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Commentaryby Patrick Henderson11:00 amNov 3, 20140

Opinion: Bond questions on tomorrow’s ballot reflect skewed priorities

Why no support for black cultural institutions or neighborhoods beyond the harbor, a talk show host asks

Above: Signage over 36th Street in Hampden calls on voters to approve bond issues on tomorrow’s ballot.

“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Nelson Mandela knew the apartheid system well – he was forced to spend half of his life in prison fighting for justice and liberation for his people. He is a light to our path.

If we look at Baltimore’s long history of racial disparities, we should not be shocked by the fact that a veiled apartheid system still plays out in the everyday decisions and priorities in city government.

A case in point are the bond issues presented on tomorrow’s ballot.

The Mayor and City Council need the approval of the public to borrow millions of dollars for capital improvements, which include aid for the Baltimore Aquarium, Port Discovery Children’s Museum, Walters Art Museum and other tourist attractions located at the Inner Harbor or downtown.

These aforementioned attractions are certainly part of the Baltimore iconography, but they do not paint the full picture of the rich culture – and pressing needs – of this city.

Beyond the Harbor

Not one black cultural institution is cited as a recipient of the bond proceeds, such as the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum on North Avenue. It is the nation’s only museum of its kind. It gets more than 150,000 visitors a year, the vast majority coming from outside of Baltimore.

In other words, it is a perfect candidate for building cultural tourism beyond the harbor. To attract more visitors, it desperately needs new frontage and signage and support for ongoing maintenance. Yet in a city that is 65% black, the Great Blacks Museum takes a back seat to such projects as rebuilding the perfectly-sound McKeldin Fountain at Harborplace or fixing up the waterfront promenade for Harbor East residents.

The Arena Players Theater, the oldest black theater for the performing arts in the U.S., needs central air and heat, new seating, better stage lights. It has been brought to the brink of bankruptcy many times because the public good has been overshadowed by the ethnicity of the establishment. Who wants to go to a theater or a museum where benign neglect greets you at the front door?

There should also be ways to use bond money to help the city’s youth. For example, there is unused acreage in the backwoods of the Baltimore Zoo, so instead of penalizing our young people with jail time for sitting on a dirt bike, why not build them a field with bleachers, then hold rallies on the weekends for them, their families and friends to come out and enjoy?

The biggest argument I’ve heard against this idea is, “The city will not back the enterprise due to the high cost of insurance.” Yet after the community of Hampden complained about kids on skateboards on their sidewalks and streets, $150,000 was found to build them a skateboard park. I never heard insurance brought up.

Investing in All Kids

When white teens exercise their liberty and freedoms in ways that are disruptive, it is called a right of passage. When black kids do the same thing, it is called deviant behavior. Is this another manifestation of veiled apartheid?

For the past two decades, water fountains in city schools have been rendered inoperable because of ancient lead pipes, while massive amounts of water is purchased at a hefty cost to the taxpayer. What about using the bond issue for infrastructure to fix those pipes?

“A boy or girl without a mentor is like an explorer without a map,” it’s said. After-school programs and mentors have proven track records of good influence into the lives of our children. Why not appropriate more funding for these much needed and beneficial programs?

In speaking about the lack of investment in the black community, I cannot ignore the fact that over the last 25 years, the top elected officials, including mayors, have been predominately black. Is this what Franz Fanon meant by ”black skin, white masks?”

MIA: Accountability

When I consider my vote for these bond issues, yes, I am cynical because many of the largest proposed expenditures are placed in very general categories – “school loan” and “recreation and parks and public facilities loan” – with no earmarks for their specific use.

In fact, the wiggle room allotted for such spending is pretty extraordinary. Question B, for example, suggests that $47 million will be used for desperately-needed rec centers and parks. But the language in the ordinance will permit the Mayor and City Council to use the bond money for the Enoch Pratt Library, for tree planting, for property acquisition and “for doing any and all things necessary, proper or expedient in connection therewith” (my emphasis).

We have learned, especially from reporting in The Brew, that too often city funds are used at the discretion of the mayor and her minions, with little accountability and no auditing.

City Hall’s use of road-paving money to subsidize the Grand Prix, not to mention its inept handling of millions of dollars in homeless funds, raises the suspicion that bond proceeds may be deployed poorly or “lost” like those bus shelters that figured in last week’s indictment of the head of the Charm City Circulator.

We need debate and transparency when it comes to understanding the $130 million that the city has placed on tomorrow’s ballot. Instead, we’ve gotten banners, hoisted above a few streets, proclaiming that a “yes” vote will magically “grow” the city.

Voters have approved the same sort of bond measures in the past, and I still see far too many of them living in neighborhoods overgrown with vacant houses, busted schools, trash and hopelessness.
Patrick Henderson, a composer and record producer, is the host of “Meet the People” on Radio One’s WOLB 1010 AM and Spirit 1400. He is also chair of the Dolfield Stakeholders Committee in Northwest Baltimore.

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