Lately, I’ve been thinking about one man’s perspective on Baltimore, but I’m not referring to the president. I’ve been considering, instead, the words of a Baltimorean who spent his life focused on community revitalization until his death this past July. “See the world, not as you want it to be, but as it is,” Ed Rutkowski said. “And then, fix it.” He had clear eyes about the tremendous challenges facing neighborhoods in our city, which he balanced with an abiding belief in his fellow community members. And always, he rolled up his sleeves to help fix it.
I met Ed two years ago, when he first lent his community redevelopment eye toward the neighborhood surrounding Cecil Elementary, where I serve on an advisory board. He toured our incredible school and quickly seized on the potential of a large parcel of land behind the school and a neighboring recreation center. He assembled a team of stakeholders to fundraise for and design an outdoor community space. Group members talked about new playground equipment and better lighting; someone even flirted with the idea of a splash pad.
Ed dismissed such small-potatoes brainstorming with a wave of his hand. “Bigger,” Ed had said. “This needs to be spectacular.”
Spectacular. That was the word he said over and over again, at meeting after meeting. He pressed us to think bigger, to encourage residents to imagine what might have felt unimaginable in an underserved neighborhood that, on the surface, could easily be fodder for presidential mudslinging. To imagine it for the simple reason that a spectacular space was what they deserved. Ed looked out at that L-shaped expanse and, like any great visionary, he saw two things simultaneously: He saw swaths of crabgrass and broken asphalt, but he also saw something spectacular. He saw this space as it was, he envisioned how marvelous it could be, and then he got to work. He’d send me lengthy emails and voice mails with tasks to keep the project moving along. Ed engaged in the hard work, and he expected nothing less of others.
And I miss him, because we could use more Eds in Baltimore City right now.
Elected officials like President Trump and Governor Hogan have the power to see something as it is and fix it. They choose, instead, to debase our city, even as they help perpetuate systems that close off opportunities for so many residents. They offer neither solutions nor an admission that many of the vines choking our residents were seeds planted over generations, by legislation and policies promoting discrimination and racism. I’ve only called Baltimore home for a decade, but already I’ve learned that real change in our city requires the resolve, imagination, passion, ideation and execution of ordinary people. That we can’t wait around for a mayor to put citizens before purse strings, or a governor to provide underserved populations access to life-changing public transportation or a living wage, or a president to dignify my fellow residents as human.
With Ed’s death, we lose a visionary at a time when our city needs them so desperately. Real problems ail our city, and lately it feels like we can’t catch our collective breath, treading water that is sewage laden, spewing from broken water mains that we can neither afford to fix nor even charge our residents for. In almost any setting, there is a gap between vision and current reality, systems thinkers call it a creative tension. The distance between seeing things as they are and how we want them to be. For our city, that gap feels deep and wide.
And yet, I stay here—despite my own middle class mobility—and I believe in this city so much, because it has so many natural resources—of place and people—with the potential to fill that gap, that creative tension. To make this city spectacular.
So if you’re a visionary—one with clear eyes about both the problems we face and their institutional and systemic root causes—join us. We need more Eds in this city. If not, please: Tweet about something else. Because most of the visioning I see happening in our city today is happening thanks to ordinary citizens who see the gap and are doing something to fix it. For my part, I’ll be doing everything I can to ensure that the community space behind Cecil Elementary is, in a word, spectacular. Because that’s what our students and the Midway community deserves.