Wednesday, May 13, 2015

My Baltimore

A lot of unfortunate news about Baltimore lately, huh?  As I've written before, the City is held together by a veritable fountain of state and federal matching funds, as well as by tens (or hundreds) of thousands of citizens who really, really care about the fate of the City.

There has always been a poor Baltimore.  The Port of Baltimore was actually established before the City, meaning that very few people with means ever inhabited the waterfront (until the 1990s, that is).  Maryland was a confederate state, which made that whole "DC to our south" thing pretty complicated.   Through the 1950s, significant amounts of reasonable skilled labor existed in and around Baltimore.  Bethlehem Steel had an enormous facility less than a dozen miles from downtown.  Numerous mills cranked out everything that mills can produce.  Ship sails were a highly prized Baltimore commodity.  So was Domino Sugar.  Working at creating either was back-breaking work that paid fairly enough and delivered a pension.  Chevy maintained an assembly plant in the city, near the port, for quite a while.  But then it all went away.  Most whites who could leave, left.  Then most blacks who could leave, left.  And Baltimore has really never been the same, despite the significant promise of de-segregation and a well-funded government (for a time).

I moved to Maryland from North Carolina in the final days of 1998, and I lived 17 miles outside of downtown (7 miles outside the City line) for less than a year before deciding to move into Baltimore City in 1999.   Rent was cheap in our beautiful rehabilitated stone and hardwood rowhouse, located in a poor (but gentrifying) mostly-white community near several of the defunct mills.  Our neighbor to the west was a fiery Catholic Irish grandmother, age 34, who lived in a rowhouse with her 4 children and 2 grandchildren.  Her name, predictably, was Mary.  No one had finished high school.  One grandchild went by the nickname, "Nugget," because he was fat.  Occasionally the children (age 14-18) would accidentally set my garden on fire by throwing lit cigarettes out of their upstairs bathroom window, as they heard Mary come up the steps.   Our other neighbor was George, another Irish Catholic who had retired from the steel mill, and lived in the house he'd bought with his wife in the 1960s.   George's son Wayne, a single dad, was around a bit.  Wayne was constantly shuttling his kid to activities outside of the neighborhood, trying to avoid having the child associate with Nugget And Friends.

It was a mostly peaceful existence.  Occasionally, an alcoholic lesbian couple would physically assault each other in the street.   Once, there was a drug bust across the street, as I studied for a graduate class at nearby Towson University.   Physically capable, working age white men would sit on their front porch and complain about "freeloading blacks," as they (the white guys) collected long-term disability payments for injuries that had healed years or decades ago.   If black kids co-mingled with the red-haired, pale-skinned Irish kids, the black kids would be arrested and wouldn't re-appear for 4-5 days.  Where they went, and what they were submitted to, I have no idea, but I'm sure it wasn't a good time.  It sounds like 1955, and on some days, it felt that way.

Things would get squirrely when suddenly a large heroin delivery was made to Baltimore.  Tiny ziplock bags and broken syringes would line the curbs and stormwater drains for a few days afterwards, with a real uptick in the number of people sleeping in alleyways and on park benches.  After four or five days, the heroin mania would subside, which I suppose means the addicts dispersed to other parts of the city.  The saddest thing that happened while we lived there was that a 14-year old had a heroin party at his mother's house.   He overdosed on the first night, and no one checked on him until the next afternoon, continuing to party instead.  But it was a fun place to live and be young.  We would see John Waters in a nearby deli.  We'd attend punk rock karaoke at a bar two blocks from home.  It was a lot of fun, with a few scary moments.

The neighborhood teens thought I was a cop, because I had a shaved head, owned camo, and walked around with a big black labrador retriever.  They didn't know anyone who hunted, or anyone who owned a labrador retriever.  They thought my wife was a doctor, because she had a state issued ID, and (as they told me) the only time they encounter a state employee is in the public hospital.

In 2004, we decided that maybe we'd have a kid, and if so, maybe we needed a more stable living environment.  We moved into a tree-lined outer-city neighborhood, less than 200 yards from the County line (where real estate costs 300% more).   The neighborhood is about 50% black, of which most seem to be college-educated, professional single men in their 30s, and married 50-year olds who normally have at least one full time job and fourteen side hustles, which I appreciate (and live that way myself).  Major complaints in this neighborhood are things like, "I wish Robby would't park so far from the curb," and "When is Lisa going to trim that azalea.  It looks horrible!", and "James, you need to get that crabgrass under control, STAT."  I know this isn't the narrative about Baltimore citizens, especially African-Americans, you've heard on the national news.  But it's just as real.

It's a neighborhood where kids have advocates, even if it's their grandmother instead of their mother.  Our son plays with children who are excelling at the wealthiest private schools (some of them on academic scholarships), and children who can't pass the second grade in Baltimore's atrocious public school system.  The average kid is in a community Catholic school (there are many here), and gets sent to summer camp at the YMCA.  Adults are around, and the only tales of "Hood Baltimore" are about cousins, "no good son in law" types, and the like.   I had my truck broken into recently - I accidentally left it unlocked, with a few dollars on the passenger seat (yes, I'm an idiot).  The thief found and left my $300 camera and took the $8 of cash instead.  Note to thieves: I no longer leave the camera in the truck.

This is Baltimore, a city of nearly 700,000 people.  What I've described above is no more or less real than the nation's poorest citizens, 7 miles to our south, looting toilet paper (toilet paper!) from a CVS.  I don't know all the rich white and black people, though I know that some of them are nice.  I don't know all the poor black, white, hispanic, and asian people, though I know that some of them are nice.  But after a week of absolutely pathetic national media coverage, and absolutely sloppy articles damning both Baltimore's rich and poor, I wanted to present some more angles for your consideration.

There's a lot to Baltimore.  It is a tough town with complicated problems.  But it's not all burning.  It's not all filled with violent cops or racist black and white elites or uneducated looting criminals. It's a big place full of lots of pretty regular people.


Anonymous said...

Bravo! Bravo! Here here!


dbk_999 said...

Have you ever read James LaFond's blog? It's more the bad and ugly than the good, but
it's riveting reading in short digestible bites..

Todd Pusey said...

Nice balanced piece.