Canaries in a Coal Mine — Part 1

PART 1 - Setting the stage

A blog about the ghettos of Baltimore.

Baltimore is not your run-of-the-mill American tale of two cities in which a white, socially and economically thriving public face contrasts with a minority, impoverished, and underreported underbelly that shoulders the gamut of problems common to urban poverty. Believe me, there is nothing run-of-the-mill about Baltimore.

The city’s had an interesting string of PR slogans that inspired cynical responses. Charm City (introduced under then Mayor Martin O’Malley) was taken down a notch to Harm City, and graffiti artists had a heyday with the catchy 2002 slogan BELIEVE, changing it to BEHAVE on banners and buildings throughout the city. In prior decades, once the per capital rate of homicide had surpassed that of Chicago, New York City, and L.A., even the city’s name—Baltimore, Maryland—was bastardized into Bodymore, Murderland. I don’t quite get the latest slogan promoted by our current mayor, Baltimore: Birthplace of the Star-Spangled Banner, which harkens back to our past and the War of 1812. Maybe it’s supposed to bring me and my fellow citizens a bit of relief to focus on a war that we actually won?

Despite its glorious past, today, the hometown I adopted in my middle age, has little to crow about. In today’s Baltimore, once you start digging into the contrast between white and black, rich and poor, you won’t simply find predictable socioeconomic and health disparities—what you’ll discover are patterns of segregation, deliberate neglect, and disparities in life expectancy that will knock your socks off. For, in my city, the contrast between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is, without exaggeration, as extreme as what you’d find in a comparison of, say, the good life in Sweden with the unrelenting despair of Haiti.

Mount Washington

I live in a quiet, tree-lined, well-kept, mostly white, historic neighborhood called Mount Washington that’s tucked into the northwest corner of Baltimore. It’s within city limits, but has a suburban feel with its smattering of large Victorian homes and hundred-year-old trees reaching for the sky. We have foxes, deer, owls, song birds, and a gazillion rabbits. A few years ago, a pair of yellow-crested night herons built a nest at the end of our block; now they return every year. My neighbors and I monitor the birth and growth of each new batch of offspring with excitement, and all of us take note when the younger generation takes first flight. One spring, I watched mesmerized as three very large young birds fed on the koi in my next-door neighbor’s tiny fish pond before heading south for the winter.

The Mount Washington community is known for its stable home ownership, lovely outdoor pool, strong neighborhood association, and proactive PTA. Life in my neighborhood is good. It’s safe and clean, and relatively friendly as white folks go. No more than a 7-minute drive by car or 20-minute bike ride gets me to Whole Foods, an indoor training pool, yummy Japanese and Indian restaurants, the post office, light rail, yoga studio, clay arts studio, a small but well-stocked private bookstore, a fancy shoe store, a museum-quality place that frames art, and a bike shop. There are dedicated green spaces, one of Johns Hopkins’ mini-campuses, an organic dry cleaners, Starbucks, a bank with a drive-thru ATM, three pizza parlors that deliver, real estate offices, a Catholic school, several private physician practices, two veterinary clinics, more than a dozen beauty salons, and a fortune teller named Savetta.

Most days I don’t have to go far to get my needs met. I eat well, take yoga classes, and go for long walks with my dog in the morning and again late at night. For a few years, I worked full-time for the 3rd largest hospital in Maryland; this required a 7-minute commute in a different direction. While working there, I took advantage of the great health insurance—my hysterectomy cost a whopping ten bucks! When I’m not working full-time, I consult with non-profits around the city. Over the years, my income was steady enough to put my kids through private school and college. My older son now manages a family-style restaurant in the suburbs, and he and his beautiful fiancée just gave birth to a healthy new baby boy. My younger son graduated from college with a political science degree last June and is currently gearing up for a month-long solo adventure hiking across Argentina and Uruguay.

