In his campaign for mayor of Baltimore, City Council President Brandon M. Scott has billed himself as a child of Park Heights Avenue.
“So let’s start there,” we agreed on the telephone the other day.
That stretch of Northwest Baltimore, from Park Circle all the way up to Pimlico Race Course, is familiar turf for both of us — except that we know it most intimately in two different eras.
Also, we each agree, we know today’s stretch of lower Park Heights as a microcosm of a city that has almost entirely lost faith in itself.
My generation remembers Park Heights in the post-war years when it was one of the city’s most vibrant boulevards. If you lived anywhere above Park Circle back then, your family had climbed into the American middle class.
The 36-year-old Scott grew up in a different Park Heights.
“A neighborhood,” he said the other day, “that should be a crown jewel of the city. My grandparents moved there from West Virginia, and my grandpa got a job at General Motors. That generation worked.
“But those jobs left town, and so many of the strong middle-class and working-class families left Park Heights. Folks flew out, houses abandoned. Drugs came in. The whole neighborhood was forgotten by the government, except every year on Preakness weekend. The city’s been talking about redevelopment coming since I’m 14 years old. Now, we need a renaissance to bring it back.”
OK, so we’ve got a general agreement here on the history of lower Park Heights and its multitude of residential side streets, equally depressing, and the parallel stretch of rundown Reisterstown Road, too.
When Scott talks about the area’s downfall, there seems genuine passion in his voice. He feels the bond of extended family. And he also knows the problems dragging down the area.
Those problems are too familiar, and too depressing, to lay out here for the 7,000th time.
We’re still waiting for someone who knows a way out of them.
The last half-century of mayors didn’t know. Each talked platitudes about cleaning up Park Heights and then stood by and watched its deterioration continue.
So I want Brandon Scott, this young man who comes from Park Heights and knows its problems, to tell me how he would be different.
But it’s not so easy.
I spend about 20 minutes on the phone with Scott before he says a campaign aide needs him to hang up because there’s campaign work to be done all over town.
Fair enough. See you next week on primary Election Day.
So then, two things happen: I review my notes from the conversation and look for fresh ideas Scott has imparted for improving Park Heights. What he’s offered, frankly, are clichés.
“Invest in people,” he says at one point.
“Go after federal and state and private investment,” he says at another point.
“Train people to work” with offenders returning from prison.
Not one idea has the feel of freshness.
But I understand there’s only so much detail anyone can express in a 20-minute conversation, so I go to Scott’s website, where he does in fact get into more specifics. He’s done some homework, he’s talked to experts, he’s thought about things.
And yet, even here, we find familiar urban jargon. Here’s a plan for fighting crime, here’s a plan to curb drug traffic. The terms carry echoes from half a century, and also from recent memory.
Earlier this month, the half-dozen leading mayoral contenders met in a televised debate. And there was a jarring voice that kept interrupting.
It was Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s voice. When he heard some opposing candidate mention a plan to clean up Baltimore, Young would blurt out that his administration was already doing this.
And who could argue?
Listen, a plan is only a plan. When inept people are attempting to implement it, a plan means nothing. One of Baltimore’s big problems over the past decades has been a diminishing talent pool. Mayors are rarely any better than the people with whom they surround themselves.
You get a series of inept police leaders, you get crime that seems insoluble. You get some bad housing commissioners, you get thousands of houses blotting scores of neighborhoods.
But there’s something called leadership. To me, Brandon Scott’s plans don’t sound particularly fresh. And maybe Jack Young’s already put similar plans into action.
Maybe the difference between each of the six leading mayoral candidates comes down to leadership, and picking the right people to make their plans finally, finally, show some results.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).