01 May 2015

Over in Sandtown

I vividly remember getting upset with a friend who was relentlessly teasing me about being from the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in Baltimore (well, it felt relentless anyway...). Finally I'd had enough

"I'm not from no SANDTOWN!" I snapped.

"Oh yeah? Where are you from then?"
"I'm from Upton!"

This may appear to be a distinction without a difference. If you look at the map above, Sandtown is on one side of Freemont Ave, Upton the other (the "A" in "Ave" is practically pointing at the house I grew up in btw). But we take our neighborhoods VERY seriously in Baltimore, so that line is important. In some cases, knowing which side of a boundary line can be the difference between wealth and poverty, working class and poor, black and white (although not as stark as it was when I was a child, the 'Red Line' is still there), or making your way through the streets in relative safety vs having to run home to avoid a beat down.

Photo by Ben Marcin as part of his “Last House Standing” series 
My sister-in-law lives in Sandtown - in one of only three houses on the block that are occupied. The rest of the buildings are abandoned and boarded up. A friend, 'outsider' artist Morgan Monceaux lives in Sandtown - in the house where bandleader Cab Calloway grew up. Again, he is one of the few residents still on that block. The rest of the houses are either boarded up, or torn down (the building next to him practically fell down, damaging the side of his house, and is now an empty lot).

For me, one of the distinctive 'sounds' of Baltimore is silence. Our hollowed out neighborhoods. Trying not to move due to the Summer heat and humidity. Sirens echoing down the block as police cars scream across the city.

The empty lots, these abandoned buildings - they were there before the neighborhood's sadly nationally famous resident, Freddie Gray died in police custody in Sandtown. The boarding up of buildings was not a result of a riot. It was the result of years of neglect.

Baltimore's situation is no different from many places across the country and around the world. Manufacturing jobs left, the number of vessels coming into the Port of Baltimore shrunk, there were fewer and fewer 'good government jobs.' The city shifted to a 'service economy' and attempted to attract tourists to the Inner Harbor and new baseball and football stadiums at Camden Yards. Two major players Johns Hopkins Hospital on the East Side, and the University of Maryland Medical System on the West Side appear to be carving the city up between them. Hopkins is particularly egregious when it comes to taking over housing close to their 'campus' for their doctors, at the expense of residents who are already there.

On the other hand, in many neighborhoods but particularly in Sandtown, if the older houses are still standing, you also have to deal with Lead Paint:

“In 1993, we found that 13,000 kids in Baltimore had been poisoned with lead, but we weren’t collecting at the levels that we are today,” said Ruth Ann Norton, the executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. “If we had, we would have found 30,000 poisoned kids.”

“A child who was poisoned with lead is seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system,” Norton said. She called lead poisoning Baltimore’s “toxic legacy” — a still-unfolding tragedy with which she says the city has yet to come to terms. Those kids who were poisoned decades ago are now adults. And the trauma associated with lead poisoning ­“creates too much of a burden on a community,” she said.

The burden weighs heaviest on the poorest communities, such as the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in West Baltimore where Freddie Gray lived. Here, most houses were built decades ago, at a time when paint manufacturers hailed lead as a cheap additive. The effect of that lead, which Congress effectively banned in 1978, has been profound on Gray’s neighborhood. Statistics between 2009 and 2013 showed that more than 3 percent of children younger than 6 had possibly dangerous levels of lead in their blood, more than double the figure for the entire city.

Lead poisoning has been an especially cruel scourge on African American communities. “Nearly 99.9 percent of my clients were black,” said Saul E. Kerpelman, a Baltimore lawyer who said he has litigated more than 4,000 lead-poisoning lawsuits over three decades. “That’s the sad fact to life in the ghetto that the only living conditions people can afford will likely poison their kids. . . . If you only have $250 per month, you’re going to get a run-down, dilapidated house where the landlord hasn’t inspected it the entire time they’ve owned it.”

....the only living conditions people can afford will likely poison their kids...

For years I would to look at the city's downtown attractions, the Inner Harbor, Camden Yards, etc, and have premonitions of destruction. "It's fake," I thought. "It's all built on sand," hallucinating an imminent collapse. As this week has shown, my city - your city, our cities - are built on the backs of the poor and trapped, over a lake of kerosene, just waiting for something to ignite it.

To listen to Antero Pietila, author of Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City talk about Sandtown-Winchester on KPFA radio (San Francisco), click here (Interview starts at 8:05 time mark)

28 April 2015


I still dream of Baltimore.

