Ten Things We Love About 1999
The Year in News
Campaign 1999 produced a steady diet of tabloidlike headlines and pundit pabulum, but the real news was that the results sowed the seeds for a potentially major upheaval in how Baltimore is run. Newly minted Mayor Martin O'Malley, who for eight years on the City Council was predecessor Kurt Schmoke's most vocal foe, campaigned on a platform of reform and change, most notably a radical public-safety agenda rooted in "zero tolerance" policing. The message resonated: Despite entering the race late, O'Malley won a supposedly tight Democratic primary with a whopping 53 percent of the vote and cruised to a 9-to-1 general-election victory.
O'Malley hardly represented anyone's first choice back in the spring. That honor went to NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who deftly dodged a draft movement even as a downtown-condo purchase and a change in the residency requirement for mayoral candidates made his candidacy legal and, seemingly, inevitable. In early June, Mfume demonstrated he had as much sense as his suitors believed--he declined to give up his heroic national job for a hellish, hands-on local one.
Before and after the courtship of Mfume, then-City Council President Lawrence Bell III was the front-runner, but he self-destructed with a string of personal financial problems and an angry, defensive campaign. Former council and school-board member Carl Stokes, seemingly primed to take advantage of Bell's missteps, lost his edge when it was reported that he'd lied about earning a college degree and had had his own financial troubles. The scandals were fairly minor as these things go, but, coupled with a deep, collective frustration among voters about crime, they catapulted O'Malley to the head of the Democratic pack and an overwhelming November win, despite an aggressive campaign by Republican mayoral candidate David Tufaro.
A week into the new mayor's tenure, "change" and "reform," in some areas at least, have a distinctly nostalgic tinge. Several of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer's cronies--whom Schmoke cleared out early in his administration--have found a fresh foothold at City Hall. But perhaps more significantly, O'Malley has already accomplished one thing Schmoke could not: convincing Blue Cross/Care First, which had signed a lease to move 400 jobs to Baltimore County, to remain in the city.
2. They Never Learn
This year marked the midway point of the city's five-year school-reform program, which from the get-go concentrated on the first through third grades--prime learning years, the thinking went, that would prepare children to perform well throughout the rest of their school days. With the annual release of statewide test scores on Dec. 1, it appears that this approach isn't paying off. Just 15.6 percent of Baltimore's third-graders--students who've supposedly benefited from 21/2 years of reform tactics--scored satisfactorily on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), down from 16.6 percent in 1998 and well below the statewide average of 41.2 percent. The scores are still up significantly from when MSPAP was introduced in 1993, when only 6.4 percent of city third-graders met state standards, but it hardly reflects well on a reform process that has included teaching phonics to young children and reducing class sizes to 20 students in the first and second grades. Fifth- and eight-grade scores actually improved this year, but the increase was ever so slight: 15.7 percent of fifth-graders and 7.1 percent of eighth-graders made the state grade, up from last year's 14.3 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively--hardly a ringing endorsement of reform so far.
Apparently, state education officials could see the writing on the classroom wall: Six weeks before the test results came out, officials began soliciting proposals from outside entities, such as private companies and nonprofits, to run the worst-performing schools, per a 1994 decree. Come September, state officials say, "a relatively small number" of schools will likely face state takeover. And yes, all are in Baltimore City, home to 88 of Maryland's 97 poorest-performing schools--despite the fact that city schools were the first to be put on notice about the takeover threat and thus had the most time to get their act together. This year's MSPAP scores indicate they still haven't.
3. Shot by Both Sides
Just as Baltimore's citizens were electorally endorsing a get-tough anti-crime strategy, the city once again landed on the national radar as one of America's murder capitals--and, as some would have it, a haven for trigger-happy cops.
On Oct. 7, Larry Hubbard was shot dead by a city police officer in East Baltimore, sparking widespread allegations of police brutality. Police said Hubbard was scuffling for an officer's gun; witnesses said he was shot point-blank while kneeling on the ground. The city was in the thick of a mayoral campaign in which front-runner Martin O'Malley was pitching public safety a la "zero tolerance" that has dramatically reduced murders in other big cities, but which has also been linked with barbaric acts of excessive force. While zero tolerance has yet to be implemented here, many contend the Hubbard shooting was an example of the kind of rogue policing it can spur--a clamor that grew louder seven weeks later when a Housing Authority police officer killed a purse-snatching suspect, Eli McCoy, in West Baltimore.
