I grew up in Baltimore. When I say “in Baltimore,” well, like most other white people, I mean the suburbs, although I was a lot closer to the city than most people I knew at the time. My high school, which was in Baltimore County, was literally walking distance from the city line. (Just as a point of reference, Baltimore City and Baltimore County are two entirely separate entities.) We used to occasionally break the rules (Gasp! One of my teachers will read this!) and go up to Gino’s on Patapsco Avenue, which was in the city, when we didn’t feel like cafeteria food. My parents’ first home was in the County, but only about a mile from the city line, their second was about a half mile inside the city, the third was about two blocks away from that Gino’s and the last house they bought there was in Arbutus, a little hamlet that still, to this day, looks like Mayberry, even though it’s about a 20 minute bus ride from downtown Baltimore.
Throughout my early childhood, most of my extended family lived in Baltimore City. My grandmother and an aunt and uncle lived near St. Agnes Hospital, which is across Patapsco Avenue from the former Cardinal Gibbons High School, which was once the site of the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. If that sounds familiar, it’s where Babe Ruth went to school and learned to play baseball. My grandfather went there, too, albeit a few years after the Babe, but enough to establish my Baltimore pedigree. My grandmother, father and aunt grew up in a neighborhood north of Patterson Park, and I visited a lot when I was a kid, so I recognize the neighborhood to this day. My mother grew up in a neighborhood on the west side that was demolished a long time ago.
For some reason, I was always connected to downtown Baltimore, when I was seven (yes, I said SEVEN, protective parents), I took 2 city buses to St. Martin’s Catholic School, at Fulton and Fayette. I even had to transfer on Howard St. downtown and walk a few blocks to and from the bus stop and the school. At first, mom found a neighborhood high school kid to take me, but he got bored after a few weeks and my mom still couldn’t drive. The neighborhood my school was in was already a shithole, even back then. That was the height of the “blockbusting” era of the 1960s. “Blockbusting” occurred right after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when the previous practice of “redlining” fell out of favor. Before that, the city and many counties throughout Maryland had “white areas” and “colored areas,” which were clearly defined in the want ads of the era. I remember when I had to look for real estate ads from 1963 for a case a law firm I was working with took, and the newspaper ads all read “Whites only” or “Coloreds only.” Hell, when I went to the beach once at Fort Smallwood, which was a city-owned beach, I remember going to the bathroom and seeing where the words “Coloreds only” had been painted over just a few years before. I’m only 57 (or will be in a week, anyway), so this isn’t like the meanderings of a centenarian; this is the relatively recent past.
Anyway, once barriers were knocked down, of course, greedy white people were there to take advantage, so they busted themselves some blocks. They would buy one house on a formerly “white” city block, and move in a black family as renters, which would send the white homeowners into a panic, and the greedy white “entrepreneurs,” as it were, would make low-ball offers to everyone, which they would take because they’re panicked white people. That is why “white flight” occurred in Baltimore. With their flight, they also took their money, their businesses, and most of the jobs. Since then, some parts of the city have recovered nicely, but there are a great many decaying parts, as well. And that is where many black people, who account for most of Baltimore’s remaining population, live. To this day, many suburban white people still believe that black people moving into a neighborhood depresses property values, in part because they don’t think; who decides on the lower home price; the buyer or the seller. It was the white sellers who depressed their own property values, not the black people who moved in.
What is happening in Baltimore these days is the product of neglect; roughly a half-century of it, if not more And while I’m a white ex-pat Baltimorean and can’t imagine what it’s like to be black, I can imagine being forced by circumstances to live in abandoned and neglected neighborhoods, where the only time police show up to do their job is when they need to make their drug arrest quota. I am observant and can see how black people are treated. If you live in the Baltimore area and you keep referring to “their neighborhoods” when speaking of black people, you are (perhaps unknowingly) part of the problem. I actually saw one of my friends since childhood refer to “my city” in a Facebook rant where that person soon after complained about them “ruining their neighborhood.” Make up your mind, folks; it’s either our city or it’s not. We have to work on all of it, not just the parts we like.
