Letter from Baltimore — From the July 2016 issue

The City That Bleeds

Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising

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Freddie Gray’s fatal treatment in police custody happened partly on camera, during a national mobilization of young people who have awoken on thousands of mornings in a nation with a black chief of state. These young people are inspired by the apparently endless possibility of modern life, and as a result they find it difficult to grasp the bantustans of America where black life is not supposed to matter at all. Not so my grandparents, who migrated up to Baltimore, to the edges of the Sandtown neighborhood, in the 1930s, from one of Virginia’s southernmost tobacco counties. Many in their clans, eight out of ten for my grandmother and three out of six for my grandfather, relocated to West Baltimore. My grandmother, the eldest in her unit, said the farmwork was hard; her sister Daisy hated it so much that she said little about her own parents in kindness. Even my farm-owning great-grandparents, the first generation born into freedom since Africa, moved to Baltimore before they died.

Since entire extended families crowded into single houses before there was a cure for tuberculosis, a menace to blacks along Druid Hill Avenue, it makes sense to me that my family moved again as soon as they could. My great-uncle, a combat veteran of two years in World War II and two more in Korea, went from McCulloh Street to the tree-lined boulevard of Bentalou Street. He was the only one of his brothers to take his G.I. Bill–funded education past high school — to fast-typing record holder Cortez Peters’s Business School at 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue. Nobody ever told me why they wanted to leave McCulloh Street or Druid Hill Avenue after the start of blockbusting — domino-theory real-estate tactics to frighten less-educated whites into underselling their homes, which were then flipped to blacks at above market value. Besides, the houses my relatives were able to get as whites fled the neighborhood en masse were so much better than the kitchenette apartments knifed into the row houses of Sandtown, where they still go, religiously, to church.

© Wil Sands/Fractures Collective

Outside the Gilmor Homes, at the corner of Presbury and N. Mount Streets

My entire family seemed agreed on this point after World War II. Their grandparents had been enslaved, and their parents had been wiped out by agricultural pests, tractors, and the Depression; they would move to the cities and prosper by beating the odds and owning homes with luxuries like indoor plumbing and gas stoves. My great-aunts and their husbands and brothers, all veterans, crept westward, buying houses on Bentalou, and Ruxton Avenue and Lanvale Street in Edmondson Village, at Hilton and Piedmont, off Bloomingdale in Rosemont, all, with the exception of one traitor to East Baltimore, part of the steady westward expansion of black plumbers, nurses, Social Security Administration employees, circuit-court typists, dry cleaners, cab and bus drivers, and domestic servants. They loved the amenities of the city, the opportunity for high school, the streetcars, the array of foods and shops and churches, the choice marketplace on Pennsylvania Avenue and the even bigger market downtown on Lexington Street. In the country they had cured ham and drunk dandelion wine, but here in Baltimore there was the delicatessen, soft-shell crabs, steam heating, and the craft world of European immigrants from Greece, Poland, Italy, Ireland, and Germany.

I suppose my mother’s parents were real strivers, who took the pay from their service jobs and finagled a house on a block with a few Jewish families and one other black family. But their Scotch-Irish neighbors were recent hillbilly war workers, migrants from West Virginia and Kentucky, not even passably educated. They drank freely. The current publisher of the Afro, the only leading black newspaper left in the United States, remembered my mom’s block in the era after World War II. Robert Street at Linden Avenue was “something to see Friday and Saturday night,” with “blood in the street.” He was talking about drunk, brawling white men. Still, when the neighborhood to the north became black, the Downes Brothers Pharmacy near North and Linden took out the soda fountain (“a hindrance”) and stocked their coolers with beer and liquor. The neighborhood had changed.

