academia, baltimore

Show me the money

Yesterday morning, I was out walking the dog when I ran into one of my neighbors. He told me that his wife, a research physician at Johns Hopkins, had just scored a $57 million grant. I was thrilled and amazed by this news.

Later in the  day, I was brought to tears by a woman from McElderry Park, a neighborhood on the east side of Baltimore, who told me she’d tried—and failed—to get a grant to fund a trip she’d organized to take neighborhood kids to the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. This rodeo features black cowboys and cowgirls (is that really what they’re called?)—I’d never heard of it before. She (let’s call her Lisa) showed me pictures she took of the kids at the rodeo, the bronco riders, the kids playing back at home on the streets.

billpickettrodeo
Picture of Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo from bartable.com. Wish I could show you Lisa’s pictures instead!

“I’d been counting on getting this grant,” Lisa told me. “I thought I was going to get it.” But she didn’t. She was devastated.

Lisa had come to Loyola on a Saturday, as I had, to attend a workshop looking at ways for institutions to work better with communities. I was there by way of my new job at Loyola, which is all about figuring out how to connect teachers, researchers, and classrooms with communities. The workshop leaders, De’Amon Hodges and Caitlin Childs, suggested that institutions could lead better and accomplish more by “stepping back”: rather than swooping in like golden angels to “save” communities, institutions should listen to what the community wants to accomplish, responding to goals instead of needs, energies and capabilities and gifts instead of deficits and problems.

This approach, they  said, could break down barriers between institutions and communities and even lead, in De’Amon’s words, to celebration and “mutual delight.” It has an uninspiring name: assets-based community development (ABCD for short). But it’s  an inspiring approach nevertheless.

As I listened to De’Amon and Caitlin, and all of the people at the workshop, which included community activists, various Loyola people (including a few students), government officials & politicians, and people simply involved in their city neighborhoods, one thing really struck me. A big question people in the community have for institutions like Loyola is simply this: How can institutions say they are invested (in principle) in communities, when they don’t invest (in principal, i.e., dollars) in those communities? Specifically, to the people in those communities? Why is it so hard to channel institutional resources—starting with simple, cold, countable cash—to actual people?

This isn’t just about giving away money. It’s about exchanging assets. It’s about equity. If you’re going to study a community, why wouldn’t you pay the people you’re studying just as you would expect to get paid to participate in a medical trial or weight-loss study? If you’re going to ask people to give their time to tell their story or give you a tour of the neighborhood or supervise your students while they learn how to work with kids or with elderly folks or people recovering from addiction, why would you not pay them? Time, bodies, local knowledge, experience, even passion and desire: these are all assets, are they not? Shouldn’t they be recognized and valued, and made visible, as such?

This is, indeed, a conundrum. It brought to mind a meeting I had a couple of weeks ago with the director of our office of community service and advocacy at Loyola. We were discussing my budget (another uninspiring, but important, subject). She emphasized that we needed to find ways to pay community members directly, even though the university generally disapproved of this practice. I was initially horrified to learn of this. “We pay our community partners?” I remember asking.

“Yes,” she said. “We need to make sure that they remain whole, no matter what happens in their interactions with us.” Especially, when those interactions don’t work out as well as we hoped. Which inevitably happens.

I now understand this. But the stark necessity of it became clear to me yesterday. Lisa had told her story to our entire group, bringing us, as I said before, to tears. I introduced myself to her after the workshop ended, which is when she showed me the pictures. She had clearly brought them to the workshop because she needed to tell her story. She needed to show someone those pictures of the kids at the rodeo. This is what she needed to become whole: for someone to know.

She also said to me, “I came to this workshop today because I want to know, does Loyola know about McElderry Park?” This question stopped me in my tracks. Does Loyola know about this neighborhood? I honestly had no idea. I fumbled an answer about how I’d had students do service-learning at an after-school program in Collington Square, another East Side neighborhood which I thought was nearby (though I wasn’t exactly sure), and I knew we worked with other organizations in East Baltimore (though again, I wasn’t quite sure if any of them served people in her neighborhood). But I had to admit, I really didn’t know if Loyola really knew much about McElderry Park. Our efforts, frankly, are focused on neighborhoods closer to Loyola’s campus, and our relationships to specific organizations rather than to communities.

