Former Baltimore Mayor: City Must Confront The 'Rot Beneath The Glitter'

Former Baltimore Mayor: City Must Confront The 'Rot Beneath The Glitter'

7:58am Jun 05, 2015
Kurt Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore, is now the president of the University of Baltimore.
Kurt Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore, is now the president of the University of Baltimore.
Courtesy of the University of Baltimore
Kurt Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore, is now the president of the University of Baltimore.

Kurt Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore, is now the president of the University of Baltimore.

Courtesy of the University of Baltimore

It's the end of a tough week in Baltimore. Tensions continue in the Freddie Gray case. And now the murder rate has spiked to a 40-year high. One man who understands well what the city is going through is Kurt Schmoke. He's a native son and was elected as Baltimore's first black mayor in 1987. He served three terms, grappling with high unemployment, poor schools and violent crime.

Now the president of the University of Baltimore, Schmoke shares his memories of the city and his thoughts about moving it forward with Morning Edition.


Interview Highlights

On growing up in Baltimore, as a changing economy left many behind

I had very pleasant memories. I guess the most important thing that I recall is that the largest private employer at the time that I grew up was a steel plant, the Bethlehem Steel Corp. plant. It employed several 1,000, almost 30,000 people, so that — at least when I grew up — somebody could drop out of school and still live a pretty good life, a working-class or middle-class life, by going down to the Sparrows Point plant.

But by the time I became mayor in 1987, the largest private employer in the area was Johns Hopkins University and Health System. And unfortunately our school system really hadn't made the adjustment to try to curb the number of people who were dropping out. So you still had the same number of folks dropping out, but unfortunately the life prospects of those who dropped out were much worse in 1987 than they were in 1967 when I graduated high school.

When Kurt Schmoke was elected as Baltimore's first African-American mayor in 1987, the city was facing many of the same problems that challenge it today.

When Kurt Schmoke was elected as Baltimore's first African-American mayor in 1987, the city was facing many of the same problems that challenge it today.

Associated Press

On neighborhoods divided by opportunities and resources

Well, particularly in the area where Freddie Gray lived, it is real split. You see a lot of new or renovated housing that is a result of some investment that was made by city and private foundations in the 1990s. And directly across the street, you see a lot of boarded-up housing where property owners decided that — rather than try to deal with lead paint problems or other issues — they would just board them up. And so, in the face of something that's very positive, you have directly staring in the face of symbols of despair and distress and poverty.

So that's basically what a lot of young people in West Baltimore are growing up seeing: both the good that society has to offer and some of the worst things that society has to offer. The issue of the duality of Baltimore is on one hand, being a place of great sports stadiums, internationally renowned hospitals and medical centers, and yet also a place that is a home to a great deal of poverty. That's not a new story for us. Particularly in 1987, a local foundation did a study in which it reminded people that, with all the great renaissance here in Baltimore, that there is — in its words — beneath the glitter.

On hopes for a better future for Baltimore

I'm hoping that we no longer have to talk about it as a tale of two cities. I'm hoping that we can close the major problem which is the skills gap. That is, we have a lot of jobs here. We have jobs going begging. But what the persistent problem is the gap between jobs that are available and the skills of people in our communities. If we can close that skills gap so that more and more people are getting employed, employed in jobs of today and tomorrow then we will see a community that has really come together and is going to avoid the types of problems that we see today. And obviously, along with that, my hope is that the violence goes down and that we can begin to treat our drug problem more as a public health problem rather than a criminal justice problem.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's the end of a tough week in Baltimore. There was news that the city's murder rate has spiked to 40-year high in the wake of Freddie Gray's death. And law enforcement officials are denying accusations of a police slowdown. One man who understands well what the city is going through is Kurt Schmoke. He's a native son and was elected Baltimore's first African-American mayor in 1987. He served three terms, fighting high unemployment, poor schools and violent crime.

KURT SCHMOKE: Ten of those 12 years, we had 300 homicides or more. So that was a very difficult time for us. And we attribute that mostly to crack coming here and disruptions in the drug market and, of course, tremendous dislocation in the economy because of major companies moving out. But all the things that you associate with globalization really hit hard in our low income communities.

SHAPIRO: About a month ago, you wrote a piece in Time Magazine where you said some people have referred to Freddie Gray's neighborhood in Baltimore as an area that the government forgot. This is an area you grew up in. Describe your childhood memories of this part of town.

SCHMOKE: Well, the area of West Baltimore was an area in rapid change when I grew up. Whites were moving out to the suburbs, and then middle-class blacks started moving out. But the schools were working for us. You had the city investing in recreation centers. You had elementary schools whose hours stayed open late so that parents who worked could pick their children up from schools. And a lot of those things just started to go away as budget constraints hit the city. And so, you know, by the time I left high school, many of those opportunities no longer were available to people coming up 10, 12 years behind me.

SHAPIRO: You're the president of the University of Baltimore. You interact every day with young people who grew up in the city. What impact do you see violence having on their lives?

SCHMOKE: Well, the young people are certainly affected by what's going on around them. Most of them remain very hopeful. When I saw young people leaving a high school and running across the street to loot one of our shopping centers, the first thing that struck me was that the overwhelming majority of the kids in that high school didn't go across the street. They went home. You know, I think that we can raise the sights. Hopefully, this summer we'll have a great summer jobs program so that young people see that the government really paid attention to them, and they're responding in a very positive way. That'll help turn things around a great deal.

SHAPIRO: You know, for me as an outsider, seeing these persistent problems in Baltimore, hearing that the murder rate has hit a 40-year high, your level of positivity is striking.

SCHMOKE: Well, I guess the other thing I learned long ago was that with respect to the problems of urban America, there are no final victories. I mean, you can solve one or two of the problems, but then there are going to be other issues that come up. When I came into office, we had to deal with rotting, high-rise public housing complexes. And when you think back, those complexes were actually an answer to other social problems. I guess I feel that we're, you know, moving in the right direction. And I feel success will occur in the community.

SHAPIRO: That's Kurt Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore and current president of the University of Baltimore. Thanks very much.

SCHMOKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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