Canaries in the Coal Mine — Part 3

A State of Denial

This Part 3 of a 6-part series.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

In the early 2000s, the Baltimore City Department of Planning hired a Boston-based architectural and urban planning firm named Goody Clancy to produce a master plan for the southern Park Heights community in northwest Baltimore. Early drafts of this Plan failed to mention how the entrenched issues of poverty, population decline and the resultant (dramatic) gender imbalance, school drop-outs, unemployment, felony convictions and the barriers of having a felony record, the annual re-entry of thousands of ex-offenders, drug addiction, or gang membership would be addressed. Nor did early drafts explain how the community’s current residents would be able to afford monthly mortgage payments (let alone qualify for a mortgage) on the planned $100,000-$200,000 homes in a newly reconstituted Park Heights. Instead, the Plan focused exclusively on building new cynically-labeled “affordable” housing and expanded public transportation, while simply ignoring the realities of the families who lived there and the barriers there might be to them staying there.

It took an entire year for a small group of us to convince the city’s Director of Planning that a comprehensive health and human service needs assessment was required to support the master planning process. After completing myriad street intercept surveys, in-depth family interviews, focus groups, inventory of existing services, gaps analysis, and a series of community-wide meetings, we submitted our assessment to the City including over 300 recommendations that came from the residents themselves to improve the community’s education, employment, health, recreation, safety, and sanitation infrastructures.

The Master Plan, including our human service recommendations, was presented to the Board of Estimates and approved in 2006. It took officials another several years to allocate $2 million in start-up funds and around $300,000 a year thereafter. This amount of money is peanuts in the realm of urban revitalization and woefully short of the $17 million per year for three years that the human services component alone of the Master Plan called for. Funding allocations have increased a little since that time, but services that impact the people always end up short.

The City’s insufficient allocations don’t begin to compare with the amount of taxpayer dollars spent on criminal justice each year in this community—the cost of policing, arrests, jail and bail hearings, court proceedings and trials, plea bargains, and long term incarceration average well over $30,000 per conviction annually. If you add in what’s spent on drug treatment (primarily methadone and buprenorphine) on top of what’s spent on criminal justice—in other words, what is collectively spent on the negative consequences of segregation and neglectyou are quickly in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The best plan that our local and state leaders have come up with so far to help support education and urban renewal in a city plagued by addiction is to institute legal gambling. Looking at this diabolical fundraising strategy and the way any related tax revenue is likely to be allocated gives us a pretty good idea of the government’s priorities. How can we possibly believe that City and State officials truly want to help the disenfranchised residents of Baltimore realize their true potential, as they repeatedly insist that they do?

Where Does This Leave Us?

In the end, the spillage from southern Park Heights into adjacent, mostly white middle-class Mount Washington is surprisingly minimal given its proximity. Once in a while, a bike or weed-whacker stored in someone’s garage or backyard shed turns up missing. Occasionally, we hear a brief pop-pop of gunfire or see the bright searchlight of a police helicopter as it circles overhead late at night. The most disturbing overflow is the drug dealer who parks his car in a cozy spot in the evening where the tree canopy blocks out the streetlights in order to sell his wares to white suburban youth who prefer to avoid going into the ghetto to buy their weed or pills. But honestly, for the most part, it’s pretty easy for us white folks to ignore the signs that the neighboring black territory is under siege. Perhaps if the spillage were more pronounced, our response would go beyond what’s often referred to as “harm reduction”—code for containment of the problem to the ghetto. But until that spillage flows into the “nice” neighborhoods (and we can be fairly certain that eventually it will), I’m afraid Baltimore will continue to pretend that it just doesn’t see.

As with so many U.S. urban centers awash in poverty, drugs, and violent crime, Baltimore today is at a crossroads. As the volume of Americans who have fallen into hard times swells, the federal safety net instituted to alleviate the suffering of the very poor becomes ever more precarious with the need to also serve the new poor. Perhaps whatever generous proclivities we may have had in other times will also wane. But if nothing of substance is done, Baltimore will become increasingly threatened by the frustration of the poor, heightened crime, the temptation of easy drug money, body bags, and unabated disease. If our communities continue to destabilize, eventually our national economy will suffer (some say it already has). Little by little, our state of denial may well undermine our entire society.

