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Resurrecting the 'City that Reads'

It was almost 30 years ago that a brilliant young man named Kurt Schmoke — the pride of City College — became Baltimore's first elected African-American mayor. Back when you could still go to a ballgame on 33rd Street and get a hot dog for a buck.

At his inauguration, Mr. Schmoke said something more audacious than the "hope" Barack Obama touted on his way to the White House: "Of all the things I might be able to accomplish as mayor of our city," vowed Mr. Schmoke, now 66, "it would make me the proudest if one day it could simply be said that this is a city that reads."

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Mr. Schmoke had barely cleared his throat before the wisenheimers took out their squirt guns of derision. Baltimore is and is not the city of many things, but what we do have in abundance are cynical boors of the easy put-down. Not everybody was laughing.

"It was the Baltimore I wanted," said my journalist brother Victor, a student of Bukowski and Stan Lee. "I liked the possibility of it being true."

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And so, with the power vested in me by my Enoch Pratt Free Library card and knowledge that most municipal slogans are at best aspirational when not downright idiotic, I reaffirm the hometown of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Dashiell Hammett to be the City that Reads.

I do so behind the near miracle of an experience as true as any discovery going down at Johns Hopkins.

More than 20 years ago, when I covered the public library for this newspaper, I'd pick up my kids after school on Monday afternoons and go to a neighborhood branch of the Pratt Library to do homework. One afternoon at the library at Fayette and Linwood, a kid tapped me on the arm and asked if I would help him with some schoolwork.

His name was Varney Richardson, a 10-year-old struggling alone at the library. Thankful that he was doing a book report and not fifth-grade math, I helped Varney, my kids helped Varney, and he soon became part of our lives.

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Within the year, I managed to get Varney into St. Elizabeth of Hungary parochial school on East Baltimore Street. Despite one-on-one tutoring from my newsroom colleagues, the curriculum proved too much and Varney was held back.

As he was repeating the 5th grade at Sinclair Lane Elementary School, it occurred to me that a change of scenery might help this boy catch a break. Before long, Varney was at the Baraka School in the Kenya, a now defunct Abell Foundation project to educate 12-year-old Baltimore boys far beyond the corner.

It worked for some (reading scores improved) and not so well for others. But for Varney, now 31 and the father of two, it worked splendidly. Last week, I saw him for the first time since his long-ago Baraka going away party.

After Kenya, Varney graduated from St. Frances Academy on East Chase Street on an Abell Foundation scholarship. He went on to earn a master's degree in criminal justice administration from Coppin State University, owns a home off of Walther Boulevard and works as a counselor at a psychiatric outpatient clinic.

None of which I knew when his mother left a message a few weeks ago for me to call. Knowing Baltimore, returning that call was nerve wracking — the news would either be very bad or very good.

It was very good indeed, all because a library was open on a Monday afternoon for a kid with enough ambition to ask a stranger for help.

As for inane municipal slogans:

To revisit the City that Reads campaign upon its Pearl Anniversary, I called Mr. Schmoke at the University of Baltimore, where he has served as president since 2014. I asked him to indulge a bit of make-believe.

"There you are, Mr. Mayor, walking down the Alameda near your alma mater when you come upon two benches and want to sit down. One bench says, 'The Greatest City in America…'"

Before I could finish the question, Mr. Schmoke broke in and said emphatically, "I'm sitting on the one that says, 'The City That Reads.'"

Rafael Alvarez writes from Greektown. His new short story, "Orlo the Chicken Necker," will be published in December. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com.

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