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)