in the Harvard survey believe the protests of police brutality will make a difference. That's why Baltimore is so important — the political system has been jarred and awakened by the sustained protest. The key is keeping it going, then channeling the energy and intellect into new laws and policies. We have a chance to do that in City Hall and in the State House, setting a standard for the rest of the country.

Restorative justice: That's a fancy term for the revival of an old concept: putting "correction" back into the corrections system. I've been writing about the importance of this for years, and especially since an epiphany in 2005, when hundreds of black men between 20 and 45 years of age responded to my modest offer of help in finding work after prison. To my surprise, people of all political stripes, including the Republican governor of Maryland at the time, saw the common-sense value of giving ex-offenders a second chance after prison. Moreover, it was clear that restoring offenders to society, reducing the chances of their return to taxpayer-funded incarceration, had to start with holistic preparation for re-entry while they were behind the walls. Maryland already has made some progress there; it needs to push further and show the rest of the country how to reduce recidivism.

Bipartisan approach: Larry Hogan, the successful suburban businessman who became the Republican governor of a state dominated by Democrats, has shown a keen interest in Baltimore, and not just during the present turmoil. He has described the city as the economic driver of the region. "It hasn't been as strong as it should be," he said in December, "and that's what we're going to try to fix." So Hogan has a great opportunity — potential legacy stuff — to muster his supporters in the Maryland corporate community and form an alliance with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to come up with a business-smart plan for investment that benefits the most needy city neighborhoods as well as the entire region. That's a tall order, but a comprehensive big-think could maximize the potential of places such as Sparrows Point, Westport and Park Heights/Pimlico. Hogan's business was making real estate deals; he could help the mayor with getting the west side redevelopment moving again. And the mayor ought to accept the help. An alliance of a black female big-city mayor with a white male suburban governor in building the Next Baltimore would be a model for the rest of the country.

Just one thing about plans to renew communities: Talk is cheap, and a lot of people who live in struggling neighborhoods have heard plenty of talk over the years. "And studies," says Eric Booker of the New Broadway East Community. "We've had plenty of students with clipboards come around and do studies." What Booker's and other neighborhoods need is ground-up investment that improves the lives of the residents who have held on to their rowhouses all these years — infrastructure repairs, community policing, job-generating small businesses, better access to food shopping.

Income inequality: No honest person can look at Baltimore today -- the city's income demographics, its rate of poverty — without recognizing the gap between rich and poor as a chasm. I've said it before: Protesting and reducing excessive force by police is important; reducing homicides and other violent crime deserves renewed urgency. But even more important is the need to change an economic system that leaves too many Americans running in place or falling behind while the rich get even richer. The Baltimore crucible includes what we do about income inequality. Norman Augustine, the former Lockheed Martin CEO, had his eyes opened to the problem when he chaired a commission on improving Maryland's business climate. After the commission issued its report, Augustine noted that, in one of the wealthiest states in the country, 44 percent of our public school kids qualify for free and reduced lunches because their families are poor. "That's not a formula for success in the long term," Augustine said. He said full K-12 education was one way to address income inequality. That's a good starting point, but a lot more can be done to immediately improve life for the working poor and their families.

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More support for kids: Hogan and Rawlings-Blake should join forces to get more summer jobs for Baltimore teenagers. The governor and mayor are a little busy right now so, with the end of the school year just six weeks away, they need to appoint a couple of their supporters from the corporate world to muster up summer jobs for teens. Create a project — a cleanup of the Jones Falls mill corridor, for instance, or the planting of trees in barren areas of the city — and put a few thousand kids to work. There also needs to be more recreation for children in the city, more summer camps, and more opportunities for volunteers to pitch in and help. Someone needs to get on this.

I could go on with ideas, but that's plenty for now.

I know it's hard to see right now, but if we do this right, a lot of good could come out of the Baltimore crucible.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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