A Tale of Two Baltimores

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— I love my city. I graduated from Baltimore City Public Schools, Baltimore City Community College and the University of Baltimore School of Business and Law Schools. I live, raised a son, attend church, own a home and businesses, volunteer, mentor and vote in Baltimore. Growing up, I worked in my father’s record store on W. North Avenue, two blocks from Penn North. And my roots are here. Simply put: I am well vested in and committed to my city.

A beautiful and unique city, Baltimore is rich in many ways – its people, culture, heritage, resources, talent and history. Truly Charm City USA. And as a lifelong resident, I’ve experienced its charm, beauty and wealth. I always relish in hearing stories from my parents, grandparents and other elders of Pennsylvania Avenue where such Baltimore legends – Eubie Blake, Billie Holliday, Cab Calloway – and other Black entertainers, such as James Brown, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole performed when they visited Baltimore. I’m engaged when I attend local plays which portray “The Avenue” of yesteryear.

We’re very resilient, hardworking people and I come from a long line of proud, blue collar workers: Grandparents, all City homeowners were a retired domestic and City public works employee; and a YMCA maintenance supervisor and a factory worker. They loved Baltimore. And my mother’s a retired postal worker. However, Baltimore’s uniqueness is awkwardly mired in traditionalism and an Eastside/Westside dichotomy often to the detriment of our youth. Last week’s events echoed the sentiments many have had for years. Although traditionally a blue collar town, much of the economic richness of Baltimore has been reserved for the “elite”.

Due to a disparity of wealth, the quality of life for many has diminished since I was a child and young adult. I remember as a little girl going to a baseball game at Memorial Stadium with my uncle and his family, who lived in the Penn North area. It was an enjoyable and affordable family outing. Not so now. The residents of Penn North are within sight but not within reach of attending baseball and football games at our stadiums. Because of the escalated ticket prices, they’ve never been to a game; they simply cannot afford the tickets. To make matters worse, during the protests, people from surrounding counties and other states, from as far away as Boston, did what’s typical: Come into OUR City; attend the Orioles game; disrespect US and call US racist names; and then leave OUR City without depositing any wealth into our urban areas. Again, these events are reserved for the “elite”. One Baltimore???

White supremacy and racism are real and in some ways, the opportunities for many Blacks in Baltimore are worse now than just a few decades ago. For example, as a high school graduate in the 1980s, I received my first corporate job with an insurance company in downtown Baltimore. And I had a number of Black coworkers. Fast forward to 1996: While working at another insurance company, USF&G, as a temp while studying for the Bar exam, I applied for a job but could not even get an interview although seated immediately outside the Human Resource coordinator’s office. Three years later in my law practice, I quietly settled a discrimination case for a lady passed over for promotions given to White employees who she’d trained during her 20 plus years at USF&G.

These incidents were not germane to me; during the same timeframe: An employee at USF&G put a slice of “rotten” watermelon on his Black male co-worker’s desk when he stepped away, the only Black in the department. A large securities firm headquartered downtown, despite the Black employees being highly qualified, well dressed and very professional, had no Black employees above a certain level (thick glass ceiling). In 2002, a friend’s former employer, a cable company, had a massive layoff without notice which included mostly Blacks. A close friend worked in IT for a pension management firm with 120 employees but only 5 Blacks. More recently, I applied for positions with insurance and other companies in and around the city, but did not even receive an interview. Not one, despite my credentials, previous insurance experience and hometown loyalty. So, I can only imagine what residents of Penn North feel, especially those without education or experience or who may have a criminal record. And it’s not inconceivable for companies located here to employ few, if any, Black residents. Who are the REAL opportunists?

I hope and pray that the businesses on the (literally) two corners of Penn North (but which the media dubbed a “War/Combat Zone”) reopen. The reality is due to redlining, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to purchase affordable insurance coverage. Yet, on the city’s landscape are skyscrapers housing insurance and other companies in the backdrop of blocks and blocks of boarded up, abandoned houses. Empowerment Zone dollars from the Clinton Administration were allocated for rebuilding certain areas. But little revitalization was done to the Penn North (Gilmore Homes) area which never fully recovered from the 1968 riots. And it’s rumored that the Obama Administration has promised funds, too. Déjà vu? To make matters worse, corporations or quasi corporations such as Johns Hopkins Hospital force people from their homes where they’ve lived for generations without adequate compensation under the guise of eminent domain/condemnation. And gentrification is in full effect. Focus has been on bringing people into the City instead of empowering people already in the City. #OneBaltimore.

I was fortunate enough to have been referred to my first employer by my teacher at my high school because of my grades. Some of my classmates had work study jobs with employers who later hired them full-time where they remained for years. These types of alliances work. However, although few companies are open to them, many ignore the City’s rich human resources, especially Black males. The media’s statistics on Black males in the Penn North area were some of the worst throughout the Diaspora: Unemployment twice that of the City’s; 1/3 of the Black men end up in prison at a point; 32% poverty level. And the media compared them with Black men in….Nigeria????

Unfortunately, due to the disparity and lack of access to wealth and opportunity, some of my friends had to leave Baltimore (and Maryland) for states such as Florida, Nevada, Texas and Wisconsin for better opportunity. But many of the disenfranchised are not able to do so. Nor do they want to. Baltimore is their (our) home. During the protests and curfew, the Orioles had to play without fans, businesses in Baltimore had to close early and bars and restaurants weren’t able to show patrons the Mayweather/Pacquo “fight of the Century.” Everyone, including the Os lost money and we all heard their cries. African Americans’ GDP is estimated at 2.12 trillion dollars. Do we realize how much power that is? If only we could harness and manage it. I often believe our ancestors had it right to boycott because clearly, Economics is the only voice many people hear and Green the only color they see.