And thus the prime version of black advance under segregation: your strong effort for homeownership, fueled by jobs that leave you ineligible for Social Security benefits, is in a crease beyond a real-estate boundary, next door to illiterate drunkards. Eminent domain turned my grandparents’ integrated block into a public park. My grandmother moved happily in 1965 north of Druid Hill Park, to Park Heights, then still a Jewish neighborhood. But by the early 1970s, the whites were gone and the houses in need of updating for a generation that was city-born. When I moved to her house in 1997, near the open-air drug market on the corner of Wylie Avenue, I befriended a fifth grader named Marvin Coston. I would try to get him to talk about his life, to stop smoking cigarettes on his way out the door. “Mr. Larry,” he used to say, “I just be worried about some damn maniac coming down the street.” I was a young professor at Howard, writing editorials about the murder on my doorstep, and I thought that was eerie clairvoyance for an eleven-year-old. I lost touch with Marvin when I moved from the neighborhood. He made it through the difficult teenage years, though not through the wave of forty-five homicides that engulfed Baltimore last July.

My parents went farther away from the traditional neighborhood in Sandtown, up to Liberty Heights. In the year that I was born, they bought a house on a street that was the dividing line between two neighborhoods, Arlington and Ashburton, maybe ten good blocks from Mondawmin Mall, a shopping center catering to the needs of some of the poorest Americans while also offering an absurdly glitzy high end, silk suits and alligator-skin shoes. Beyond Druid Hill Park, the wide, tree-lined boulevards filled with two-story single-family homes must have seemed an almost different city from the places they knew best. Their college friends Nina and Pete Rawlings, the parents of the current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, lived a block west on a broad road shrouded by giant maples. But there was no power on earth that would have granted my parents a mortgage to purchase a home in, say, lily-white Dumbarton, between Homeland and Towson, where the same row house is easily worth two and a half times as much today as my mother’s row house in East Arlington. (I have marveled at the Dumbarton houses, the irony, when they are featured on House Hunters.)

My grandfather’s brothers, who died before I was born, and my neighbors Mr. Grant, Mr. Taylor, Mr. Washington, and Mr. Holman worked for a time at Sparrows Point, Bethlehem Steel’s plant. In many stories the crisis of rust-belt deindustrialization pivots on the sad closing of the key employer. But this mill was crucifier if it was ever savior, and the cross was certainly sunk in the ground by the early 1960s, when it employed about 30,000 men, 7,300 of them black. The history there was one of intense segregation: colored signs over the toilets, and black men working with one another on unskilled, dangerous tasks, scraping to keep even that piece of a job. The Department of Labor roused itself by 1974 to disrupt the discriminatory system of promotion at the plant, but the handwriting of globalization was in neon on the wall. Nixon and the Chicago Boys of economic theory were getting going in Chile and Argentina, and Baltimore wasn’t in line for the rewards for supporting Nixon that went to the Sunbelt.

The gem of Baltimore’s urban redevelopment, the aquarium and the two food and specialty-shop pavilions that make up Harborplace, was first dreamed to life in the 1950s with a bond issue and a development plan by a guy named Jim Rouse, who had worked for the Federal Housing Administration. At the time the redesign was conceived, the city of one million was 75 percent white. As waterfront development, financial services, and the Johns Hopkins University hospital complex became the bedrock of the white middle class, black economics rested squarely on the post offices, local government, and the school system. Teachers and sanitation workers struck for a raise in 1974, and Baltimore caved to a fate like that of New York, which submitted to the banks in a debt crisis that resulted in huge service reductions, layoffs, and the reintroduction of tuition at public colleges. In Chocolate City we were lashed more tightly to two beasts, a shrinking municipal government and education system and a private market of unskilled-service employment that ebbed and flowed. But this was during an era of extreme inflation, when high youth unemployment, urban density, and a shifting mission for school programs ran headlong into heroin-addicted Vietnam veterans, and then crack cocaine. (We always thought cocaine was a sophisticated and unaddictive stimulant, hence its street name: “girl.”) Public education fell under the wheels of the shrinking tax base caused by white flight — an exodus federally paved with the highway system and the relocation of the industrial and finance sectors — and let’s just pile on “special” education classes for boys. Empowerment Zones and spectacle sports complexes were inadequate balms. Someone once calculated that the net return on Camden Yards, the baseball stadium beloved by conservatives, where some $200 million in state funds were invested, was slightly better than 1 percent. Kurt Schmoke, one of the most talented leaders to come along in a generation, hoped his legacy as the city’s first African-American mayor would be education. When he took the job in 1988, he tried to rename Baltimore “the city that reads,” though the motto curdled into “the city that bleeds.”

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