She pressed me further. “I want to know, what can Loyola do about this?” She picked up the rejection letter she had brought along with her pictures, a thin, letter-size envelope with a cellophane window and pre-printed postage, very official looking. “Does Loyola show people like me how to get grants like this?”

“Well, no,” I said.

But couldn’t we? Needn’t we? The dean of our business school told me a few weeks ago that she had helped orchestrate the establishment of a Kiva program in Baltimore (Kiva is a microlender that uses crowdfunding to fund small-scale entrepreneurs; they started in so-called developing countries but have started programs in economically depressed areas in the U.S.). That’s great. But are we just going to make the money available, or are we going to help people get it?

And how much money are we talking about? How much money can make a difference? During the workshop, De’Amon described his own foundation, The Learning Tree, which gives $500 to people with projects they want to pursue to benefit the community. During the workshop, he showed how even $500 can make a big difference.

So I asked Lisa how much money she’d applied for.

“$660,” she said. This number astonished me. It also made me recall my morning conversation with my neighbor about his wife’s $57,000,000 grant.

Johns Hopkins Hospital is not far from McElderry Park. In fact, the hospital campus forms the western border of the neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that was hit hard by the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, and remains contested gang territory. Many blame Johns Hopkins directly for some of the problems suffered by the neighborhood. Despite that, residents have doggedly remained, turning vacant lots into community gardens, blighted properties into murals, publishing a great neighborhood newspaper—and, I discovered, taking their kids to the rodeo.

rcp_081012_8585
McElderry Park, photo by Rob Cardillo (robcardillo.wordpress.com).

 

This juxtaposition got me wondering about the actual difference between institutional and community resources. So I did some research (that skill is one of my assets, right?) And here’s what I found.

In 2013, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine received over  $400,000,000from the National Institutes of Health alone. In the same year, demographic info on McElderry Park set the average home price at about $50,000, average annual income less than that. I’m not sure how much money is invested in the community in the form of schools, urban infrastructure, and social/community services, but I’m sure it comes nowhere close to $400 million dollars.

jhu
Research funding received by Johns Hopkins in 2013 and 2014 from the National Institutes of Health, from Johns Hopkins Medicine at a Glance 2014-2015, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org.
32109
2013 house values in McElderry Park, from http://www.city-data.com.

I find it interesting that the JHU graphic states that the grant money enables them to “study” over 8 million patients worldwide. Does that actually mean they are serving them, or just studying them? And I’m also curious to know, how many of those 8 million live in McElderry Park? How many of them aren’t being served because they can’t afford to pay? Maybe one of you reading this can provide some heartening answers.

Now, Loyola doesn’t get anywhere near this kind of research investment. But the disparity between the resources we have and the financial resources many in our community have access to still raises the same questions. We need to figure out a better way to get resources to people in the community who have ideas and energy and passion to make the world—their world, our world—a better place.

So, I have it in my head now to establish some kind of grantwriting workshop for community members, maybe bringing some faculty and students in the business school, but also writing, English, communication together to have workshops with people seeking grants. Nothing particularly glamorous, but obviously, necessary. Especially if they’re going to have any chance at getting those Kiva grants.

And, a coda. In this new job I am constantly reminded of community assets, assets that accrue to me and my own work. I mentioned earlier that I’d never heard of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. Who knew that there was a black rodeo circuit—and that there’s actually a rodeo in Maryland every year featuring black riders and wranglers? I teach a course on the American West, and have always been interested in the unexpected ways that ethnic and racial minorities participate in American history and culture. Lisa gave me something great I can now bring into my course on the West, and maybe incorporate into future research. I’m chagrined that I did not even thank Lisa for this gift during our brief conversation. But I hope to make it up to her someday.

 

 

Advertisements
baltimore, doing

You’re Off to Great Places! A tour of gay Baltimore

Over the weekend, I went on a tour, organized by the historic preservation organization Baltimore Heritage, of LGBTQ Mount Vernon, the Baltimore neighborhood that is just south of where I live. Illuminating, fun, and hot! But totally worth it. My “co-blogger internet friend” (her descriptor) Kate Drabinski, whom I physically met for the first time on this tour, was one of the co-leaders, along with various longtime members of the LGBTQ community in Baltimore. Here’s a gallery of photos from the tour:

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau (you guessed it, a French philosopher) writes that when one walks in the city, one is enacting “a space of enunciation”–one is speaking, “acting-out” a place by walking through it. By walking, we were announcing and speaking, with our feet, a history that many in the neighborhood– including myself– did not know.

