Some of us are old enough to notice a great irony in an early public meet-and-greet featuring Michael S. Harrison, Baltimore’s new acting police commissioner.
Local media outlets reported that Harrison, the former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, spoke at a community gathering the other night at Forest Park High School. The irony is not about what Harrison had to say. It’s about where he said it.
For generations of Northwest Baltimore adolescents, Forest Park High was not only the great extended-neighborhood drawing card; it seemed a classic expression of middle-class striving, of preparation for a treasured place in the American Dream.
That dream lasted for several decades, and it produced vast numbers of doctors and lawyers and politicians, plus some genuine stars in the national cavalcade, such as film director Barry Levinson and Broadway producer Ken Waissman, Billy Griffin of the Miracles and Cass Elliott of the Mamas and the Papas, and politicians such as Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.
But all of these people came out of distant yesterdays, didn’t they?
In that vanishing era, which extended until the 1970s, the vast percentage of Forest Park kids graduated on time and went off to college. Today, roughly 60 percent of the kids graduate on time, far below the state average of 87 percent. Only about 15 percent take the SAT or ACT college exams.
And less than 10 percent test at proficiency levels in English and math.
Of course, none of this is strictly within the purview of a police commissioner. But it’s a measurement of the neighborhoods around the school, and the family support, and the respect for learning that’s instilled in their homes.
And the level of social disorder in the surrounding neighborhoods.
In the post-war years, area youngsters could attend school from kindergarten through high school graduation without leaving the neighborhood. There was Mordecai Gist Elementary (School No. 69) and Garrison Junior High and then Forest Park, all located within several blocks of Liberty Heights Avenue.
But School No, 69’s been closed for several decades, and Garrison’s doors were closed several years ago. Forest Park’s original building was torn down and rebuilt in the 1980s, but the location’s roughly the same.
But neighborhood housing’s a different story. A lot of it has fallen into disrepair, or abandonment. Along the Liberty Heights corridor, there’s a pretty new shopping strip at Gwynn Oak Junction – but brace yourself if you look across the street at the old Ambassador Theater. It’s a mess, and it’s been that way for years.
Most important to the new police commissioner, though, is the street crime, which is far higher than it used to be. It’s the usual story – a mix of drugs and economic despair leading to desperate measures.
What’s the new commissioner’s plan to curb it? It’s too early to tell. But that’s why he’s going to community meetings these days. Harrison wants to hear from people facing daily problems.
Some may be old enough to remember a different kind of neighborhood around Forest Park and its community high school – and wondering how so much has changed in such sad ways.
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,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.