The Building Blocks of Deprivation

Carol Highsmith / Library of Congress

The protests, anger, and violence that have fixed the eyes of the world on Baltimore over the past couple weeks are easily attributable to systemic inequality and poverty.

But concepts like inequality and poverty are rarely unpacked, and use of these broad terms often ignores, or glosses over, the mechanisms and processes that propagate inequality over time. No credit is done to the concerns and demands of Baltimoreans who struggle every day under systemic constraints if we fail to understand how the inequality they face is replicated.

To understand the building blocks of deprivation in Baltimore, it is necessary to examine both the historical legacy of city planning and the “comeback” of America’s old industrial centers.

The engineering projects of Robert Moses and others in mid-century cities created a legacy of physical and social divisions that continue to edit the lived landscape of Baltimore. Today, new economic and social development projects — the “Urban Renaissance” — are creating new divides in which there has been astounding success for some, built on the premise of excluding others, and creating new contradictions that are becoming impossible to ignore.

Driving south along N Howard St through Baltimore two weeks ago, as images of burning buildings played across screens throughout the US, the spatial divisions of the city were crystal clear: roads were empty of people, cars, and even police until you reached North Ave, which was cordoned and barricaded to prevent anyone from crossing.

That the police drew a line at the intersection of North Ave and N Howard St was no accident. West of that junction are neighborhoods filled with boarded-up, abandoned row homes; directly to the east are the new investments of Station North — one of the “cultural economy” development projects built to lure people back into the city by offering arts and entertainment. On one side of the divide sit newly restored theaters (like the $10 million Centre Theatre and $17 million Parkway Theatre) and shopping areas, while the other is comprised of vacant commercial and residential blocks, left to crumble since the 1960s and 1970s.

North West Baltimore has long been geographically isolated from the rest of the city: naturally by the Jones Falls River, and for the past sixty-plus years, artificially by the Jones Falls Expressway, an eight-lane highway that runs north and south through the city center.

These divisions make protecting the “valuable” parts of the city from the less valuable quite simple — the police just need to control the bridges. The bridge at North Ave is actually one of the few places a person or vehicle can cross from poor West Baltimore (broadly, the neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester, Reservoir Hill, and Mondawmin, the site of the most publicized unrest) to reach Downtown Baltimore and Station North.

The creation of the Jones Falls Expressway boundary is not unique in the history of Baltimore or its redevelopment since the 1968 uprisings. Over the years, many communities have been slated for separation or demolition by the city’s urban planners.

In the 1960s, places like Fells Point and Federal Hill — historically some of the most depressed areas of the city — were placed under eminent domain to make way for the creation and extension of Interstates 83 and 95 to be connected by a new east-west highway running through West Baltimore. The goal was to isolate the downtown and newly redeveloping Inner Harbor from the poorer neighborhoods of the city, and lure back suburbanites by promising protection and easy transportation in and around the city.

“The Road Fight,” as it became known in Baltimore, ended in 1977 when a few residents succeeded in having the area near the harbor designated a historic district, preventing its demolition for the construction of the new highway. The victory was pyrrhic — the highway project was halted, but hundreds of homes had long since been subjected to eminent domain by the city’s condemnation ordinance, and thousands of former residents had been forced from their homes and neighborhoods in the decades-long fight.

New neighborhoods emerged in their place, cleared of the low-income and working-class families of Baltimore’s past, in an area primed for a new influx of wealth — people that wanted to live near, and could afford, the new amenities of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The city sold thousands of housing units in Fells Point and Federal Hill for a dollar each to buyers who could prove they could afford to repair the property. Within a decade, property values climbed 526%, and the area is now part of Baltimore’s Gold Coast, representing some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city.

In West Baltimore, this process also occurred, but without the corresponding influx of money for redevelopment. Only sixteen blocks of the new east-west highway were ever built — colloquially known in Baltimore as “The Ditch” because most of it sits below street level — and just like the harbor area, thousands of homes were taken by the city or abandoned to the certainty that they would be lost when the highway came through. But unlike the neighborhoods around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, when the highway plan was halted, nothing came back.

Today nearly one in three homes in West Baltimore remain vacant. Communities that had once been poor but flourished are now empty and separated by an eight-lane concrete trench that has sat largely untouched in West Baltimore for thirty years.