Because it was a hot day, not many were out and about. But a few people who were hanging out on corners and parks or just walking by asked us who we were and what we were doing. One guy who was moving into a building that was a stop on the tour said, “Seriously? This building is historic? That is so cool!” Why, yes. Yes, it is.

academia, baltimore, links, print

From the hive mind: “print culture” and beyond

The term “print culture” is being bandied about a lot among grad-student types these days. I heard it used a lot when we were interviewing candidates for jobs, I hear it when I go to conferences, I see it all over the place in CFPs (calls for papers) and conference announcements.

Most of the time, people seem to be using “print culture” just to mean “stuff in print that some people might not think is literature”– that is, magazines, advertisements, newspapers, dictionaries, instruction manuals, and so on. But “print culture” is an inadequate term for what I think people are really talking about these days, which means, culture that can be examined as literature (meaning, analyzed and discussed in the way we analyze & discuss poems, fiction, and drama) but is not literary. This includes printed things like ads and dictionaries, but also, things like comic strips, which I’m studying right now, but also, social media (which includes words and language but is not “print,” per se), television, and the like.

And we also have what’s called “book culture,” which may or may not be dependent on print per se. For example, libraries are all about books, how they are collected, organized, and used; however, the fact that the books are printed is only just one element of their “bookishness.” Many have talked about the odor of books as a key aspect of book culture. And so on.

For some reason, I ran across a number of things today that address these questions, and found their juxtapositions interesting to think about. Here are the two that really got my attention:

  • Article in Baltimore Brew depicting scribal culture in books placed in parks– in Sandtown (Freddie Gray’s neighborhood) and Stony Run (a block from Loyola, used by well-off folks in Guilford, Roland Park, and Homeland neighborhoods)
  • Edith Wharton reviewing the Starbucks that is now located in her old childhood home in NYC, courtesy of TheToast.net–literary art meets flat whites and skinny lattés.

I don’t have time to post more than just the links, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on what they say about the literary, the literate, and book culture, either in the comments below or on Facebook.

(Note: if you want to comment without a WordPress account, you can– I think you just have to click on the “Change” link in the comment window and fill in your email address.)

baltimore

West Baltimore, Sunday morning

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.

2725-2731 W. North Avenue, a mile west of the intersection of Pennsylvania Ave. and North Ave. that was the starting point of many of the demonstrations during the past week. Photo courtesy https://slumlordwatch.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/reader-submitted-blight-2725-to-2731-w-north-avenue/
2725-2731 W. North Avenue, a mile west of the intersection of Pennsylvania Ave. and North Ave. that was the starting point of many of the demonstrations during the past week. Photo taken in 2013. Courtesy https://slumlordwatch.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/reader-submitted-blight-2725-to-2731-w-north-avenue/

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

baltimore

Motorcycle Police Heading East on Orleans Over I83

I just “met” Kate online after following her blog off and on for a couple years. And unlike me, she actually has been attending the demonstrations, even though she says she hates crowds! (I can’t make that excuse.) Her account of last night’s peaceful protests– which received little to no news coverage, from what I can see– underscore how problematic are the relationships between power, authority, race, and class in this country and especially in Baltimore.

What I Saw Riding My Bike Around Today

Motorcycle Police Heading East on Orleans Over I83I had a bunch of meetings on Friday, so after spending the morning doing a wee bit of writing, I hopped on the bike and headed down to the west side to catch the shuttle to work. Because the police state that is Baltimore-under-curfew is confined to only certain neighborhoods, my ride downtown through Charles Village, Station North, and Mount Vernon was fairly cop-free, until I took the right and left toward Lexington Market.

View original post 602 more words

baltimore

If you’re staying safe, doesn’t that mean you’re afraid?

