A woman I know who used to live on St. Paul Street, in Charles Village, telephones the other day to offer a wry sort of congratulations.
“How about Baltimore,” she says, “going 10 days without a homicide!”
As it happens, the woman now lives in Portland, Ore.
That’s how far the news about Baltimore’s killing fields has spread.
At the deli section at my grocery store in Northwest Baltimore County, the counter man launches into a monologue about the city police. Unsettling stories abound: a corruption scandal larger and more malignant than anyone had imagined; firings and hirings at the highest echelons; ceaseless street violence no matter who’s in charge; and a general breakdown in community confidence in the cops.
The deli counter man hands me my Swiss cheese and sliced turkey breast order and, with a wink, offers one last word about the police. “Don’t get pulled over,” he says.
Mayor Catherine E. Pugh says she wants to “change the narrative” about the city. But there’s your existing narrative: don’t get pulled over by the police, or you might find yourself part of the coast-to-coast conversation about Baltimore and its street crime.
The new acting commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, has his work cut out for him. The existing “narrative” about Baltimore continues to trouble all those who still want fervently to believe in the city’s benefits: its neighborhoods, its mix of cultures, its energy, its ideas, its night life of restaurants and taverns, its ballparks and museums.
But it’s increasingly tougher to embrace those qualities when the city’s public schools continue to churn out illiterates; when the coldest winter days coincide with unheated classrooms; when city officials bemoan decaying roads and bridges, and this White House issues a proposal for national infrastructure repairs – but wants the cities and states to carry the financial load.
The city’s already broke, without taking on the financial burden of sweeping repairs. So the standard begging and pleading, which goes back at least as far as William Donald Schaefer’s City Hall days, will take place again, with Mayor Pugh hoping to squeeze some money out of a reluctant Annapolis.
We’ll see how much enthusiasm this governor, and this legislature, have for a city whose population is dwindling, whose political power is diminishing, and whose “narrative” continues to produce anxiety.
Even President Trump, as he offered his infrastructure proposal the other day, seemed less than fully committed. “Let’s see how badly you want it,” he told members of Congress. “If you don’t want it, that’s OK with me, too.”
And that, too, becomes part of the coast-to-coast narrative about Baltimore, and about so many American cities with so many problems.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.