The new plan is to replace The Ditch with a $1.8 billion, MARC Line station that connects downtown to Washington DC through West Baltimore, in the hopes of repeating part of the urban renewal model that occurred in Federal Hill. Developers are already preparing for a steep rise in property values. Thus the highway plans of the 1960s and 1970s were never truly surrendered — they were just shelved until a slightly different, more profitable vision could be found.

Newer transportation options such as the Baltimore subway and light rail reinforce Baltimore’s spatial and social divides. The Charm City Circulator — a bus service that runs parallel to the existing city bus system — demonstrates these dynamics clearly. The Circulator has only four routes, which run roughly transversely across the city: from the University of Maryland in the west, to Johns Hopkins Hospital in the east; and from Federal Hill in the south, to Station North.

The terminus of each route is conspicuously connected to one of the major urban redevelopment projects in the city, excluding the poor neighborhoods where most Baltimore residents live. Further, while the public bus system, which attempts to serve everyone in the city, currently costs $1.60 per ride, the Circulator is free — and has accrued an estimated $11 million deficit despite massive city and state subsidies. While accessible, free transportation should be universally available, the Circulator has been constructed with the affluent rider in mind.

The end of the Circulator’s east-side route marks another redevelopment “success story.” Many people, in academia and the general community, hold up East Baltimore as a model of success for both Baltimore and other struggling cities under the new “eds and meds” economic model. In this model, key anchor institutions — like major universities and medical centers — take the lead in rebuilding poor communities.

Over the past decade, the community of East Baltimore has seen some of the largest investments anywhere in the United States. Current estimates are that by the conclusion of the twenty-year project, the neighborhood’s redevelopment — which includes a new $42 million public school, a $60 million apartment complex (housing six hundred graduate students), a $10 million early childhood education center, restaurants, the new Maryland Department of Mental Health and Hygiene building, and a proposed “gateway” hotel — will have cost more than $1.8 billion.

While some East Baltimoreans have begun experiencing the benefits of the new school, restaurants, and stores, the community as a whole is a fragment of its former self. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of East Baltimore declined 51.4% (2,737 of the 2,783 who left were black), more than one thousand homes were demolished, and some eight hundred families were evicted through eminent domain.

Those families were reimbursed at a higher-than-average rate, but the “new” East Baltimore has no place for its former residents. Not a single new, low-income, single-family home has been completed in the thirteen years since the redevelopment project began.

Given the many current claims that East Baltimore represents a spectacular success for urban redevelopment, and the enthusiasm for the eds and meds model, one can be forgiven for wondering what success means. This narrative of triumph ignores the longstanding contradictions between the interests of investors and property developers in Baltimore City, and the poor communities at the margins.

Of course, the people of Baltimore understand the goals and plans of the city’s political and economic elite perfectly. They see that redevelopment “success” means clearing who and what is already there to facilitate who and what “should” be there. Incorporation is never the order of the day — it is lip service to placate communities until the court orders and cranes arrive.

Over and over, Baltimore City residents are told that new opportunities are coming, that new investment will mean new jobs, more services, and greater resources to fix dilapidated infrastructure and nonexistent social and economic opportunities.

One such opportunity was the Baltimore Grand Prix. Although Grand Prix racing and its elite European overtones are rather antithetical to Baltimore’s blue-collar roots and sporting interests, the City considered it a great opportunity for economic development — a chance to demonstrate that Baltimore is a “world-class city.” If Grand Prix is good enough for Monaco, then it’s something Baltimore’s elite wanted in on.

However, after continually losing money and suffering serious organizational problems, it was shelved after the 2013 race. While Baltimore’s mayor claimed the city’s calendar had too many events over the next two years for the Grand Prix to continue, there has been little mention of the race returning.

The recently opened Horseshoe Casino is another project elites are promising will help turn around depressed and poor neighborhoods by channeling casino revenue and gaming taxes into community development grants to empower youth, create business and career centers, and contribute to rebuilding parts of South Baltimore.

Despite such fanfare, the reality is quite different. Over 75 percent of the casino’s revenue is going to increased medical, security, and transportation needs created by the casino, and millions in additional revenue are being used to cover casino-related infrastructure upgrades over the next several years (including $3 million to relocate a steam pipe near the casino considered a public safety threat and $2 million for street repaving around the casino). To make matters worse, the casino’s expected earnings are now substantially lower than boosters claimed prior to construction.

