Dan Rodricks: Baltimore getting back to normal, and normal is always a mixed bag in Baltimore

Maybe it was the bright sunshine and cool weather, the breeze in the trees and the small army of workers in yellow safety vests and hard hats at construction sites, but the other day Baltimore looked better to me than it has in a long time.

I ran into several traffic detours because of construction projects, a sign of vitality after a couple of years of pandemic and inertia.

The sidewalks of Fells Point were full of people, dogs and kids walking home from school.

I passed a baseball game in Clifton Park, an old-school tableau of players in uniforms and spectators setting up picnics.

I saw a man from a residential drug treatment center sweeping a wide corner in Sandtown of its last bit of trash, and the intersection was spotless.

There was a woman having a peaceful lunch on a bench in Carroll Park, and in the noon sunshine the lawns in the park looked Major League perfect.

I saw new buildings in Port Covington that seemed to have been built overnight.

I bought four croissants from Patisserie Poupon on Baltimore Street and found them to be up to their usual high standard.

Same with the rotisserie chicken and sweet potato from Nick’s in Pigtown.

So, yeah, on certain days, when the light is right, Baltimore seems to have picked up speed again. We’re returning to some kind of normal.

But remember, in Baltimore, normal is always a mixed bag. Reports of deadly gunfire disrupt a Baltimorean’s urban reveries.

“People I know in Harford County refuse to come downtown,” a friend from Bel Air declared last Sunday morning, and about 10 hours later, Paul McCartney played to a sellout crowd at Camden Yards.

I call it Our City of Perpetual Recovery because Baltimore seems to be eternally recovering from big problems — the loss of industry and jobs, the loss of population, the drug epidemic and, now, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before I go on, a word about problems:

No one likes to hear about them, much less read about them in newspapers. But it’s one of the things we do — we describe societal problems and sometimes (not often enough) suggest what to do about them.

Shedding light on poverty and income inequality, pointing out racial disparities in criminal justice, chronicling corporate greed, reporting on climate change — some people find all that part of a liberal agenda, not merely the stuff of responsible journalism in a free society.

But it would be a terrible dereliction of duty for newspapers — or any credible news operation — to ignore or downplay problems just to keep the customers happy. (See Fox News on the Jan. 6 insurrection.) Ignorance might be bliss, but ignorance does not solve problems.

In Baltimore, a city that suffers from problem overload, we’ve been in the long grind for years: What to do about gun violence, heroin addiction, kids failing in school and schools failing kids.

I could go on, so I will: How to keep kids from drifting into drug dealing and dropping out of school, how to get adults coming out of prison into jobs so they don’t revert to criminality, how to provide housing for low- income families and prevent homelessness.

These are all complex issues, often turning for better or worse on the personalities and vagaries of individuals, and there are times when it all seems overwhelming.

Just about everywhere I go in Our City of Perpetual Recovery, I find two cities in one: Three blocks where people and businesses seem to be thriving, followed by two blocks of vacant houses and the remnants of crime scenes. Many times, when I’ve just returned from an experience I found pleasurable and even charmingly Baltimorean, something depressing appears — a middle-aged woman doing the heroin nod-and-lean in Highlandtown, a man sleeping against the wall of an abandoned industrial building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

We make an assumption: People who want help can find help because there’s plenty of help available — if not from a government agency, certainly from one of the hundreds of nonprofits that provide services throughout the city.

But a lot of people resist help; some homeless people I’ve spoken with want nothing to do with shelters. A few years ago, a homeless couple came off the streets of southwest Baltimore and into a house, rent-free, the beneficiaries of a church’s generosity. It was a good story for a few months, until both the husband and wife relapsed into heroin, and the church and its frustrated pastor asked them to leave. The couple returned to a tent under an overpass.

Generations of Baltimoreans have tried to solve these problems, and most are still with us — not because government did too much, as some claim, but because we (and taxpayer-funded government is “we”) didn’t do enough.

Long ago, I suggested that we needed an “army of social workers” to take on the city’s toughest problems. Many readers supported that proposition, but several progressives slammed the suggestion as patronizing.

Ironically, those same progressives are now calling for Baltimore to “defund the police” and devote more taxpayer dollars to an army of social workers.

So maybe we’re on the same page now.

Maybe we can devote more resources, finally, to solve more of the individual problems at the root of the big ones.

Please excuse my optimism. I blame it on the sunshine, on the breeze in the trees and the appearance of a battered city getting back to normal.

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