I drove through West Baltimore today, and was really struck by how “normal” everything was. It was the usual scene: spiffily dressed people heading to church, the Baltimore Sun vendors on the street corners, dogwoods blooming, lawnmowers, even a yard sale. The Shoppers grocery store at Mondawmin Mall has reopened (the header photo shows what the mall entrance looks like today).
The only thing that seemed out of the ordinary was the huge armored vehicle that was parked on the south side of Mondawmin Mall, and the six guys wearing fatigues and carrying assault rifles who were milling about around it, bored, smoking a cigarette, waving to people driving by. While I waited at the stoplight, I saw one car park and a beautiful black woman in a fuschia halter-top maxi dress get out, and go up to one of the National Guardsmen and give him a huge hug.
While I am as grateful as anyone for a “return to normalcy”– or the establishment of “a new normal,” as my neighborhood association president likes to remind us in the daily email updates he’s been sending since last weekend–it does strike me that someone coming to Baltimore right now may not actually see any evidence of last week’s violence, aside from the active presence of the National Guard. (Right now, there is one National Guard person here for every 200 Baltimore residents. Now that seems like a bit of overkill. Hands up! Don’t shoot!)
Friends of mine who were in L.A. during the Rodney King riots in 1992 tell me that they remember having similar experiences then: that they were struck by how “normal” everything was, when everything they were being told made them think that the whole city was exploding in flames and violence.
But it also got me thinking that part of the reason why Baltimore really doesn’t look that different right now is because it actually isn’t that different.
A friend of mine told me about a reporter he saw on some national news network (either Fox News or CNN) who was walking down North Avenue last Tuesday or Wednesday and remarked on the severity of the devastation from Monday’s rioting, indicating all the boarded up homes and storefronts along the street.
What the reporter didn’t realize that all those storefronts and homes had already been boarded up– many, for years.
According to a story appearing in the Sun today (great minds think alike!), the number of vacant homes between 1990 and 2010 has gone from 9% of the city’s homes– already a shocking percentage– to over 15%. Just try to imagine that. Imagine boarding up the one out of every eight houses on your street, and then doing that across every street in your entire town or city. Not all of the vacant homes are boarded up, of course. But you get my point. This is what white flight and urban disinvestment look like. You can imagine what it must feel like. What kind of life this would be.
This is a city that was already devastated, long before the death of Freddie Gray brought our little backwater East Coast city into the national spotlight. That’s why so many of us are hoping that last week’s events will, in fact, lead to a new normal.
Header photo: Scott Dance, Baltimore Sun