Amid the investigations (seven ongoing federal, state, and local probes into the Hubbard shooting) and finger-pointing, city officials could at least point to an apparent reduction in Baltimore's intractable murder rate--until recent weeks, when a death toll that had lagged well behind last year's begun a steady climb. After the weekend of Dec. 4-5, with 10 killings--including the execution-style slayings of five women in one house in an apparent drug-related crime (see Mobtown Beat, page 12)--the year's murder toll stood at 288. With 295 murders as of Dec. 13, it's virtually certain the city will close out 1999 with more than 300 murders for the 10th year in a row.
4. Heavy Weather
Yeah, we know. TV weathermen and bottom-rung Sun reporters will say anything to get the local, meteorologicomaniacal populace's adrenal glands flowing. The vaguest possibility of a snowflake here. Temperatures approaching "the three-digit range" there. The humidity! The horror! But this year, the fearmongers among the isobar crowd were onto something: The weather sucked. Months of skin-peeling heat and no rain. A truly scary hurricane. Polar ice caps melting. Plagues of locusts. (OK, we made that one up.)
All summer long, a searing drought ruined farms and sent air-conditioning bills soaring. Gov. Parris Glendening declared a drought emergency on Aug. 2, at about the time the city's three main reservoirs were half-empty (or half full, if you're an optimist), and, for the first time, the city Department of Public Works tapped the barely potable swill of the Susquehanna. Then, there was the good news: Hurricane Floyd would deliver much-needed rain--along with wind damage, more lost trees than you could shake a stick at, and a reason for people to skip City Paper's annual Best of Baltimore blowout (pardon the term). Floyd dumped 5.8 inches of rain on our sere city and tested the, er, responsiveness of the streamlined, highly profitable Baltimore Gas & Electric, which returned power to hundreds of thousands of customers at a pace that could only be described as glacial. More proof that "weather events" in this skittish burg bring out the best in everyone.
5. The West Is Won
Last year, the Schmoke administration introduced a bill in City Council to grant the city power of eminent domain for 127 properties on the west side of downtown, an 18-block swath (housing mostly small retailers) that the city and a handful of private developers want to acquire and turn into a potential $500 million mix of upscale housing, offices, and shops. This year, the project got a formal go-ahead and then some: The council passed the bill, and the state legislature voted to allow city officials to issue large tax breaks to the developers. Just this month--a few weeks after a series of meetings on west-side proposals that were closed to the press and public--the city's first formal buyout offers for buildings began arriving in merchants' mail (see The Nose, page 12).
Bong Hee and Young Ja Cho, owners of the Wig House Beauty Salon at 112 Lexington St., got their letter Dec. 1. On the city's say-so, a 90-day clock will start ticking, giving them that long to vacate their beauty salon and leave the block where they've done business for 24 years. Thus began the first concrete steps toward the biggest downtown development project since the Inner Harbor, made possible in the waning months of a lame-duck administration with virtually no public input and, it seems, precious little consideration for the people whose lives and livelihoods will be irrevocably changed.
6. Road to Nowhere
So, which is more important: Easing the nerve-wracking gridlock on the roads north of the nation's capital, or saving some of the few remaining rural spaces in suburban Maryland? The governor went for the latter, putting the kibosh on the Intercounty Connector (ICC), a would-be 17-mile highway in Prince George's and Montgomery counties that was 50 years in the planning. In the process, Glendening alienated everyone from Montgomery County Executive (and likely gubernatorial candidate) Douglas Duncan to his own ICC task force (which recommended building the road) to thousands of Capital Beltway commuters longing for an alternative that would link Interstates 95 and 270. Glendening said in September that the ICC would never garner the necessary federal approval--a claim Duncan disputes--and wouldn't siphon off enough traffic to justify its $1.1 billion price tag. Of course, the governor picked up some kudos from environmentalists, who applaud his Smart Growth initiatives, and the Montgomery County Council, which calls the ICC "an environmental disaster." But Glendening's ecological commitment seems half-hearted; he still favors a combined nine miles of highway at either end of the old ICC right-of-way. The state's $33 million purchase in September of 58,000 acres of lower Eastern Shore forest looks like a less equivocal environmental victory.
7. Alms for the Poor
Baltimore ends the decade with poverty and homelessness at an all-time high. This year, the number of families served by Baltimore's food pantries jumped 24 percent, and the number of occupied shelter beds rose by 17 percent.