There are nice parts of Baltimore, and there are a lot of areas where people have been encouraged to rehab really old homes and reclaim old neighborhoods. When I was a kid, our family used to go to my grandmother’s house every few Sundays, and we had to drive by the “inner harbor,” and it was disgusting; there were more rats than people. Now, it’s a tourist trap; full of well-built businesses along Pratt and Lombard, between MLK Blvd to Little Italy, and a little beyond. This gentrification has spread quite a bit in some areas, but as it spreads, wealthy white people move in. To their credit, the city has torn down some of the worst things, like “The projects,” which were located next to Little Italy and a little too close to the tourist area for comfort. They were torn down and replaced by some nice new tiny row homes, as were some other decrepit areas a bit north of downtown. In other words, they have spruced up the area tourists and visitors to downtown might see. Most people who go downtown take I-95 and never see the decay that surrounds the area, and that’s the problem; out of sight, out of mind. The white people who have moved back into the city in recent years moved into gentrified areas Baltimore, but they don’t see the rest. Suburbanites and tourists happily spend a couple of nights at the old Lord Baltimore for $200-300 per night, take in a show at the old Hippodrome for $100-150 per ticket, and enjoy some steamed crabs for $80-100 per dozen, and not even think about the person who cleaned their room, or the theater usher, or the person who bused their table, and where they come from. They might even check out the 230-year-old Lexington Market, and hold their purse or wallet close as they the people hanging outside, or those who keep the place clean and tidy.
They don’t realize that people who live inside the City of Baltimore are more likely to live in a terrible rental in a long-neglected, drug-infested neighborhood, with schools that are neglected and failing and small businesses mostly owned by outsiders, not people in the community. I have friends in those neighborhoods, and I used to visit them on a regular basis. I was told for years by suburban white people that to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue these days would be like taking my life in my hands, but I went on a regular basis, and after their initial shock of seeing a blonde, blue-eyed white guy in their midst, I found them to be warm and friendly, and I discovered the tasty concoctions that make up “soul food,” including the glory that is “Lake Trout,” which isn’t, actually. But they are poor, they have a ten times harder time finding a job than white poor people and, most importantly, they’re human; that means they are good and bad and they have faults and cut corners. Some sell drugs, although I’d point out that most buyers are suburban whites. Some rob and some even commit murder, although if you dig deeper, you’ll find that most of the murders are associated with drugs.
And Baltimore Police suck; they really do and have for years. While the death of Freddie Gray is tragic, it is part of a pattern that has been around for a long time. Last October, the Baltimore Sun published an investigative report noting that the city had paid out nearly $5.7 million in just over three years to settle claims for abuse by the Baltimore Police Department to people who were abused by police, including a 15-year-old kid riding a dirt bike, a woman selling tickets for her church raffle, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant, and an 87-year-old grandmother who was trying to assist her wounded grandson after he was shot. In the black areas of Baltimore, police regularly break arms, legs, noses, jaws and skulls and cause concussions, organ failure and worse. It often happens when they are handcuffed and sometimes when they are thrown to the ground. Quite often, the injuries come after questionable arrests, and there are a great many of those, especially when it comes to drugs.
Between 2011 and 2014, more than 100 people won police brutality lawsuits in Baltimore City. Think about that; if that many won, imagine how many cases there were. Most are too afraid of the police to bother to file suit and others will file and lose, in part because there is a looming sense that, if police hit someone, they must have had a reason. If you think that’s simplistic, check your Facebook page; people say it a lot. Just today, some are posting a story about Freddie Gray’s rap sheet as if that somehow excuses the police for breaking his spine. Apparently, if you’re arrested repeatedly for (mostly unspecified) “narcotics,” you are eligible to be beaten to death by police.
According to the ACLU, between 2010 and 2014 at least 109 people died at the hands of Baltimore Police (Source). About 70 percent of the victims were black, which may not be surprising since the city’s population is 64% black, but what should be surprising and shocking is that 40 percent of the victims were unarmed.
Also, while the city’s population is 64% black, the police department needed a strong push during the early 2000s to even make the force 43% black. That’s puzzling, especially when you consider that nearly three-quarters of Baltimore City Police officers don’t actually live in Baltimore City. Yeah, that’s right; in a city with a population of more than 640,000, they can’t find 3,080 city residents who would like to help keep it safe. Some of these folks commute a long way; some live in parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. Even if there’s no traffic on 95, that’s at least an hour drive to get to work. And, when they leave work, they go home to bedroom communities and don’t have a vested interest in the city; they put in their shift and escape. Also, how many know that Baltimore Police are regularly sent on junkets to Israel to learn “better policing.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with Israel, but what are the parallels between Israel and Baltimore City? What do they have to deal with that makes them feel as if they’re under siege? I can guess, can you?
The problems in Baltimore mirror the problems in many other cities. Poor urban people are left high and dry when industry leaves an industrial area, and Baltimore has been a blue collar town for well over a century. When those with means flee, those who are left must fend for themselves. Much of Baltimore has been neglected and ignored, and they are being ruled over by a militaristic police force with no vested interest in the city and doesn’t care. Freddie Gray isn’t the problem, he’s a symptom of a much larger problem; one that we tend to ignore, even though we can’t afford to. When law enforcement sees everyone in the community as an “other,” That brings enormous problems. Right, Baltimore?