In writing about what is happening here in Baltimore over the past few days, I have been trying to humanize an event that many find baffling and frightening. I am also trying to respond to those for whom Freddie Gray has become an “issue” or a “cause”: #FreddieGray. In doing so, I’ve found it ironic, and perhaps some of you do as well, that I have not actually discussed Freddie Gray, or what happened to him.

Well, I didn’t know Freddie Gray. I am also not sure what happened to him, though I certainly have strong suspicions. Here’s what I am sure of. I am sure that he was just as complicated and as loved and as flawed as any of us. I am sure that he did not deserve to die. I am sure that the police officers involved in his arrest and that fateful ride in police transport did not intend to kill him, even though I am also positive that these officers did intend to hurt him. I am also pretty sure that they– or some of them, anyway–did not see Freddie Gray as fully human.

Part of my reluctance to speak about Freddie Gray, ironically, comes from a deep-seated recognition that I can never “know” him. And to add another layer of irony, to me, this is a recognition of his humanity. We like to think that we can sympathize, even empathize, with other people. This is what makes human beings social creatures. But sometimes it is also important to recognize what we cannot know about another person, even if that person is your neighbor.

One of my friends and colleagues at Loyola aptly described my neighborhood, Bolton Hill, as “radically adjacent” to the events of recent days. I mentioned in an earlier post that while Bolton Hill is on the west side of town, it is not West Baltimore. But West Baltimore begins a block or two as the crow flies from my house. Geographically, we are neighbors. But many things separate us in ways that make it seem disingenuous or simply presumptuous to attempt to speak for him, or even speak on his behalf.

Another Loyola colleague, Elizabeth Kennedy, also lives in Bolton Hill, and in a letter she wrote to her students the morning after violence broke out here on Monday, she expressed better than I ever could what separates us from many of our neighbors:

Though physically proximate, there is an incomprehensible chasm between the life I lead, and the relationship I have with Baltimore City, from those in Sandtown, Penn-North, and all of West (and many other parts of) Baltimore.

Like many of you I am sure, I received many notes from family and friends yesterday to “stay safe.” However, what that means for me and what that means for my neighbors just blocks away are so different. Violence in these neighborhoods is a constant. Harassment by the police is constant. Being treated not worthy of protection by police is constant. A lack of jobs and adequate housing is constant.  Fear is constant. Uncertainty is constant. Crumbling schools are constant.

I cannot begin to truly understand what life is like for my “radically adjacent” neighbors. But I can try. I must try.

Yes, we must try. That trying, of course, also means recognizing our own position to our neighbors. Many of my neighbors from West Baltimore regard people from Bolton Hill with well-deserved suspicion. We enjoy the benefits of white privilege (I am just as much a beneficiary here as my white neighbors), benefits that are systematically denied to most African Americans. Our radical adjacency throws this difference in their faces.

Many of my white (and Asian, for that matter) neighbors understand this, but respond to it with fear. When we moved into our house, it had bars on all of the first-floor windows, and we got lots of advice about how to “stay safe.” To add to what Elizabeth said about that phrase, part of what makes it so rankling, especially when it comes from someone who lives outside of Baltimore, is that it responds to and exacerbates that fear. By saying “stay safe,” one is implying, “be afraid.” One stays safe from danger; danger is something to be feared. And this is exactly the wrong response to what is happening right now. I know people mean well when they tell me to stay safe. Or maybe they just don’t know what else to say. But we cannot live in fear if we are going to mend this city–or our country.

Until we removed the bars from our windows, I felt like I was confined to a prison where I was also the jailer. I was serving as the source of my own terror.

Part of what troubles me so much about the things I’ve been hearing and seeing in the media, and among my co-workers and friends and family, is how afraid everyone is.  This fear increasingly colors everything Americans do and say. Where we live. Whom we talk to. What we eat, even. This fear is poisonous.

Another expression of this fear, one that works hand-in-hand with that “stay safe” expression, is people’s insistence on calling the events taking place here “the Baltimore riots.” While I certainly do think that there were some rioters on Monday night, and also can attest to the fact that rioting took place, I would not say that Baltimore experienced a “riot.” Much less, “riots.” This word is a dehumanizing one, reducing individual rioters into a faceless mob of … well, black people. Note that the word “riot” is almost never applied to groups of white people wreaking havoc, as Chris Hayes has satirically shown on MSNBC’s All In.