When I’m moved to venture further afield, I can take the light rail south to the Maryland Institute College of Art (where I’ve heard David Simon, Angela Davis, and Geoffrey Canada all speak), or I can take the light rail north into someone else’s idea of mall heaven. Because I have a car (and don’t have to rely on Baltimore’s sorry public transportation), I can get to most of my consulting destinations in under 10 minutes flat. I can also have lunch at the latest chic food bar in Hampden, take an afternoon stroll with my daughter-in-law and grandson along the boardwalk past upscale waterfront condos in Canton, take in the authors’ speaker series at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, or listen to jazz outdoors on a summer evening.

All in all, my life in Baltimore is pretty good.

Southern Park Heights

If I go out my door and down the front steps, turn left, and walk just four short blocks, I come to Northern Parkway—one of the city’s major east-west divided thoroughfares. Directly across this busy parkway is the Pimlico Race Course, where the Preakness Stakes (the second “leg” of the Triple Crown) is run every year by breathtakingly gorgeous thoroughbreds and watched by international audiences dripping in diamonds and gold (or beer—the infield is known for its drunken orgies).

Northern Parkway is also the 1972 HUD-designated northern boundary of an impoverished African American urban community called southern Park Heights. (The area north of Northern Parkway, referred to as northern Park Heights, is a mostly white, decidedly Jewish, middle class residential neighborhood. Several major Jewish institutions—a community center, multiple temples and schools, and a faith-based senior housing complex—are located just to the north of the Parkway.) At the time of its HUD designation, southern Park Heights was the nation’s largest Urban Renewal Zone, and its low-income African American residents had high hopes for increased home ownership and all sorts of community rejuvenation. Unfortunately, the residents’ optimism and the concomitant allocation of government resources were both short-lived.

More than 40 years hence, the community now struggles with generational poverty, high unemployment, failing schools, and violent crime. There is an almost complete lack of green space, and boarded-up homes and vacant lots carpeted with used drug needles and runaway weeds are everywhere. In addition to the poverty and physical degradation, the community is tyrannized by a deeply entrenched illicit drug culture controlled by the Bloods, the same red bandana-sporting thugs we hear about in Los Angeles. The many open air drug markets are hard to miss along Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road—streets that historically served as north-to-south commuter corridors for white-collar workers who lived in the suburbs but worked at jobs downtown. That was before the extension of Interstate 83 replaced the route through the ‘hood.

The disparity between our adjacent communities is striking. There are endless examples of inspired community-building versus what has to have been, at best, negligent oversight. For example, the entry to the Mount Washington “K through 8” public school playground is framed by a fanciful, bright blue, wrought-iron archway and colorfully tiled mosaic pillars that depict happy children. The school’s multiple outdoor play areas are equipped with slides, swings, a basketball hoop, huge shade trees, and a labyrinth for walking meditation. Across the street from the school’s largest play area is a lovely public arboretum with winding pathways and an elaborate series of communal gardens and bee hives, lovingly nurtured by Mount Washington residents who take a break from gardening while sitting in donated Adirondack chairs or at picnic tables, enjoying the sweet scents emanating from the flowering trees and bushes all around them as they eat their home-cooked box lunch.

In stark contrast, the playground of the southern Park Heights elementary school named after the glorious poet Langston Hughes is a small fenced-in asphalt area deplete of colorful art or trees. There is a basketball hoop, but its net, like all the other bball nets throughout the community, was taken down long ago to discourage drug and gang-related gatherings. The playground runs along the side of the school and is surrounded by a high fence, discouraging use during non-school hours. It contains a single piece of playground equipment. The school has only a few windows, but those on the ground floor are covered by heavy-gauge wire mesh. The building’s entrance is kitty-corner to a run-down but still viable liquor store.

Directly across the street from the Langston Hughes Elementary School is one of the City’s eight dumps (referred to as “sanitation yards” or “transfer stations” in polite company). I have to wonder which came first. Was the smelly, germ-filled, rat-infested dump already there, and someone decided it would be a good idea to build an elementary school downwind? Or did City officials decide that it was the perfect location for a new dump site, despite the fact that it was within spitting distance of a schoolyard filled with vulnerable little children? After hours, all manner of construction workers and others frustrated at reaching the dump’s locked gate after closing time feel free to unload astonishing quantities of garbage and toxic building materials in out-of-sight pockets of this residential neighborhood. A previous mayor instituted an annual clean-up, but as soon as the City trucks leave, the alleys and backyards of condemned houses are refilled with new mounds of trash. In turn, the trash sustains an army of remarkably well-fed rats that grow to Australian rodent proportions and bite defenseless little babies alone in their cribs in the dark of night.

