Canaries in the Coal Mine — Part 2

Part 2

This ongoing blog isn’t a diatribe against Baltimore; it’s a diatribe against the longstanding moral lassitude that has allowed the living conditions in African American ghettos all across our country to dip below survivability. I focus on Baltimore, not just because it’s always best for a writer to stick to what she knows, but because what I’ve come to learn specifically about Baltimore makes me believe that the African Americans living in the sad abandoned ghettos of Baltimore are simply the canaries in the nation’s coal mine. The high infant mortality rate and low life expectancy of one community in particular, southern Park Heights (notorious enough to make it into the HBO series, The Wire), suggest that this community is not just dipping below survivability—both ends of the life continuum reveal that it is quite literally dying.

Maybe there are readers out there thinking, “So what!? Let urban renewal bulldoze it down and replace it with a healthier (read: middle class) community!” Ok, well, let’s stop for a moment and examine just what the “it” in “it is literally dying” actually means. Because when I say that southern Park Heights is literally dying, I don’t just mean the physical, social, and economic decay of a geographic community. I’m also referring to the multitude of individuals who have died prematurely—human beings who once had hopes and dreams, families and careers! The most poignant and shameful fact is that many of these premature deaths could have been, should have been, prevented. In fact, Baltimore City’s own health department recognizes that more than half of all deaths in this particular community were “avertable.”

The death toll includes Reverend Eleanor Bryant (from sarcoidosis), Synthia Smith and Gregory Williams (from AIDS), and Brother Kofi Kennon (from cancer)—all amazing people I had the pleasure to know and honor to work beside. They did their best to save this community before they themselves died, all of them in their 50’s. The death toll also includes thousands of individuals that I didn’t know—teenaged boys and young adult men who died of suicide or homicide (which some suggest could be more accurately classified as assisted suicide); women and men whose deaths were caused by AIDS or drug overdose; and babies who died from SIDS or failure to thrive. If those weren’t the causes of death, then it’s likely that they died from heart disease, cancer, kidney failure, diabetes, asthma, or stroke. In any event, they all died at a significantly younger age than those of us in mainstream America do, and from situations or health conditions many of which are easily preventable in the U.S. or at least manageable. Well, they would be manageable with proper nutrition, opportunities for fitness and stress reduction, a regular paycheck and health benefits, a doctor who cared, an appetite for reading, access to the internet, a healthy home environment, and, most important, hope for a positive life trajectory. If you add to the death toll the thousands of (primarily) males who have been convicted of drug or violence-related crimes and incarcerated, the loss of human life and human capital in southern Park Heights alone is staggering.

Lest you be tempted to write off such a devastated community, know that it has also birthed many individuals who have miraculously managed to not only survive and thrive, but to also fulfill their fabulous potential as writers, physicians, artists, psychologists, educators, ministers and imams, and social entrepreneurs. Others have become elected officials, community health workers, HIV activists, football coaches, addictions counselors, and mentors for at risk youth.

When I look back at how I became so attached to this community, I am reminded of the living: David, Sister Charmaine, George, Robbin, Garrick, Stephanie, Mama Jean, Ademola, Adam, Oscar, Mama Kay and Mama Rashida, Wanda, Bev, Willie, Allen, Brother Omar, Pat, Saafir, Israel, Kathalene, Cheryldine—individuals either born here or committed to revitalizing this community whom I have come to know and respect and, over time, to love. It’s the kind of love that gets under your skin, doesn’t let up, and makes you crazy! Luckily for me, it also makes me happy.

So, despite the odds, there are bright spots among the devastation, such as the St. Ambrose Family Outreach Center founded by Sister Charmaine Krohe, a much beloved (white) Catholic nun whose compassion and personal vow of poverty kept her living and working in this community for over 30 years. The late Reverend Eleanor Bryant walked the streets for well over a decade, gathering up addicts and alcoholics along Reisterstown Road and Woodland Avenue, and bringing them into her Agape Fellowship Miracle Church for spiritual sustenance and recovery. The late Baba Darryl Kofi Kennon’s dedication to Rites of Passage saved countless young people, and his African American Health Alert coalition encouraged HIV activists and providers to band together to battle the HIV epidemic instead of falling prey to petty competition over clients or increasingly scarce funding. Mama Jean Yahuda took anyone’s child in crisis into her home, expanding the flock of her own five children, regardless of the time of night or circumstance. Dr. Salima Siler Marriott’s graying dreadlocks alerted her fellow Maryland General Assembly delegates that her multi-decade advocacy on behalf of her home community would not deviate. Mama Kay Lawal-Muhammad and Mama Rashida Forman-Bey’s masterful original theatrical-dancing-drumming WombWork Productions continues to save countless at risk teenagers and young adults from depression, despair, and suicide. The new Zeta Center for Healthy and Active Aging has become a thriving gathering place for the community’s elders and their families. The Restoration Gardens apartment complex provides homeless young people, age 18 and over, with safe, secure and, if necessary, permanent housing.