Jeb Lund’s incendiary but insightful piece published in Rolling Stone on Tuesday explores the relationship between riots and fear, referring to Martin Luther King’s condemnation of riots as being something that “merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt.” This evocation, Lund points out, usually ignores what MLK goes on to say– that “it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society.” These conditions, Lund writes, produce all kinds of fears:

… endless things intensify the fears of the white community, and endless things relieve its guilt. Legal immigration intensifies its fears. Illegal immigration intensifies its fears. Gay marriage, mixed neighborhoods, higher college admission competition, Affirmative Action, welfare, banning assault rifles, UN environmental regulations, Muslims, saying “Happy Holidays,” unisex bathrooms, hashtags on coffee cups, a black kid with Skittles, a black kid with a toy gun, a black man with a toy gun in a store that sold toy guns, a black man with a broken taillight. And it doesn’t need help relieving its guilt. It will find a way. It will always find a way. That black kid with Skittles? He fought the armed domestic-abusing psychopath who stalked him for no reason. Those other black people? They didn’t obey.

I’m not asking people to feel guilty; but I do wish we could be less afraid. And if people do feel guilty, it sure would be nice if they could find ways to expiate their guilt without blaming the victim.

Some of you may find it puzzling or ironic that while I have documented the demonstrations and gatherings over recent days, I have not marched anywhere or demonstrated anything. (Well, I did participate in a march around campus at Loyola a few weeks ago, but that’s all.) I am not a demonstrator; I’m frankly not much of an activist. While I certainly recognize the role that organized (and disorganized, for that matter) protest has played in shaping history, I rarely feel compelled to participate.

In this case, for whatever reason, it bothers me that a person has become a cause. Of course it is important to understand that what happened to Freddie Gray is not an isolated instance, but one of many examples of police brutality– and racism, generally– that is also a poison in our society. #BlackLivesMatter. But I wonder if these protests, by drawing parallels between Freddie Gray and Michael Brown and Eric Garner and all the other black men who have been killed by policemen without cause, also erase their individuality, as well as the historical and geographical particularities of each instance.

To me, Freddie Gray is a human being. He was a neighbor. I may have been in line with him at the post office, or parked next to him at Mondawmin Mall. He may have driven down my street. Every time I think of him and the way he died, I feel the pain of grief. But I did not and could not have actually known him. That’s what’s making it hard for me to know what to do. In some ways, it’s simply been too painful for me to see people espousing the cause of Freddie Gray when I still can’t see him as anything but a person. I’m not exactly sure what I even mean by that last sentence, but these are the feelings I am trying to work out at the moment.

At Freddie Gray’s funeral, our much-beloved Representative Elijah Cummings asked, “Did anybody recognize Freddie when he was alive? Did you see him?” I did not recognize him. But I hope I did see him.

I’ve tried at least to present a human response to what may seem very alien and frightening. This response, like all things human, is contradictory and probably flawed in many ways. But I think we have to be honest about who we are and where we’re at– individually and as a society– before we can march forward. We must try.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to articulate a complete or coherent response to Freddie Gray’s death. The factors are complicated, and the issues (maddeningly) unresolved. There are also many much better equipped to provide this analysis, and who are already doing so: I’m linking to many of these sources in my Twitter feed, which I’ve included in the right sidebar of this blog (you can access the entire feed by clicking on the “Tweets” link, even if you’re not on Twitter). There, I have been passing along images and commentary that I think can help provide nuance or contrast to the prevailing script being rehearsed and performed by the media.

Here, I’ll continue to focus primarily on my own experiences, which I also hope are providing nuance and contrast to media accounts of the so-called “Baltimore riots.” Thanks to everyone for the positive feedback on Facebook and in email. More soon.

baltimore

Night falls, Wednesday

I hear no helicopters. I hear no sirens. Even though the curfew is not beginning for another 12 minutes, I’m oddly serene, not anxious at all about what will happen, as I’ve been for the past few days. Maybe it was today’s wonderful, youthful, peaceful demonstrations that have given me hope that perhaps we are starting a new chapter here. The past two nights it felt as though Matt & I were sitting vigil for our neighborhood, and our city, waiting tensely for bad things not to happen. Tonight, maybe I can actually get some sleep. Maybe I’ll have some dreams. I think I’ll go read a book now.

baltimore

What do you mean, nothing happened?