Extreme rates of premature mortality and male incarceration have outnumbered births for several decades in southern Park Heights, and the community’s population is shrinking. Instead of encouraging education and literacy, the City has seen fit to close down schools with dwindling enrollment. Pimlico Middle School was transformed into a Public Safety Training Academy for police officers and firefighters, the Park Heights Elementary School is now a metals manufacturing training site owned by Magna, the same Canadian firm that owns the Pimlico Race Course. The Malcolm X Elementary School is home to a constantly revolving hodge-podge of nonprofits. Along the same logic, the community’s branch of the public library was closed due to dwindling usage.

In its apparently unlimited wisdom, the City combined what was left of the Pimlico Middle School enrollment with the Pimlico Elementary School students—placing younger kids who are at risk but just starting out in close proximity with older kids further along the risk continuum. Many children in Baltimore drop out of school—it’s been said that, citywide, as many as 80% of African American boys drop out permanently. Dropping out is not limited to youth attending high school either; it is increasingly common among middle and even elementary school children. Furthermore, truancy and suspension rates are high among children still enrolled, and therefore there is now talk of closing down even more of the community’s schools.

The amenities of southern Park Heights include McDonald’s, Burger King, locally famous Tyrone’s (fried) Chicken, two Head Start centers, a dollar store, several bail bondsmen, and a check cashing outlet that takes a hefty percentage of each check cashed. The modestly sized grocery store that didn’t even sell fresh produce closed down. There are two family support centers, a small food bank, multiple residential and outpatient drug treatment programs, a branch of black-owned Harbor Bank whose president has to continually argue with his Board members to keep this branch open, four health clinics and a pharmacy affiliated with the local Federally Qualified Health Center, a Rite Aid Pharmacy, a Walgreens Pharmacy, and a large community teaching hospital and hospital-based pharmacy. There are multiple low income elder housing high-rises, more than 60 officially recognized neighborhood associations most of which are inactive or can legitimately claim only a handful of members, more than 60 liquor stores, and far more than 60 churches including both tiny storefronts and those with large county-derived congregations. Rounding out the amenities are countless tire and auto body concerns, a City service building that also houses anti-gang and parole programs, a locksmith, a massive thrift store, an EPA-designated Brownfield, and over 2,000 dilapidated residential properties that are vacant or abandoned (and mostly condemned). Just like Mount Washington, this community has its own fortune teller.

There are no trees to climb in southern Park Heights and few green spaces to romp around in; the sparse recreational areas that do exist are typically filled with rusty equipment and carpeted in litter that contains potentially HIV-contaminated drug needles and used condoms. It’s challenging for the two Police Districts (Northern and Northwestern) that share patrols of the area to pinpoint any particular “drug central” in Park Heights, because there are so many open air drug markets to choose from.

At the intersection of Park Heights Avenue and Cold Spring Lane, in the heart of the community, an addict can buy just about any drug his or her misguided heart may desire. Cold Spring Lane then offers the white addicts a quick sprint back to Interstate 83, which whisks them back to their comfy homes in the suburbs. These “corners” can turn violent without much notice. I know a mother on Woodland Avenue who, due to repeated experiences with stray bullets coming through her front window, used to yell “Duck!” to her children whenever she heard shooting begin up the street.

Depending on where you live, and of course depending on the hue of your skin, life can be great or harsh in Baltimore. Mount Washington residents enjoy a comfy and secure upper middle class existence, while just down the street, the southern Park Heights community is rife with boarded-up row houses, rates of HIV that rival sub-Saharan Africa, an infant mortality rate worse than in the West Bank, and aggressive drug dealing that spawns addiction to heroin, many families’ dependence on illicit income, and the violent death of young Black men.

Indeed, the living conditions of this devastated community perfectly exemplify the end result of Baltimore’s longstanding tradition of segregation and conscious neglect of its ghettos.

Urban Health
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