Friday, April 24, 2015

What's Wrong With Baltimore


So I just spent a solid 15 minutes reading this Reddit on the dirt bikes of Baltimore. Specifically, the douches who ride around in packs in the city, running red lights, popping wheelies, and intimidating drivers and pedestrians (and police).

And this past Wednesday as I drove up The Alameda near 33rd to pick up my kid from City, I looked to the left and saw two boys fighting in the door way of a church. A group of about 20 kids had formed around the two and were laughing, screaming with bloodlust, and filming with their cellphones. Nobody stopped to help, no police were around, and eventually the boy who was literally pounding the other boy just stopped, shoved him away, and the crowd dispersed.

I find myself struggling to love my city this week.

It's not because of the dirt bike gangs (the 12 o'clock boys) themselves, although I can't say that I love the idea of being pummeled by one of these dudes for daring to drive on the same road (which apparently has happened).

And it's not necessarily because of the issues surrounding the police, although it's hard to love a group which continues to systematically break the law, exhibit extreme racial bias, and then hide those who perpetrate heinous crimes.

It is because of the seeming impossibility of the problem, the hugeness and complexity of the issues underlying all of the racial, social, financial, educational, and artistic divides in the city.

The Reddit post linked a New York Times documentary on the 12 o'clock boys, and at the end of the short film, one of the people interviewed talks about how the 12 o'clock boys are free when they are riding. It's like they can escape from everything; it's deeper than just fleeing the police or breaking the law. The footage shows the gang riding through deserted streets of boarded up houses, trash flying through the air and graffiti everywhere (not "street art," just spray-painted tags on plywood, territory marked just as if the tagger had lifted a leg and pissed). In this way, leaning back on the wheels of a (sometimes stolen) dirtbike, only in this way, did the commenter feel free.

To my little middle class white girl self, it feels hopeless. It looks hopeless. I imagine that if the only way out is to fly through the streets of the city of one wheel, tossing a fuck you over your shoulder as you pass cop cars and stunned pedestrians, then you might take that way out if you are desperate enough.

In a city where snitches get stitches and old men are beaten because they ask kids to pick up a piece of trash they dropped, it's hard to feel the love. It's hard to feel free. It's hard to feel hope.

It's easy to avoid or ignore the problems of this city until it isn't. Then what? The city schools suck (especially in poorer neighborhoods), there is a cultural issue surrounding trash and litter, gentrification is taking over historic neighborhoods, causing financial hardship, the police force has no relationship with the community, and the future looks hopeless for many kids. Violence is shrugged off (the fight I witnessed had a crowd of about 20 kids, laughing and clapping and surrounding the boys), jobs are scarce and ill-paying, and graduating students (or dropouts) join their parents on the street corner.

I lived in New York City briefly in 1989, the year the term "wilding" was coined. Shortly after I moved, the city began a decades-long effort to clean up the city - of crime and also of trash. They did it by targeting drugs and guns, and now the Big Apple is one of the safest cities in the country. New York was one of the first states to decriminalize marijuana, freeing up resources to go after bigger drug issues.

New York City also chose to focus on education reform. As the largest public school system in the country with the responsibility of educating over one million kids, New York City public schools boast some of the best (and some of the worst) schools in the country. Lotteries for high-demand charter schools can decide whether or not a child gets a chance in life. The system has the largest per-pupil spending rate (nearly $20,000 per student) or any system in the country.

When Baltimore talks about improving the city, most conversations center on pleading with middle-class families to stay and addressing blight, the entire blocks of boarded up houses that turn into dens of drugs and violence.

But it's more than housing. It's more than trash. It's more than education. It's more than a new coffee shop, a safe corner.

Has anyone ever developed a relationship so deep with some of the 12 o'clock boys (or other hopeless, inner city youth who are headed towards becoming just another a stereotype) that they could ask them what they would do if they could do anything? I imagine from the very beginning as small children they realized that dreams and imaginings were not part of their lives. Dangling a $12 an hour job (if that) and a roach-filled Section 8 house in front of someone who could make  a week's salary in one hour on a street corner, then informing them that they can work this same mind-numbing job for the next 30 years when they may or may not have a pension to retire on in a neighborhood they may no longer be able to afford isn't going to cut it.

My kid is looking for a job in the next few months. She won't make much, but she knows there is value in this act of employment. She knows because she has examples, she has seen it in me and Dane and all of the people around her. She knows $12 isn't much but it's a start, and it all starts somewhere.

From the very beginning, half of the city of Baltimore isn't really considering how it starts. They are just wondering how it will all end.

It's hard to be at home with this discontent, even if it doesn't reach me directly in my small circle. I can't abide throwing away an entire population of people, and yet that's what we are doing: gentrifying from the Harbor out until we are financially, racially, and socially segregated. I don't know what the answer is. I just know that if we don't seek out solutions and go deeper than flipping some rowhomes and starting a community garden, nothing will get better. And that's what's wrong with Baltimore.

(photo source)

(also, mad love to an essay in The Baltimore Chop which prompted this blog and these thoughts.)


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