This city's worst enemy is not its hapless bureaucracy, failed schools or rampant street crime. The real evil, the force that prevents a booming city from fixing its basic institutions, is a pervasive belief that progress is impossible. The schools have been awful and the police ineffective for so long that people rich and poor believe it will always be thus.
So when 13 children are killed in this city in the first months of this year, we hear the usual promises, but hardly anyone believes life will improve.
The truth is that other cities have shown there is no need for such pessimism. The killings can be dramatically reduced. It doesn't take a lot of money. It doesn't require tossing civil liberties out the window.
In Boston in 1990, a record 152 homicides shocked the city into trying something radical. "We all knew that the fixes that revolved around media cycles -- the ritual denunciations, the vigils, the press conferences -- had no real long-term impact," says the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a longtime critic of the police who played a powerful role in recruiting black clergy to work with cops and others in the justice system.
The Boston strategy aimed to identify the most dangerous kids in town "before they become a Metro page horror story," Rivers says. The system put the worst actors behind bars, and the community intervened in the lives of those who were poised to follow the gang leaders.
"The same kids get into trouble again and again, and a lot of people around town know who those kids are -- teachers, youth workers," says Jim Jordan, who teaches at Northeastern University and was the Boston police director of strategic planning until recently. "If you have aggressive police and political leadership, you can get that information exchanged among all those groups and really focus on the pretty small number of thugs who make the trouble."
Here's how it works: Every Wednesday, dozens of Boston clergy meet with police and probation officers and go over the names and stories of potentially violent young people. Then on Thursday evenings, teams of ministers, police and social workers make home visits, talking to youths and their parents and then stepping in -- finding the kid an after-school activity, or counseling, or a job.
Result: Homicides in Boston fell from 152 in 1990 to 31 by decade's end. Among victims ages 24 and below, the tally went from 73 in 1990 to 15 in 2000. Those numbers bumped up over the past couple of years but remain dramatically below 1990 levels.
"It took four or five years for relationships to mature, but cops came to see that we need those black ministers who've been kicking our rears about how we're not doing anything," Jordan says.
"Recruiting the clergy is always the big problem," Rivers says. "It's a heavy class thing. The black middle-class churches have evacuated the city and abandoned the poor. In your city, they've gone to Prince George's County, and so you have the resegregation of the black poor. But you cajole the ministers to come back, and eventually you have younger black clergy who have built their careers around violent crime and juveniles."
Boston, concluded Harvard University sociologist Christopher Winship in a study of the strategy, "has gone through a radical transformation in how it deals with race and politics."
Rivers and Jordan have met with District politicians and police, and prosecutors here say they are trying to get D.C. police to adopt some of Boston's moves, but the District continues to play each crisis as if it were the first.
"You could do this," Rivers says. "Boston and D.C. are roughly the same population. So how is it that Boston has the numbers under control and D.C. is off the charts?"
The answer is leadership. You need a mayor so well grounded that he is on the phone to clergy and activists the instant something happens.
That's how Boston's Thomas Menino won the cooperation of clergy, police and school principals. "It's dirt under the fingernails every day," Rivers says. "Tommy Menino knows every street, he's out there daily, and he makes it clear that heads will roll if there is any resistance."
Our mayor is also available when kids get shot -- just punch up his cell number and he'll be glad to chat, from (just to mention his trips in recent weeks) San Antonio, Paris, Georgia, Rome and Las Vegas.