“It appears to have been a quiet night in Bolton Hill,” reported our neighborhood association president this morning.

“There has been no repeat of Monday’s violence,” reported the Washington Post.

Why?

Of course we know why. There had to have been “a very strong showing from police,” Fox News predictably concluded, noting that the streets, cleared of human activity after the 10 pm curfew began last night, were “eerily quiet.” This sentiment was echoed by the Baltimore Sun, which reported that “police … patrolled city streets with National Guard soldiers to maintain order.”

But this is what we heard. (Sorry– could not get the embedded video to work.) This, too. “It sounded like Artscape,” said one of my neighbors, who lives on the north side of Bolton Hill, near where the demonstrations were taking place.

Yes, police and National Guard were patrolling the streets. But so were the 12 O’Clock Boys. And so was the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. And even the Bloods and the Crips.

What is missing from press coverage of yesterday’s supposed non-events is the fact that it was the community that wrested control of our city back to itself. They turned violent rage into drumming and dancing. News of demonstrations put the city in virtual lockdown again Tuesday afternoon, but “nothing” came of it. Why? because a great deal happened to make sure nothing would.

Is this the kind of policing we really want or need?

Aside from a few lines in the Sun and brief mentions on NPR, I heard nothing about the community’s transformation of last nights events from confrontation into peace. What’s wrong with this picture?

baltimore

Yes, I’m fine.

Things were a little crazy last night, but we are all fine. My neighborhood, Bolton Hill, basically abuts West Baltimore, the area that experienced the most looting and violence last night. While Bolton Hill is on the West Side, it is not West Baltimore. Still, the small shopping center in my neighborhood (containing a grocery store, a hardware store, a laundromat, and a RiteAid), was looted– twice– yesterday. In the end, my neighbors confronted the looters and chased them away, apparently with the help of pepper spray, brooms, and gardening tools.

It was all scary, and sad. I am still processing what I think and feel about all this, and of course, “it” may not yet be over. So this post is a short one. But I wanted to tell a few stories that I suspect will be left out of the media coverage:

  • Aside from the shopping center, my neighborhood experienced NO property damage and NO injuries. This morning, when I drove off in my car, I realized that the passenger-side door was open, rattling in the frame. I stopped to close it and discovered that it was not latched– it was actually ajar. Yet not a penny was touched.
  • During the rioting (I still hesitate to call it a riot), the Pennsylvania Avenue Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the first public library open to African Americans, remained open to ensure the safety of members of the community. The library is located at the corner of Pennsylvania Ave. and North Ave., just a few blocks from my house, an intersection that was the center of one of the main confrontations between rioters and police. The Central/Main Branch, which was also at the center of another area of looting and violence, closed. I am not blaming them at all, just mentioning this to emphasize how brave the Penn Branch staff was to stay open. Here is a picture of their dedicated staff.
  • Red Emma’s, the anarchist book store that occupies another corner of the neighborhood, is also on North Ave. They are open today and offering free lunch to all school kids (Baltimore City schools are closed today). However, there is also a youth curfew in place from 5am-10pm, so I am not sure how many kids will be able to partake of the lunch. Still, we all appreciate the gesture.
  • This morning, I met members of the Bolton Hill women’s tennis team at a club in the suburbs north of the city, where we played our first match of “interclub” competition this spring. Needless to say, most of our opponents belong to country clubs. I was relieved that we were playing a tennis-only club today. Many of our opponents, like all of us on the Bolton Hill team, live in the city. It was really strange, but therapeutic, to be with my fellow neighbors today, engaging in friendly competition. We lost, but the camaraderie and the sight of my friends in sunglasses and tennis skirts was a welcome return to normalcy after a stressful and mostly sleepless night.
  • As I drove out of the neighborhood, the sky was a brilliant blue, dotted with fluffy clouds and abundant sunshine. The tulips are in riotous bloom, as are the redbud trees. It is beautiful here in Baltimore right now.
  • At the corner of North Ave. and Mt. Royal, I spotted one of the intersection’s regular panhandlers– a young, petite woman who holds a sign asking for help for “a homeless single mom.” She has beautiful strawberry-blonde hair and freckles, probably in her early thirties. She looks younger, but when you roll down your window you can see she is missing teeth and has many premature wrinkles. I try to give her a dollar or two every time I pass her– it always makes her cry. She usually recognizes me now, but always waits for me to signal her before coming over. Today, she heard me honk, and walked slowly up to me as I sat at the red light. She was already crying when she got up to my window. When I handed her a couple of bucks, I asked her how she did last night, and she lifted up her shades to reveal a huge, swollen black eye. “I can’t see,” she said. I’m not sure if she recognized me. I squeezed her hand and told her to take care. I wasn’t sure what else to say.