City officials and downtown business leaders have met this issue head-on--by continuing to look for ways to shunt it, and the people it affects, off to the side. In the spring, the Office of Homeless Services was cut from the municipal budget, forcing it to rely entirely on easy-come-easy-go federal grant dollars. In the waning weeks of the '99 City Council session, officials quietly tried to push through legislation to move Our Daily Bread, the city's biggest soup kitchen, from its downtown site to a desolate East Baltimore lot near the city jail. The bill fell victim, most likely to a combination of bad blood (its sponsors failed to check with colleagues from the district that includes the proposed site) and new blood (in the form of four freshman legislators), but not without further alienating Baltimore's already discouraged homeless-services community.
The city did take one meaningful step forward this year, creating the Baltimore City Task Force on Homelessness (largely in response to uproars over the possible evictions of Our Daily Bread and Health Care for the Homeless from downtown sites). The panel is charged with penning the city's first long-term, comprehensive game plan for tackling the issue. So far, city representatives have barely attended the panel's meetings; perhaps the new mayor can convince his minions to see the importance of addressing the needs of the poorest of Baltimore's poor.
8. Hello, Larry
If expelled state senator Larry Young were an animal, he'd be a cat. He certainly seems to have nine lives, surviving mysterious kidnapping claims, investigations of his liquor-board ties, and, most recently, charges of bribery and tax evasion. But Young landed on his feet once again. A jury cleared him of the latter charges in September, by which time Young had become a WOLB-AM radio personality and a voice of note during the election campaign. Except for the fact that he lost his Senate sinecure, it's like he never left the political spotlight. (There's already talk that he'll run for his former seat in 2002). Young's acquittal--the latest in a series of blows to the reputation of state prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli--spared the longtime west-side favorite son a possible 50-year sentence for allegedly extorting $72,000 from a Lanham health-care firm. Since an Anne Arundel County jury let him off the hook, Young has talked of vindication--never mind the questionable "consulting fees" he received from Coppin State College and another health-care firm with state-government ties. All that's left now is for Young to officially re-enter political life. After all, the misunderstood-but-resilient-martyr role is one Young mastered long ago.
9. Peter-ed Out
An Orioles manager gets fired? How novel. After his pathetic dalliance with Phil Regan in 1995 and the Warehouse-engineered "resignation" of Manager of the Year Davey Johnson in 1997, capo de tutti capo Peter Angelos' termination of hapless company man Ray Miller seemed like a mercy killing. The hiring of ex-Indians chief Mike Hargrove--the biggest name available--was typically perfunctory and unimaginative. No, the real news was the dismissal of general manager Frank Wren, who was given less than a year to prove himself worthy of the orange and black. There must be 50 ways to ditch your GM, and the Orioles "brain trust" of several Angeloses, longtime baseball hack Syd Thrift, and marketing man Joe Foss came up with a particularly clever one: Drag Cal into it. Apparently, it wasn't Wren's ridiculous signing of "closer" Mike Timlin to a four-year, $16 million contract that earned him a pink slip. Nor was it the eye for "talent" that brought us the likes of Heathcliff Slocumb, Delino DeShields, Will Clark, and Mike Fetters. No, it was Wren's decision not to hold a team charter flight for a late-running Ripken--evidence of his "unreasonable, authoritarian manner," per Foss. (And O's execs know from unreasonable and authoritarian.) Wren got the last careerist laugh, signing almost immediately with the classy, winning Atlanta Braves as vice president and assistant GM. The Birds? They're looking to fill the GM role from within via "committee"--as scary a thought as having a short-fused tyrant as owner.
10. Auf Wiedersehen
When people think of Baltimore institutions, they don't conjure up images of Sheppard Pratt. They think of Haussner's, the garishly appointed Teutonic eating hall that introduced many a Mobtowner to the concept of civility-in-gluttony. For 73 years, the high point of Highlandtown served as a haven for a cross-section of white Baltimore--from working-class families splurging on special occasions to awkward guys trying to impress their dates to well-heeled politicos. The place earned the dual distinction of being an overstuffed gallery of traditional paintings and Roman busts and a chow palace for those wishing to be overstuffed by an encyclopedic menu. (Where else could one have frog's legs, spaetzle, and fried eggplant on the same plate?) Haussner's owners, citing exhaustion, decided to call it quits in September; the art--hackneyed as much of it was--fetched $12 million in New York auctions. The building, vaguely redolent of strawberry pies past, now serves as a culinary training center--a fitting enough tribute for a place that represented the pinnacle of Baltimore gourmandism for decades.
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