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The next step for Baltimore

As a resident of Baltimore for almost all my life, the events of the past several weeks brought back vivid memories of the turmoil in April 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Since that time, we have made great strides in racial relations although there is still work to be done. The sad, untimely and preventable death of Freddie Gray has caused another period of turmoil in Baltimore's history — for reasons beyond racial differences. Over the years, the gap between richer and poorer has widened, creating a socioeconomic divide that many of us have chosen to ignore ("A step toward justice for Freddie Gray," May 1).

Out of sight, out of mind. Many people never travel to or through some of Baltimore's most blighted neighborhoods. We leave our safe, nice homes five days a week to go to work and then return to our comfortable communities, and we travel at will to selected portions of the city to enjoy the niceties. As time passes, we don't think about the areas that wallow in abject poverty. But with modern technology, a personal tour of any part of Baltimore is just a computer away. So go to Google maps and check out the street-view feature and tour the areas around North and Pennsylvania Avenues on the west side or North Avenue and Gay Street on the east side. You'll see blocks and blocks of poverty: people living in marginal houses adjacent to boarded-up, vacant buildings and unkempt, trash-collecting lots, old commercial and industrial buildings in various stages of decay, unwelcoming commercial establishments with their limited windows covered with steel grating and hoards of people out of work. Amid the desolation are the occasional oases of well-kept houses, churches that offer hope to the community and government buildings such as schools and fire houses.

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Walk a mile in my shoes. Take a moment while you're on tour and imagine you live in one of these neighborhoods. If you don't have a job, you spend your day simply trying to survive. You do whatever you can to get money — steal, deal drugs, participate in the prostitution trade. If you do have a job, you come home hoping that your house wasn't burglarized and that your children are safe. After dark, your house becomes a virtual prison because you're afraid to go outside. Imagine you are a police officer. You're wearing a uniform so people will feel safe by your presence. But your uniform also allows the criminals to know who you are while you are at a disadvantage because the criminals blend in with the law-abiding citizens. You feel uneasy knowing that someone could start shooting at you any time with no advanced notice.

In the past week, we have seen both violence and peaceful protests, and we get the message. Those who lost their businesses and jobs get the message. The Orioles, their employees and fans get the message. The Ravens get the message. All those who lost income and wages and opportunities to patronize businesses due to the curfew get it. We get it! So now that everyone has gotten the message, it's time to move to the next step.

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The clergy of all faiths in Baltimore need to form an organization to make genuine improvements in Baltimore's most-impoverished neighborhoods. They need to agree on the boundaries of these neighborhoods and establish a committee comprised of clergy, business owners, government representatives and citizens of all socioeconomic levels to make quality-of-life improvements. Things to consider would be establishing focus groups to improve police/citizen relations, developing employment opportunities, establishing a comprehensive plan to address drug use, creation of playgrounds and children/youth enrichment programs and neighborhood beautification initiatives. Of course, this organization would need funding and here's the plan. The 2010 U.S. Census determined that Baltimore has a population of 622,104. Making adjustments for children, the elderly and others with no or very limited income, there has to be at least 100,000 people in Baltimore who have an income. If each of those people donates just a dollar a week to the new organization, $5.2 million can be collected each year. A dollar a week. That's giving up one cup of coffee or candy bar a week. For the poor. For the unfortunate. Some can give more than a dollar. For those who can't give, such as most college students, how about holding fund-raisers or donating volunteer time?

So let's get started. Get the organization established. My dollar is waiting. Yes, Baltimore has many charitable organizations, but this one will be specifically targeted to the geographical areas most in need. Oh, one more thing. This organization needs a name. Here's one: "The Freddie Gray Foundation." Sounds good to me.

Michael Cook, Baltimore

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