Who belongs in Baltimore? Community rebuilding must happen for everyone

I attended a conference several weeks ago at the Hyatt Regency on Light Street in Baltimore. So I took the free Circulator bus from Middle East Baltimore and walked along the water to the Inner Harbor. This was pleasant. But along with the pleasure came the awareness of the challenges facing our city. For example, the number of police officers at the ready in the Inner Harbor, ready to remove anyone who did not “look” like they belonged, was questionable. At one point when a person who “looked” like they may be homeless sat down at one of the empty tables in the Inner Harbor, there were 3 police officers who came by and harassed him: “what was he eating? where did he get it? The man said “I’m going, I’m going”. After this harassment they left and a few minutes later the gentleman got up and left. I suppose he would finish eating somewhere he belonged?

Exactly where is that? Is it somewhere where those who “look” like they belong can’t see him, won’t be distressed by his appearance? The saying “out of sight, out of mind” is deep and true. If we don’t see the despair and the obvious separation of how we exist in society, we don’t have to think about it and question why it is some have access while others don’t. Is Baltimore city able to be a home to all of us? Those with means and those without? Those who look like they belong? Those who don’t? What does “belonging look like these days? Obviously the Inner Harbor is being secured for those who “belong”.

The challenge of homelessness and poverty, racism and its continuing legacy, and its root causes continue in Baltimore. The different incidents on my walks through the Harbor and nearby areas confirmed this. Other incidents occurred at the bus stops. One man was sleeping at one stop. Another was sitting with his bag. I wondered how he could exist with only that one bag. I asked about his family: he had 4 children, the first two were twins and now 24 years old. He saw them regularly but not the other two. I offered him an orange then the bus came; that was across from the Reginald Lewis museum. At a stop near University of Maryland, someone asked me for change. I told him about the clutch for my 17 year-old car in the shop and how much that was going to put me back. He then said, “how are you doing?”. We had a conversation about challenges in life and how we take care of them, and ourselves. I offered him a peach and he accepted and left. At one of the 4 stops around Johns Hopkins East Baltimore campus, someone asked me if it was free to ride the Circulator. I responded yes but thought we should have to pay; “why should we ride free when folks taking the MTA have to pay?” We shared that maybe those with an MTA ticket could ride the Circulator for free, the rest pay. This conversation begs the question: who exactly is the Circulator bus for? As we rebuild Baltimore are we all clear as to who we want in the city?

One morning, about 730am, as I was walking across the skywalk from the Inner Harbor pavilions to the Hyatt Regency, I came across a woman sleeping on the steps. sleepShe had 2 paris of socks laid out on the cement to dry. Did she wash them in the fountain water near the steps? She had a sign next to her that said something like, “I lived with my father, then he died, then I lost the house and now am homeless”. Not 20 steps away, I entered the Hyatt Regency, its posh, air conditioned-chilled, and politeness stung me and I thought of the woman on the steps. There seemed so much space in this hotel, taken up with aesthetically-placed chairs to assure its occupants a spacious and easeful feeling. I wondered why couldn’t she access these spaces for the night, to rest. I recognized how artificial the built environment was for some; how much it seeks to create incubators, bubbles of separation and insulation from each other. Eventually we justify it as safety, not questioning the origins of separate and unequal that paved the road to today’s poverty. We don’t want those with access to have to think about those without. How are we rebuilding Baltimore to continue this legacy of separation?

As I walked through Harbor East, just in case the path favoring Baltimore’s inequity and separation did not penetrate enough, a reminder was provided by the recent signage in Harbor East: “Baltimore’s Luxury District: right this way”. luxuryThe cranes to the right and left of this sign, a timeless indicator of economic development and job opportunity, confirm that the city is growing. But for whom? The Harbor Point development on the left will usher in a high-rate cost of living while the expansion of the Four Seasons on the right will usher in luxury condominiums for those with means. In this era of privatization of public services, government gifting of tax incentives to the rich to develop, global permeation of local markets, we still have no plan for how we will assure that everyone who wants to stay in Baltimore benefits. Weak policies for affordable housing with no follow-up for implementation currently exists in Baltimore. No plans for equitable education and social services for our existing residents and no living wage policy exists. The trickle-down economics we believe in hasn’t quite trickled down into majority Black Baltimore where 37% of young Black men are unemployed, compared to 10% young White men. Still our politicians and public officials maintain that the generous benefits of our tax dollars to the wealthy to develop and live in Baltimore will trickle down to the masses. To fulfill this plan of trickle-down economics, we have a Circulator bus running in circles in areas that house the professional and “creative classes”, we have Zip Cars and bike lanes serving the same class. The Mayor’s plan for 10,000 new families in 10 years focuses on rebuilding of houses for $150,000. Low income people cannot afford this. Who will “belong” to Baltimore in the next 10-20 years? The City Paper’s annual “best of” series remind us of what our city leaders consider equitable and sustainable development: best example of gentrification seen in Middle East Baltimore shepherded by EBDI (East Baltimore Development Inc.), Johns Hopkins University and Hospital, Forest City, Annie E. Casey Foundation, and our local and state government. In this development of an 88-acre area just north of the Johns Hopkins Medical campus, our city and state leaders and its well-resourced profit and non-profit leaders are quite comfortable determining who belongs as they assured displacement of more than 750 majority African American and low-income families to make room for a different race and class of people. They know who belongs in our city!

Courtesy of BRACE

Courtesy of BRACE

One morning one rider on the bus reminded me of Baltimore’s resilience: “we can’t wait for them to give us jobs, we have to make our own jobs”. He went on to describe how his cousin made money by dressing up as Santa Claus, buying a camera, and making money during the Christmas season. He had a couple other local entrepreneurial stories like this. Baltimore’s residents need jobs, and support structures which help them to become business owners and not forever at the whim of capitalist anchors such as hospitals, universities, and non-profits. Jobs must provide a living wage so people can afford to live in the places being redeveloped. Only with living wage-jobs will low and middle-income people be able to stay in Baltimore and enjoy the fruits of this economic development occurring around the city. Instead of steering Baltimore city residents into the county-with housing vouchers not being accepted in the city- the city’s economic and community development plans must plan for affordable housing, self-employment, and living-wage employment. Anything else will continue to create the conditions of one-check-away from homelessness increasing around our city. As we prepare to vote for city officials, let’s ask each of them, whether new or old to the position, what they will do about affordable housing and integrative economies that assure local entrepreneurship and living wage-jobs. If our elected officials are not ready or willing to address our housing and employment, education, recreation, transportation, and health challenges in Baltimore, so everyone benefits, vote them out. It’s really simple, we have to vote with our feet and hearts, and not with our mouths.

While we act individually on the political front, we must continue to build our collective movement across multiple issues on a path toward equity for all. In support and elaboration of the Black Lives Matter movement, the southern movement, the Standing Up for Racial Justice movement, and all the university-based movements happening nationwide, we can build a movement to take back our cities so all can participate. Baltimore belongs to everyone who wants to be here.

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