What West Baltimore Needs
I was walking with my family and some friends around our neighborhood last year when I heard someone utter that remark. As a white guy living in predominantly black West Baltimore, I was used to being mistaken for a cop or a drug buyer—but never for a tourist. Within minutes, though, as we rounded the next corner we encountered a group of people even whiter than us: a Scandinavian news crew filming a documentary. There were a lot of “tourists” around just then.
For a brief moment in 2015, it felt like my neighborhood was all anyone talked about. When a black man named Freddie Gray died in Baltimore police custody, protests broke out across my neighborhood. Eventually rioters burned down several buildings. Sandtown-Winchester—the community where Gray grew up, dealt drugs, and suffered his fatal injury in the back of a police van—was the subject of news stories and profiles in every imaginable outlet.
Some of those stories were worthwhile. But many fell back on uninformed canards: you could tell who had taken the time to ask questions, who had just grabbed the first person they saw on the street for a reaction quote, and who had not even bothered to leave the newsroom to do any reporting. The story of Sandtown became the story of American poverty, American race relations, American protest politics. It became, in short, about everything other than our neighborhood.
Yet the misery that erupted into violence in Sandtown was above all a local story—a story whose particularities have to be understood before any wider lessons can be drawn. For decades, Baltimore pursued policies, publicly and privately, that shattered Sandtown as a community. And for the neighborhood to recover, new policies that build rather than destroy, that humanize rather than degrade, are the only remedy.
The riot itself remains a prime example of misguided policy. As the city simmered after Freddie Gray’s death, all protests were canceled out of respect for Gray’s funeral that day. Yet when rumors of high school students causing a disturbance at a major traffic hub circulated on social media, the city responded by dispatching riot police and shutting down metro and bus service to that location—trapping thousands of students at that intersection just as school was letting out. (To this day, no city authority has taken responsibility for the decision to shut down the stop.) The riot was not about Gray; it broke out thanks to a botched response to civic tensions. Yet many commentators still speak as if the violence were a planned protest that grew out of control.
The circumstances of the riot were not the only thing misunderstood and oversimplified by people outside of the community. The needs of Sandtown in response to the unrest were also misjudged by many well-meaning people. To see the riot-stricken community cleaned up before noon the next day was heartening, as were the donations of food to help residents who couldn’t drive out to where grocery stores were still open. But outsiders’ enthusiasm quickly became counterproductive. Local leaders I knew and trusted struggled to keep up with a relentless barrage of emails, meetings, and phone calls, getting offers for sponsorship from multinational CEOs back-to-back with pitches from concerned suburbanites who had just seen the burning buildings on TV and felt inspired to help however they could. Civic programs that the community had been planning for months were instantly disrupted by ill-considered volunteer events that popped up overnight. One activist brought in his organization without any local partnerships and explained his decision by insisting that he hadn’t received a response to the single email he’d sent.
Along with eager but unhelpful outsiders, some surprising local faces turned up. Most folks around here with any sort of power or privilege use it to get out of Sandtown or to keep people from Sandtown far away. So it was curious to see a sudden proliferation of “community leaders”—some of whom were long known to have bad reputations within the community—once it became clear that the civic response was going to involve grant money.
From near and far, too many people who felt qualified to offer an opinion or exercise power to help didn’t take the time to appreciate the history that has shaped West Baltimore or the variety of people who have been working for decades to improve this place. Accounts of a place like Sandtown have to start with policies forged decades ago regarding redlining and lead paint—policies that handicapped the value of many residents’ homes or did likewise to their children’s brains. The harm is ongoing: conservatives can easily recognize how the welfare state disinclines people to work, but it is hard to blame recipients when most of the wealth transferred through government goes straight to property managers and hospitals, not to the people themselves, who have little opportunity to accumulate wealth. The institutions that are accessible to people in West Baltimore—primarily churches and gangs—are trusted because other institutions don’t maintain any reliable order or support.
Rebuilding institutions requires local leadership as well as outside aid. Great hay was made of some $130 million spent on a public-private partnership in the late 1990s and early 2000s to revitalize the neighborhood. Much of this money can still be seen in the homes that were rebuilt. You can walk around whole blocks that were vacant 30 years ago and that now have clean sidewalks, no drug traffic, and the sort of neighborliness that New Urbanism celebrates. As deep as the problems of Sandtown are, much good has been achieved using outside investment directed by people from within the community.
A friend of mine who was involved in many of the efforts back then recalls that he once told a major investor that the process was moving too slow. He regrets that statement now and emphatically believes that people should be given the opportunity to manage resources, develop knowledge, and build up leadership within the community on their own timeframe—not subject to the timelines of grant calendars or election cycles. If there really is a cultural malaise that keeps people trapped in a cycle of poverty—which many African-American residents of the community will affirm—then we should expect that tremendous investments of time, money, and energy in rebuilding the cultural and human infrastructure will be needed before Sandtown can flourish.
Some of these investments have already begun in and around West Baltimore—state funds to demolish vacant houses; a bike path along the route where an incomplete “Highway to Nowhere” once tore apart a strong middle-class black neighborhood; and something called an “Innovation Village,” which aims to attract new businesses to an area with few economic opportunities. But promises that these initiatives will be “community-led”—as politicians fall over themselves to affirm—will not be kept without accountability being demanded by both the powerful directing the work and the powerless who are its intended beneficiaries.
Throwing our hands up in despair at the culture that perpetuates poverty is not an option, especially not when there are still people in Sandtown and communities like it who are working to rebuild their institutions long after they could have escaped to the suburbs. There are community leaders like Elder C.W. Harris and Antoine Bennett, who are known and trusted in West Baltimore even if they aren’t responsive to every email from outside. By being present in the neighborhood themselves, they have sought to lead their neighbors into a life of greater responsibility. They’re building farms like Strength to Love II to employ citizens returning home from incarceration. They’re rehabbing homes for families to own, not just live in, through Habitat for Humanity. They’re preaching hard truths in churches and through programs like Men of Valuable Action to encourage families to take responsibility for themselves and their children.
Yet when social pressures and state policies alike encourage escape from bad neighborhoods, there are fewer people to support such work. A middle phalanx of good neighbors is needed to reinforce the leaders who are working overtime to minister to the people held captive by cycles of violence and addiction.
If we want to deal with the cultural forces that erode the stable institutions of family and work, we have to be willing to pay to build up the infrastructure that supports such things. Sandtown doesn’t need tourists, and it won’t be helped by short-term crisis management for problems that have been decades in the making. It needs civic rebuilding—but this won’t happen as long as policies are designed solely to extract people who don’t want to be consumed by street violence. The riot of April 27, 2015, and its aftermath revealed that when a place’s civic institutions are starved and poisoned for so long, the distrust that is sown will grow up into discord. Fortunately, there are tireless people of peace who are working to create a safe and healthy community—we simply have to find them, listen to them, and support them in what they do.
Matthew Loftus, who teaches health workers and practices family medicine in South Sudan, lived for six years in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in Baltimore. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.