Perhaps its strange for me to think that after only four years away I would stop seeing the city I grew up in when I close my eyes. But by now I would have expected at least some of the dreams I remember to take place in New York. But no, somehow every time I wake up and try to remember what I was thinking about over night,  I find myself in Baltimore again.

Last night, everyone was in Baltimore. As I said to people after the relatively small disturbances at the end of an otherwise peaceful march on Saturday, Don't call this a 'riot.' You do NOT want to see Baltimore riot....well, sadly here we are. Baltimore is a city sitting on top of a tank of highly flammable liquid. Last night, someone, in some areas literally, dropped a match.

We all saw images of a city in chaos last night. Today, I feel myself in two places at once, my body here in New York, my mind and thoughts back home in Baltimore. I worked at the library on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and North. Before that I worked at the Mondwamin Mall. My sister-in-law, cousin-in-law, and friends live in Freddie Gray's neighborhood. Its a strange, nearly science fictional feeling - I see a group of teenagers here, and am immediately thrown back down I-95 and think I'm seeing groups of Baltimore teens.

Ask why so much of our anger and destruction has been focused toward the BCPD

Every person deserves beauty and safety, information and entertainment 
Watching the burning and looting of the CVS at Penn- North last night, all I could think about was the Pennsylvania Avenue Branch of the Pratt Library, where I got my start in the library profession. Part of me wants to believe that the library was spared because it is a bright spot in that tough neighborhood, where all of us on staff, past and present, tried to do our best for those who came through our doors, providing a safe space for all.

I want to try to untangle some of my thoughts about Baltimore here over the next few days.

I have been trying for days to think of what to write about Baltimore and the death of Freddie Gray. I won't say nothing comes - perhaps its best to say TOO much comes to my mind: about Sandtown, lead paint, the Baltimore City Police Department, despair. How too many people in town are so far past being sick and tired of being sick and tired that they've given up, throwing up their hands and saying, "Well what do you expect, it's Baltimore!" Considering how the Baltimore Sun exposed the criminal nature of the Baltimore City Police Department over two years ago, and little to nothing was done, who can blame them? In much the same way that the Times-Picayune 'predicted' what would happen to New Orleans with their series on the levee system years before Katrina hit the city, far too often it takes a cataclysm before people notice anything.

Also I think about self-fulfilling prophesies: What happens when expectations have been lowered so far down you cannot even see them? What happens when you tell a population by inaction, word and deed "You ain't shit" over and over and over again. What happens if you think one segment of the city is filled with nothing but drug dealers, criminals and thugs - terms used to describe those living in many of the neighborhoods in West Baltimore that erupted long BEFORE last night's riots - so when people die in those neighborhoods, well, they must have been 'in the game' or in a gang, or shouldn't have been standing around once bullets started flying so they really only just got what they deserved?

America saw what happens last night in Baltimore.

But it has also seen it in Ferguson, and elsewhere. It saddens me to say this, but I know we will see it again. And again. And again, until some very fundamental things change.

I can tell you what happens to individuals who live under these conditions, who hear crap like this all the time, because it happened to me. I too sometimes got so tired and upset at being looked at in fear, of seeing people think my friends and I were dangerous and violent simply by virtue of our skin color, or zip code, that sometimes I too have thought, "Okay, fine - You think I'm dangerous, let me BE dangerous, let me show you 'danger'," and wanted to lash out. Many people, mainly white and not originally from Baltimore, have spoken about how 'angry' the city is. I've not wanted to think about the anger inside myself, or just considered it 'personal' and related to my own issues around being physically and emotionally abused as a child, and feelings of familial abandonment. It sometimes surprises me how rage filled some of my work is. But this anger both is and is not personal, because the forces against the individual are not truly focused on them as people. Because you are not seen as a person, as a human being. You are part of some undistinguished, insignificant, terrifying 'Other' upon whom twisted fears (and twisted desires) are projected. That might be the most frustrating thing - like a terrorist act, the hate you feel coming toward you really is not about *you* at all. People react to the fact that there is a 'hard', 'don't give a fuck' attitude in Baltimore. Yes, its there. And, as much as I suppress it, it is there in me, too. If you've shown that you don't care about me and mine - why in the hell should I care about you?

At least I have an outlet - I write. I try to create. Baltimore is a city that has cut back on after school programs, recreation centers, school libraries and nearly every other program that might engage young people, and give them a way to channel their energy and focus their thoughts, while focusing funding and resources around the Inner Harbor and other tourist areas, leaving huge swaths of the city neglected. What happens to young people without ways to express themselves, who see no ways out at all?