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Same as It Ever Was

Posted 12/5/2001

Molly Rath's article about the troubled grocery store (Mobtown Beat, Nov. 14) reminds me of the 1940s and '50s, when we had an all-white City Council that was very unresponsive to the black community. Now we have a City Council that is about two-thirds black, with a black president. They were voted into office with the express purpose of changing the system for the benefit of the black community. Talk about being back to square one!

Leo Williams

If you haven't seen a copy of the Nov. 21 City Paper, get a copy while you still can. This is no ordinary issue: It contains articles on a relative handful of this city's grass-roots leaders and workers (Unsung Heroes).

I say handful--the actual count is 11--because Baltimore is blessed with a rich assortment of grass-roots activists and groups, quietly working from one year to the next, that very few of us ever hear about. How many know about Elsie Bell, Lola Willis, Jon Milchling, Ed Bauer?

And where do we go when we want to find someone, offer some volunteer time, and maybe make a financial contribution? If there is a visible, accessible, comprehensive list, I haven't seen it. Have you? Are people and groups reaching out to each other in a visible, citywide way?

Baltimore activists have been complaining for decades about our apathy, our resistance to change and novelty, and our poor communications. In recent years, the third has grown increasingly unnecessary with the advent of e-mail. With a minimum of new learning and very little cash, one can acquire this revolutionary communications tool, one that will reduce the time, effort, and expense for any group, any organizer. And yet, how many people are using it?

In front of me lies the 1999 Community Association Directory, available from City Hall ([410] 396-9555). Granted, it's two years old. But is that any reason for none of its 770+ organizations to have e-mail listings? Sixteen listings don't even have phone numbers.

Going back to City Paper's "Heroes" piece, there are 11 people (10 entries; two work as a team). For the 10 activities, there are phone numbers for seven. And of those seven, there are two URLs. That's a published Internet capability of 20 percent.

This is not a good sign.

There is quality, even excellence, to be had in Baltimore. But it seems to occur in isolated, individual sparks, almost lost in a sea of apathy, parochialism, and mediocrity. Where is there a context, a culture, of unity, communication, and cooperation? Where do we begin to look?

If you know of directories, umbrella groups, directory Web sites, etc., please let us know. With the energy and creativity we have in this town, we could surely do something extraordinary if we were in touch with each other.

Maybe next year's "Heroes" issue will be as thick as the phone book--we have the material. There should be a phone number and e-mail for each entry. And people should be talking to each other. Is this too much to ask?

Chuckie Ramone

Ass Backwards
In response to Wiley Hall III's "The Trouble with Harry" column (Urban Rhythms, Nov. 21), I must ask Mr. Hall one question. With all the crap going on in the world today, was there really nothing else for him to gripe about?

Mr. Hall doesn't get Harry Potter. He finds the characters "flat, one-dimensional, and all too predictable." Mr. Hall, is Winnie the Pooh a complex character? Was Dorothy Gale a woman ahead of her time? His reference to absurd British names, though, does leave one yearning for those intellectual American names such as Jack Pumpkinhead and the Tin Woodsmen (from the Oz series of books by L. Frank Baum).

Mr. Hall ends his columns by saying, "The masses are asses. Always have been. Always will be." Since the Harry Potter books are written for children, and since an estimated two-thirds of American children have read the books, I wonder if Mr. Hall truly meant to say that two-thirds of the children in America are asses. In this age of DVDs, video games, high crime rates, and single-parent families, it makes me wonder why anyone would have anything negative to say about a series of books that not only make kids (and adults) want to read but actually make them love to read.

Gregg Clare

Field Report
Thank you for your article about Buy Nothing Day ("Consumer Retorts," Nov. 14) which explored the relationship between American-style consumption and its effects on the environment and people but questioned whether cutting back would bring economic ruin.

The nascent field of ecological economics, pioneered by University of Maryland professor and former World Bank economist Herman Daly, has some answers. Currently popular economic models are based on assumptions that upon closer examination seem dubious at best. The most important assumption is that economic growth (largely the product of population growth and increased resource consumption) can continue indefinitely, yet we live in a finite world subject to physical and biological limits. Ecological economists suggest treating the economy as a subset of the natural world rather than as an independent entity.

