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