The failed promises of economic development are magnified by stagnant and declining government services for residents. Funds are found for casinos and car races, while children and their parents see recreation centers closed and young people are criminalized for being outside. In the 1970s, Baltimore had over 130 city recreation centers for its youth. By 1991, this number stood at 71. In 2015, it was down to 40 (with an additional 8 after-school centers).

Last summer, amid this shuttering of centers, Baltimore enacted one of the country’s strictest youth curfews, an enhanced version of an existing law that has been on its books for more than twenty years. Effectively targeting poor families, the new law restricts the hours children under sixteen can be in public spaces depending on the time of year and comes with parental fines up to $500.

When the measure came up for a vote on June 2, parents, students, and community members tried to shout it down. But the city council easily passed the bill, 13–2, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake quickly signed it, saying: “This is about taking them out of harm’s way before a situation materializes where their being on the street becomes a law enforcement concern.” The message was clear: there is no money to fund the city’s recreation centers, but there is money to designate and staff new “curfew centers.”

This is part of a process in which the police have moved from being “a de facto cab service” to being part of the institutionalized antagonism between the city and its youth, with roving police vans moving through communities at night sweeping up violators.

Once at the curfew center, they are offered services and counseling. but are also photographed, interviewed, and checked for open warrants or probation records while they wait for a parent or guardian to claim them. While proponents of the new law argue its aim is to keep kids safe, they also celebrated the 120 youths picked up by police in the first month as a sign of success.

There are currently two curfew centers in the city; the one in Sandtown-Winchester is a repurposed recreation center about a mile from Mondawmin Mall, where the uprising on April 27 began, and less than five blocks from where Freddie Gray was apprehended.

Baltimore’s political and economic institutions have faced a conundrum during the recent unrest — a conundrum both physical and symbolic. If the redeveloped areas of the city, where large sums of investment have flowed in the past twenty years are physically damaged, the city risks losing the billions of dollars in property that have already been constructed, and potentially jeopardizing the cumulative groundwork of the institutions that have dominated the city’s redevelopment strategies.

Much as Downtown Los Angeles had to be physically protected two decades ago to prevent people from damaging neighborhoods and areas deemed important to the city, so too did Baltimore deploy its police and the Maryland National Guard to safeguard areas considered valuable. Fortress LA is Fortress Baltimore.

But the physical risk to investment is only part of the crisis — the symbolic risk is even greater. Baltimore’s development strategy has been premised on creating spaces for certain economic sectors — tourism, art, entertainment, casinos, education, and medicine — to thrive.

What city elites fear more than a burned CVS or a few busted-out car windows is that the rest of the country will think Baltimore is dangerous, that their money and time would better spent elsewhere.

To combat this impression, the external population, young DC residents, suburbanites, tourists, and even students who the city and its institutions are desperate to attract and retain, are told that just as there are only a few bad police, there are only a few bad protesters. The city is resilient, they insist, and in a week or so we can all go back to our lives and watch the Orioles at Camden Yards or stroll through the new boutique restaurants and shops of the Inner Harbor and Harbor East. There is One Baltimore, and a few violent acts do not define the city.

In a sense this narrative is true — these areas will soon be filled again with shoppers and prospective residents, and the “dangerous” populations will once again be relegated to the edge of the city. But this return to normal ignores the underlying tensions and contradictions that have been pushed to the forefront in the aftermath of Gray’s death.

The reasons thousands of protesters have continually packed the city’s streets are as diverse as the grievances and governance issues that exist throughout the city. And regardless of whether the six officers charged in Gray’s death are convicted, those underlying tensions and grievances will remain.

Is economic development bad? No. Definitely not. Some projects have worked for Baltimore, others haven’t, and for some it’s too soon to tell.  Art, entertainment, and casinos are what every postindustrial American city today claims is going to be the new foundation of their economies. Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and many other cities are sprinting toward becoming centers for education and medicine.

But not every bio-tech park and casino will succeed, and there can only be so many arts districts and film festivals. As Fred Hirsch famously put it, “What each . . . can achieve, all cannot.” Baltimore isn’t unique in its renaissance, it’s just trying to win in the postindustrial city lottery.

Focusing on economic inequality, poverty, or police brutality in the abstract won’t improve the plight of Baltimore’s poor. The city has been subject to a death by a thousand policies — these policies are the building blocks of deprivation.

If the question for Baltimore City’s government and people is how to move forward, the answer is to look at how redevelopment has affected the city, exacerbating longstanding social divides and creating new ones along the way. The current policy of urban renaissance for some, premised on the exclusion of the many, must be reconsidered.