A critique of the dogma of infinite growth has social implications too. Economic growth is often touted as the answer to poverty, yet if there are limits, then relative distribution of income and resources is all the more critical. And simple math shows economic growth only exacerbates relative inequality. Apply a 10 percent growth rate to wages of $4 and $40 per day, and a $36 gap increases to $39.60. Hardly a panacea for empowering the poor.

The second mistake is treating gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of national welfare. GDP is simply an accounting of how much money changes hands. It fails to count positive contributions such as volunteer work or unpaid work done in the home because no money is exchanged. Moreover, it counts some decidedly negative events as positives. For instance, cleaning up the Exxon Valdez oil spill pumped $2.1 billion into the economy. Similarly, an increase in crime may boost the GDP, as people purchase security systems and hire police or security guards.

Furthermore, GDP treats depletion of "natural capital" as income. A forest contributes nothing to the GDP until it is cut, and depreciation is calculated for the chain saw but not the trees. An economics rooted in biological reality would calculate use of renewable resources over and beyond the growth or replacement rate as depreciation, not income. Alternative accounting measures that attempt to address the shortcomings of GDP typically increase along with the GDP then decline slowly, suggesting that economic growth has become, well, uneconomic. (See For the Common Good, by Herman Daly and John Cobb, or, the Web site for the organization Redefining Progress, for details.)

Finally, let's remember, the people exhorting us to spend like crazy to keep the economy strong are the same folks (mainstream politicians of both stripes) who changed and continue to change trade laws to make it easier for large corporations to send jobs overseas, where wages and environmental standards are lower. Just whose bread is being buttered here?

Seen from the perspective of ecological economics, Buy Nothing Day could be a small step toward building an economy that sustains people and the planet, rather than the other way around.

Pam Garrettson

World view
A little disconcerted by the apparently vast divide between my reality and that of letter writer Lee Poechmann (The Mail, Nov. 21), I decided to give it a week and see if anyone would step forward in defense of Tom Tomorrow's weekly comic, This Modern World. I'm guessing that you got at least a few letters on the subject, but since you didn't print any of them, I can't be sure.

At any rate, that's why I'm writing. This Modern World is the first thing I look for in your paper every week; I don't know of any other writer, working in any other medium, who can deal as succinctly, completely, and yet hilariously with such a wide variety of vexing public issues. I doubt you're planning to eliminate the comic just on Poechmann's say-so (it was nice of you to publish his letter, though), but if so, consider this a vote against doing so. If you did eliminate it, I guess I could always check the comic out on various Web sites, but there's just something about reading comics on newsprint. I'm sure you know what I mean.

Sutton R. Stokes

Editor's note: Dean Smith, who wrote last week's cover story on the 100-year-old basketball rivalry between the Bryn Mawr School and St. Timothy's, is the son of Bryn Mawr basketball coach Jim "Snuffy" Smith. Dean Smith, a freelance writer with whom City Paper had not worked before, did not disclose this conflict of interest in pitching the story or at any time prior to publication, even when asked about ties to the schools. While we believe the Bryn Mawr/St. Timothy's centennial was a story very much worth reporting and are glad to have done so, we would certainly have proceeded differently had we known about this relationship.

Another editor's note: Eileen Murphy, one of the longest-standing members of the City Paper family, left the nest last month for a post with the Johns Hopkins University development office. Eileen started out at CP 11 years ago as an intern and clawed her way up to books editor and award-winning feature writer, pausing along the way for a memorable stint as media critic. We'll miss Eileen's dedication to the paper and the city, her thoughtful literary criticism, and her excellent baking, and we wish her best of luck.

Corrections: Some of you may have noticed that last week's cover promised a film section that last week's paper didn't deliver. The issue was due to include coverage of the film Tape, which was scheduled to open in Baltimore on Nov. 30. The day before we went to press, Tape's local release was pushed back a week, and the review was pulled from the paper (it does appear in this issue). However, it was too late to change the cover, which had already gone to the printer, hence the snafu. Just one of those things that happens in the fast-paced world of newspapering.

Also, actress Tracie Thoms was misidentified in last week's review of the Center Stage production of A Raisin in the Sun.

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