While this scenario is indeed bleak, it is not beyond hope. I have faith in humankind to repair itself, as it has so many times before. What we need in Baltimore is a modern day Marshall Plan: a massively coordinated, unwavering, and extravagantly resourced effort to reverse the downward spiral in southern Park Heights and the other ghettos like it across our city. We need to turn attention away from the glitz of high rise and condo development on the waterfront and, instead, focus on the hard work of urban renewal. The $535 million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds pledged to the billion-dollar Under Armour sportswear company could do a lot of good in the ghetto. But that urban renewal needs to not only resuscitate physical communities, it must also raise up the people themselves!

Right now in Baltimore, we desperately need a mayor who will stand up strong on two firmly rooted feet and declare, “This dying will end now!” Instead, the response of public, nonprofit, and private concerns alike has been slow, markedly shallow, and unsustained. Since the city started going downhill 40+ years ago, there have been any number of initiatives and projects that cropped up overnight like wild mushrooms after a rain, only to die off in short order due to a lack of funding and political will, or as a result of incompetence and corruption—something we seem to have an over-abundance of in Baltimore. Some of this effort has been downright arbitrary, but none of it has been effective—certainly not on a large scale.

We Baltimoreans need to look outside our borders and see what big money can buy. There are models that bode meaningful and lasting improvements in the lives of individuals and their communities, large communities that are just as devastated as our own here at home. Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone is a perfect example of an effective and dramatic reversal of oppression and dysfunction—through the fostering of healthy family interactions, education, and positive black male participation. The children and families who thrive in the Zone—as well as those who live in adjacent neighborhoods who witness the odds-defying life-building—gain strength, faith, and confidence in a rebirth of Harlem. Eagle Academies (also in New York City), the anti-violence intervention called Cure Violence, Call Me Mister out of Clemson University, Building Educated Leaders for Life or BELL out of Harvard University—there are, in fact, many models of successful individual empowerment and community revitalization that work. But it takes commitment!

Thankfully, there are also heartening examples of interventions in our communities of color here at home that are genuine and able to resolve the root cause of problems. Homegrown examples include: Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Youth Resiliency Institute, Dare To Be King, Algebra Project, WombWork Productions and Nu World Art Ensemble, End of Ignorance and Circle of Voices, Baltimore Intersection, COR Community and 300 Men March, Rites of Passage—all promising, passionate, blossoming efforts. But they are all under-funded, under-resourced, under-attended by the media, and fundamentally under-appreciated.

At the top of the list of our woes is a longstanding lack of leadership in our city. It hasn’t mattered if our Mayors were black or white, men or women, lawyers or community organizers. Since moving south from Boston in the mid-1980s, I have yet to witness a strong, thrilling, inspiring, compassionate, hard-working, brilliant, truthful, congenial, doggedly principled, and unrelenting leader of Baltimore. We need someone who cannot be bought and does not steal, who cannot be pressured or cajoled or bribed by the Big Boys to sing a song or dance a jig of their making. We need someone who is courageous enough, not just to support reparations, but to enact reparations by prioritizing the revitalization of Baltimore’s voluminous ghettos.

And when I say revitalization, I am not talking about revitalizing developers’ pocketbooks. Nor am I talking about scattering these communities’ current residents to the four corners of the earth in order to build so-called moderate income housing for new residents with bank accounts and lighter skin. No. I am talking about healing a wound. Healing a wound that is so deep and infected and covered with sodden scabs that air and sunshine cannot make their way inside, even in the shadow of King’s beloved community.

It is time, Baltimore. We need our own Cory Booker! Before joining the U.S. Senate, Cory was the African American Mayor of Newark (2006 to 2013) who took his Stanford, Oxford, and Yale Law School diplomas with him to live in public housing right in the thick of the ‘hood where, among other things, he forced the City to provide the City services that it was supposed to provide. Now that is leadership!

If these types of significant and potentially lasting improvements can be achieved in Harlem and Newark, then surely they can be achieved in Baltimore and the rest of the country’s many beleaguered urban communities. If we are to retain our humanity, we must at least try.

Urban Health
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