Thoughts on Baltimore

a house in Guilford

I was saddened to hear of Baltimore’s erupting into riots this past week over the death of a young African American male taken into police custody. But I can’t say I was surprised. Baltimore, where we lived for seven years as the century turned, felt to me a place of simmering racial tension, of fear and finger-pointing on the verge of conflagration.

When Marc was hired at Johns Hopkins, we lived in a house not far from campus in a neighborhood called Guilford that is full of stately stone mansions, manicured lawns, and a famous tulip garden. It was about as different from Davis, California, as one could imagine. The house we rented was on the edge of it, among smaller homes that had been built for the servants who worked in the mansions. I felt like I had been transported to Victorian England.

A block east of our house was an elementary school. Brendan and Luc were too young for school, so it didn’t affect us much, but I learned that no one living in Guilford — NOT ONE PERSON — sends their kids to that school. That’s because the school also serves the neighborhood to the east, which is quite hardscrabble and almost entirely African-American. The north-south boundary between these worlds is York Road, otherwise known by locals as the DMZ.

The only time I ever saw an African-American person other than a cleaning lady or service provider in Guilford was Halloween, when the kids who attended the school would swarm the neighborhood, most not even bothering to don costumes, hoping to score some good candy from the rich people. A security detail roamed the streets making sure unsavory elements didn’t intrude.

After a year or so we moved to Tuxedo Park, where we bought a house – again, one built for the help. The adjacent neighborhood of Roland Park sported mansions, stately gardens, the whole nine yards. Slightly less ostentatious than Guilford, but still posh and palatial. The catchment area for this local school didn’t include any African-American neighborhoods, but kids from the inner city could apply to attend the school, and ride in on public transport every day. A few people in Tuxedo Park sent their kids to this local school, but most people opted for one of the private schools nearby – schools that rival many universities for their grounds, amenities, entrance requirements — and fees.

The point I’m making is that there is a marked separation in the city of Baltimore – between children of privilege – overwhelmingly white – and children of poverty – overwhelmingly African-American. The two do not mix. People who can’t deal with this leave for the suburbs.

I worked for a while at an inner-city youth center not far from the Johns Hopkins campus, helping an energetic but administratively-challenged nun, Sister Claire, write grants, get accounts in order and put together a newsletter. The stories she told of kids who were afraid to go home from the center because they’d likely be caught in cross-fire, of kids who had nothing to eat, of kids who would go home to mothers who were junkies, of kids who wanted to have babies because then there would be somebody, anybody, to love them – these stories broke my heart. Guilford was less than a mile from where they lived, but it might as well have been another planet.

If one of those kids finished high school, it was cause for celebration. If one of them applied and got into college, it was a small miracle. If any of the boys would go on to live past 25, they were beating the odds.

People thought I was crazy to go to that part of town. But oddly enough, I didn’t feel all that unsafe. I stood out so much. I was not a part of that world, and everyone knew it. I once took the boys to a church service down there. Gospel singing, “Amen!”, “I feel you, sistah!” — polar opposite of the stiff, formal Mass at the Cathedral.

And that’s it, in a nutshell. Baltimore is a city divided, geographically and racially, economically and socially. Nobody wants to mix. The distrust is so thick you can feel it. When a proposal was made to bring light rail service into some of Baltimore’s wealthy northern extremeties, it was quashed. No one wants “those people” coming up and breaking into their homes.

People get habituated to statistics and start thinking the city’s abysmal rates of drug addiction, poverty, crime and life expectancy are just the way it is. You don’t wonder about the fact that taking the light rail is fine as long as you don’t exit anywhere but the inner harbor or the airport, and you don’t go alone, or at night. Or at the buses, whose wheels were mysteriously falling off and never seemed to run on time.

I never got used to it. I never felt comfortable in Baltimore; that constant tension really bothered me. I talked about it with the many good friends we have there, but there wasn’t anything you could do. You weren’t going to make an example out of your kid by sending them to that public school, and possibly jeopardize their education. There was no way  you would put yourself or anyone you cared about on public transit. There was a feeling of hopelessness in the face of it, a permeating sense of “otherness” surrounding everything, a feeling of accusation and envy on the one side, fear and guilt on the other.

I’m so sad to see what has happened. I wish there was a solution. But I have no idea what it would look like. I would love to see a city where children could meet one another before they had been poisoned by their parents’ prejudices, where they could play and sing and dance like children do. But I don’t see how that’s possible.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Baltimore

  1. Your firsthand account of the divisions in Baltimore really helps us understand current events there. I’m not surprised that a breaking point was reached. I’ve been following Democracy Now’s coverage Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, and on Thursday (April 30) there was a segment called “History Repeats?” with Tom Hayden. Like you say, there’s an entrenched pattern of social and racial tensions in the US. And when the US fights wars, simultaneously police repression in inner cities gets worse. Tom Hayden and the show hosts paint the context by comparing the Vietnam War era with now. There are many parallels!

  2. Thank you for this fascinating firsthand insight into the racial conflict in America. Your account of racial segregation really surprised me, I did not realise how profound the division in communities can be. It seems racial tension is often ignored by the media, leading people to believe it is no longer an issue, but when something tragic happens like what occurred in Ferguson and Baltimore, it all comes up to the surface. I am very saddened by this seemingly hopeless situation and the lack of easy solutions, but nonetheless your article was very helpful in understanding some of the causes of these terrible events.

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