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C. Fraser Smith: Time for another Baltimore Renaissance?

Several months back, a colleague asked me to offer some thoughts about Baltimore and its future during his regular lunch gathering with friends.

“Baltimore: Can It Be Saved?” was to be the subject.

My first thought? Why me?

He suggested that a person such as me, who occasionally ventures an idea about this or that, ought to be up for the challenge. Oh, sure, but all I tend to do is suggest that someone else needs to be thinking about saving our fair city.

Hmm, yes. A certain Shakespearean line occurred to me, the one about being hoisted by your own petard.

Actually, we all should be thinking about the health of our quirky, Hon-charmed, football-crazed, already-renaissanced city. Cities always need saving.

A few years ago, we had this crazy galoot named Schaefer who insisted we join him in a neighborhood-by-neighborhood think fest. We went through the “why me” thing with him, too. But he wouldn’t be stopped. He got in our face. He and we built the Inner Harbor. We came back to the city.

But apparently we don’t have another monomaniac to prod us. We’re going to have to do it ourselves.

And guess what? We’ve started. Maybe you didn’t notice.

In September, we elected a new city state’s attorney, Gregg Bernstein. He (and we) unseated a 15-year incumbent. We imposed the best kind of term limits. They’re called elections. True, not many of us went to the polls, but we all voted even if we did so by staying home. Not ideal for a democracy, but the statement was made nonetheless.

We needed a new prosecutor. Whatever we were doing wasn’t working. We needed someone who made headlines by doing something other than feuding with the police commissioner. So, Bernstein ran. Maybe he saw some inspirational quotation: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Or, “Leap and the net will appear.” (He’ll be hoping for that net, if not already, soon enough.)

That September election also brought change to the city’s General Assembly delegation. Bill Ferguson, a young, peaceful revolutionary from the ranks of Teach for America, defeated George Della, who had been in office longer than Ferguson had been on this Earth. Youth will be served.

I mentioned both of these wins to the luncheon group. Their moods were not elevated. Not even close. They see all the papered-over vacant commercial spaces on downtown streets. They know we have 2 million square feet of unoccupied space inside these buildings. They are pretty sure the center city is dying. Have we noticed?

A business group is suing the state for planning a new mega-development near the symphony hall that will compete with downtown. Is that a good idea? There would be a lot more talk about it.

But sometimes we’re cast down by forces that seem beyond our control. In this case, there’s a lawsuit. But where’s the moral persuasion, the weighing in of city fathers? Nowhere, actually, although we hear some are unhappy about it — people like Peter Angelos, the lawyer, Orioles principal owner and downtown developer. He’s reportedly voiced his concerns to the governor, but the project goes forward. We ought to hear more about it, though.

Sometimes we are beset with despair about our city, our country, and our world, for that matter. We forget — if we even know — how many people work every day to be what the great Mahatma urged us to be.

In 2010, I met many people who are living a Gandhian life. They’re engaged in helping kids survive the sometimes-lethal city. The helpers do it modestly. They don’t see themselves making a heroic assault on evil and want. They are, though.

Some of them see, in a silent flash of realization, that they might do more, a lot more.

I give you another example you may not expect:

Outgoing State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy.

She, too, had taken a chance. With city churches, she began a push for change on the most fundamental human level. Young people, she said, needed to be acquainted with the improved prospects for life if violence could be swapped for virtue. It was risky, though (as the election may have shown). Prosecutors needed to concentrate on putting offenders in jail. Why was she acting as a social worker?

Her belief? If you just keep prosecuting, convicting and jailing, nothing will change. One generation of offenders will be replaced by another. Let’s try something else, she thought.

She will have more time now to build her violence-to-virtue program.

She and Bernstein and Ferguson took the leap. Many others whose names you don’t know have done the same.

To borrow one more bromide: We have to be the change and the action we’re been waiting for.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.