There are also spots that should only be bright, but which are tainted by discrimination and neglect. This includes the I Can’t We Can Recovery Program founded by Israel Cason, a longtime (recovered) heroin addict who was one of six national finalists for the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award in 2002. Despite his now 20 clean years spent assisting thousands of Baltimore’s citizens to kick drugs, Cason gets little help from City coffers because of his principled stance against treatment that simply replaces illicit drugs with legal medication without correcting the self-destructive and spiritually-bereft mindset of addiction. The re-birth of the Park Heights Community Health Alliance is another example, with its year-round fitness events and bountiful organic vegetable gardens planted by residents and Willie Flowers, the new director. Flowers was hired after his predecessor was convicted of embezzlement (to support a gambling habit)—a distraction from the Alliance’s community revitalization mission that went on for ten years before either the organization’s founding sponsor (nearby Sinai Hospital) or Board chair even noticed!

The Official Response

Employment, household income, educational attainment, chronic disease, violent crime, sanitation, vacant buildings, lead paint, and every other important health, environmental, and socioeconomic factor reveal an enormous disparity between life in southern Park Heights and life in my neighborhood of Mount Washington just across Northern Parkway. The deplorable living conditions, widespread disease, and uncontrolled violence cause the needless death of black babies, black children, black teens, black adults, and black elders every single day. Those deaths, coupled with the massive incarceration so poignantly described by Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow, explain the more than 30% decrease in the community’s population since 1990—a reduction on a par with overseas famines or wars with genocidal intent!

Most of what southern Park Height’s residents suffer from has either been conquered or is easily avoided in middle class, white America. This is not to say that white America doesn’t have its share of problems or vices; it is rather to say that many of the more severe health burdens confronting African Americans living in this community are rarely experienced by members of my family or my next door neighbor’s. According to a national study conducted by Harvard University public health researchers using 20 years’ worth of data, these disparities, all combined, result in a life expectancy in southern Park Heights that is a mere notch above what’s left of the Sioux Nation living on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations in rural South Dakota. (Needless to say, the compromised well-being of Native Americans—including extreme rates of diabetes, alcoholism, and suicide—can also be linked to deliberate segregation and neglect.)

How do we justify such an extreme inequity in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? The answer, of course, is that in 21st century America we cannot justify it out loud. You would never hear our Mayor say, “Oh, those are just poor black people—we don’t really care how they’re doing.” That would indeed be unlikely since our current mayor is herself black. But her actions and inactions, and to be fair, those of the many mayors before her, black or white, tell us precisely that—that we just don’t care about the poor black people living all across America.

Instead of caring, society ignores their plight (which comes easily to those of us who don’t live it day in and day out), and we deflect attention away from our passive collusion by tossing a few coins to the homeless or even sinking a few million into a geographically limited “empowerment zone.” This is where we get back to the uniqueness of Baltimore’s tale. It’s a medium-sized city, with just over 600,000 people living inside of 100 square miles. Quite a lot of money and effort have been poured into the city’s revitalization, and yet multiple very large and entrenched ghettos remain. Oh, you can see the glossy impact of money and effort downtown at Pratt and Light Streets—our built-up Inner Harbor is gorgeous! But just take a drive up Fulton Street or down Milton Avenue, or drive across the width of the city on North Avenue or Lafayette Avenue or Garrison Boulevard. The fact is, you’ll have to take a long drive, because these streets are dotted with boarded-up condemned homes and visible drug dealing that go on and on and on for 20, 30, or 40 blocks of endless ghetto. You won’t see it if all you do is commute up and down Interstate 83, the favored route between county and downtown. But take a detour sometime just a block or two off that beaten path and you’ll find utter devastation.

We need to take a long hard look at what we as Baltimoreans and what we as an entire American society have allowed to flourish all throughout the nation’s urban ghettos. Because at the core of our failure to thwart death and degradation is intent, whether conscious or not—intent in the form of officially-sanctioned policies of segregation and neglect that enabled such deadly sub-cultures and degraded environments to take root in the first place. Our refusal to acknowledge our collective role and responsibility has encouraged entire communities to conclude that the rest of us simply don’t care.
The biggest travesty of all is that so many young people’s reasonable expectation of life is an early death. Please, join me in the growing chorus:

BLACK LIVES DO MATTER!

Urban Health
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