(Guest article by Paul Gilbert) Last Sunday I read an article and viewed the accompanying video of a Baltimore police Sergeant being kicked by “bystanders” as he attempted to arrest a person who, allegedly, spit in his face. As a native Baltimorean, this incident was much more saddening to me, than shocking.
Before I continue, permit me to “cherry-pick” some personal history with the City:
Upon obtaining my Masters Degree in City & Regional Planning in 1973, I was offered and accepted a position with the City’s Planning Department. A directive from then Mayor William Donald Schaefer to develop off-street parking in the City’s “Corned Beef Row” area proved to be the pilot project of what would become a multi-agency program of Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization … that I had the good fortune of directing. Working partnerships including local businesses, neighborhood representatives and City agencies were established in a dozen neighborhoods; revitalization plans, where the City would match private investments by making coordinated public improvements, were prepared; and their implementation were visible signs of a city continuing to “heal” after the 1968 riots.
In 1980, with the Baltimore Economic Development (BEDCO), I worked on numerous projects, most notable among them was spearheading Baltimore’s efforts to attract the NAACP national headquarters. I had the pleasure of working with then NAACP President, Dr. Ben Hooks, and his staff, as I facilitated the donation of an historic building to the group, and secured a $1.1 million State grant for renovations … and the association still occupies that building in the Seton Business Park.
I eventually became BEDCO’s Executive Vice President and was witness to then City Council President Clarence “Du” Burns becoming Baltimore’s first black Mayor in 1987, after William Donald Schaefer resigned to become Maryland’s Governor. As a footnote, I had the honor of drafting “Du’s” first public speech outlining his economic and workforce development strategies for the City (just prior to my leaving for the private-sector in late 1987).
I recall convening and attending countless evening meetings in neighborhoods throughout Baltimore and rarely felt “unsafe” in my travels. Why? It was my sense that the business owners, community representatives and other City agencies were working doubly hard, with a sense of unity and determination, to bridge the differences that previously separated them, with the goal of rebuilding their communities. Mayor Schaefer’s mantra was, “Do it now!” … a philosophy involving patching potholes when they occur; picking up trash upon seeing it; and boarding up vacant houses before they were vandalized. Frankly, “Do it now!” was the forerunner of the “Broken windows theory” by about a decade.
“Do it now” had a clear impact on policing in Baltimore, as enforcement of “quality of life crimes” seemed to give Baltimoreans a sense of pride in their communities, and the fear of violent crime greatly abated … so much so that I was a volunteer in the City’s Auxiliary Police unit in the early 1980’s, and routinely did crowd and traffic control at Oriole’s games, the Inner Harbor, the City Fair … “armed” with only mace and a “nightstick” … and I even accompanied sworn officers on ride-alongs.
Beginning with the election of Kurt Schmoke as Baltimore’s Mayor in late 1987, “Do it now!” gave way to, in my opinion, “Do it never!” Many projects implemented and put in motion during the Schaefer years still stand, although many of them are shadows of what they once were; however, the spirit … some would say, the “magic” … that abounded in the Schaefer years is long gone. There will always be a success here and there, but they will be the exceptions rather than the rule. Today, Baltimore teems with potholes, trash and vacant houses; public schools are failing its students, as only a handful are proficient in reading and math; and crime, as we saw in Sunday’s video, is out of control and, based on murders per 100,000 persons, Baltimore is the “murder capital” of the U.S. Incredibly, the City State’s Attorney, Marilyn (“This is your moment!”) Mosby, blames police rhetoric!
Baltimore is dying, and I just don’t see what can change its current dystopian environment, unless and until the remaining residents elect leaders who propose and enact policies and programs that encourage and support behavioral changes in the streets, in the schools and in the home. Until then, when I’m asked by folks that I meet, “Where are you from,” tearfully, I’ll respond, “Central Maryland!”