I started writing this note in response to a Facebook friend who suggested that I — yes, I — have a bad attitude because I agree that Baltimore is a rat-infested crime-ridden, blighted city, that by definition is failing, which is TRUE.
You can look up the markers of a failed city. I don’t want to have to enumerate them here but I will – declining population, urban decay/structural failures, massive vacancies, reductions in city services, absconded resources, and unaccountable leadership, to name a few. But that’s NOT WHY I’m writing this.
For the past week you heard a messenger identify problems in this city and most of you decided that based on who the messenger is or what his motives are that you’re going to agree and smirk about the fact that our city is gaining national notoriety for the problems it has, or disagree and try to prove him wrong. Those who disagree attempted to disprove the messenger by posting pictures of nice downtown areas and cheerleading slogans of support for the city. The Baltimore Sun even wrote an article saying there are fewer rats here than in Washington, D.C. Oh, well, in that case, it’s a non-issue.
But guess what? We have a problem. And I know you love your city, especially my white, educated, duly employed, downtown, urban-chic friends who say they feel safe even though they know that their neighbor was murdered six months ago or my car was vandalized a block from their house or they live down the street from recent well-documented muggings and assaults. You’re comfortable where you are, fine. I get it.
I too dig Baltimore even though I live out in the county. I come into the city about once a week to go to a show or visit friends or dine at one of the remaining restaurants that hasn’t yet failed because of a lack of customers willing to venture into town.
I agree that there are fantastic restaurants and great neighborhoods: Federal Hill, Little Italy, Harbor East, Canton, Hampden, Mt. Washington, Roland Park. Forgive me if I’ve left a couple out.
These neighborhoods do not cause Baltimore shame and scorn and derision. Even as the local news media with fair regularity report crime against tourists at the Inner Harbor or acts of violence in seemingly safe neighborhoods, these are not the “problem areas.”
But these are not the only neighborhoods in Baltimore. Just as I know that all of Baltimore isn’t defined only by “problem areas,” the problem areas — these parts of town where the markers of failure are epidemic — are places where my friends and other residents of greater Baltimore City don’t go. They don’t go out to eat in Carrollton Ridge and they don’t go see a band play in Sandtown-Winchester. And I don’t blame them! And I don’t want them to go there. I don’t need them risking their lives, which is exactly what they would be doing if they ventured into these areas where they know they “shouldn’t” be. And that’s the point of calling out Baltimore in its entirety.
Let’s face it, especially those of us who wish it otherwise: there are always going to be income and educational disparities that lead to some people living in better parts of town and others living in “other” parts of town — those that they can afford or where they have no choice but to live. And few of the people on the far sides of this spectrum know one other.
But in Baltimore, the good people caught up in these less-than-ideal circumstances aren’t merely living in the “poor side of town.” Their environments have devolved into crumbling ruin. Aside from the rats and the trash and the decaying infrastructure, these people are surviving in environments where they have to duck and cover and look over their shoulders and not go outdoors during certain times of day and cross street corners to avoid any engagement with bad actors who are one side-glance away from putting a gun to their gut or a knife to their throat.
And those who have it good in the city are going to continue to defend the good parts of the city while leaving it to the police or city administrators or the upstanding people in those crap neighborhoods to do something about it, all while they go on insisting that there’s no cause to besmirch their city’s good name.
And where does thus lead us? Right back to the status quo remaining where it is. People will throw up their hands and acknowledge that the city’s government is corrupt, even with a turnover of EIGHT city councilmen in the last election. And the new police commissioner will come into this city and use data to identify problem areas and poor response teams and untrained police and write a 46-page report identifying the steps to be taken, and he will get called out for it – by the police union no less — because the police department is 26 percent short of capacity and the remainder can’t handle the demands or don’t know how to respond effectively.
And the white people who criticize the status quo will be called racist for supporting difficult solutions that require a hard-core law enforcement presence and a court system that doesn’t let repeat offenders back on the street. And people of color who identify these problem areas will be called traitors because they’re neglecting a long history of oppression in order to try to deal with the now. And the political among us will concentrate on hitting their enemies and exploiting a crisis rather than on identifying solutions. And people who are invested in the Mad Max-brand of chaos will just go on, fine with the blind eye being turned while the chattering classes tear each other down.
In short, to review the status quo: Baltimore City is on track for its fifth straight year of 300+ homicides, a rate of over 50 per 100,000 capita compared to a US rate of less than 6 per 100,000. In 2017, Baltimore had 13 high schools (out of 39 total) with 0 percent of the student body testing proficient at their grade level in math and SIX schools with 0 percent proficiency in either math OR English. Trash. Is. Everywhere.
That set of circumstances is enough to make optimists like me sick!
So here’s what I expect from each of you Polyannas and pundits and armchair politicians. Try to manage at least one of these:
1. Read Commissioner Harrison’s Crime Reduction Plan (don’t miss the maps starting on page 37).
2. In the next four months, take a full-size garbage bag, go outside your neighborhood, wear rubber gloves, and walk three blocks or however long it takes to pick up enough trash to fill the bag. Here’s some guidance on what to do.
3. Attend an inter-faith or inter-racial civic event outside of your neighborhood. Make it an event that is in support of something, not just a protest of the status quo.
4. Tutor an underperforming child outside your district.
5. Attend at least one meeting of your city council and ask a question, any question that is pertinent to solving the city’s blight or crime. ()
8. To quote a friend, we have to “train and teach the citizens that a life of crime never pays, but a career can satisfy the soul.” If that’s going to work, communities need education and opportunities. What can you do? Donate any amount to a nonprofit invested in opportunity zones or reducing distressed areas. Or if you’re in a company, go to your HR department and ask what the organization is doing and how you can help.
Some of you may do this. Good for you. You don’t need to humble brag to me about it. In fact, I don’t want to know what a good citizen you are. Show, don’t tell. Maybe if enough people put in a day instead of a like, share, or comment we can start to see some changes.
You want the city to be charming. Become charming outside your comfort zone. Help Baltimore regain its self-nominated status, found engraved on benches around town, as “The Greatest City in America.”