Here is a picture of the park across the street from my house. Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t Baltimore beautiful? This city is troubled. But I have to hope that we can get through this. #ThisIsMyBaltimore

4-28

baltimore, Weekly Poem Project

Weekly poem project: pantoum

I’ve been working on pantoums over the past week or so, and have my first one to share. It is the second of what may become a series of Baltimore poems.

It was provoked–“inspired” isn’t the right word–by this sign that was stuck on a lamppost on a street where I walk my dog pretty much every day:

warning
Lamppost warning, Dolphin St., Baltimore.

I had actually walked by this sign several times before I stopped to read it. It begins: “WARNING. On 8-29-14 a person was sexually harassed here.” (You can click on the image to read the rest of it.) I was suddenly reminded of something I’d seen some weeks earlier, probably right around the end of August, that I didn’t make much of at the time. Now it seemed much more important.

The more I thought about all of this the more I thought of the repeating lines of the pantoum: in case you don’t remember, the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the subsequent stanza. But enough of preliminaries. Here’s the poem:

SIGN (#thishappenshere)

A row of little linden trees march down
Along the sidewalk, turning gold in fall.
Amidst the shattered auto window glass,
A twisted piece of denim, a bit of lace.

Along the sidewalk, turning gold in fall,
The linden trees had seen what I had not.
A pair of cut-off shorts, a glimpse of lace
The trees could not protest, or intervene.

The linden trees could see what I could not.
Boys on dirt bikes, looking for some fun
The trees could not protest, or intervene.
Chanted, “We like them A-rab, Chinese, and white.”

Boys on dirt bikes, looking for some fun
They found a group of girls, a little drunk.
Shouted, “We like them A-rab, Chinese, and white.”
One pale, two dark-haired, dressed for Friday night.

They found a group of girls, a little drunk.
The girls were looking for some fun as well.
One white, two dark-haired, dressed for Friday night.
Some lipstick, just to bring to mind a kiss.

The girls were looking for some fun as well.
Two got away, but one got left behind.
Some lipstick, just to bring to mind a kiss,
Nightfall, trees, parked cars, no one saw.

Two got away, but one got left behind.
And here was left a trace of what went on
That night, between parked cars and linden trees.
But I didn’t know then what I know now.

I saw the traces, but they told me nothing.
The news came slowly to my ears, weeks later.
I didn’t know then what I’m sure of now.
And now just shattered auto glass remains.

I only heard about the girl weeks later
She’s gone now. Her clothing, too.
Just bits of shattered auto glass remain.
And still, the linden trees turn gold in fall.

I’m actually not sure what, if anything, I witnessed after the fact. I had simply assumed initially that someone had just thrown some old clothes out of their car onto the street. The amount of trash this street collects is kind of amazing. Tires, chicken dinners, blown-out umbrellas. Once someone left an entire TV box full of stuff, just chucked it onto the sidewalk. But somehow the sight of this sign brought this one piece of trash immediately to mind.

Maybe whatever happened here was purely consensual. Maybe I jumped to conclusions, what with all the news these days about sexual assaults on university campuses. (The drumbeat for change, unfortunately but predictably, seems to be fading quickly.) I definitely remembered the sign reading “assaulted,” not “harassed”: funny how memory works. But I suppose that in the end what actually happened isn’t so important.

Dolphin Street, where all this may or may not have happened, runs alongside the Fifth Regiment Armory Building, which now is the home for the Maryland National Guard but is also rented out for various sporting and social events. It was also the site of the 1912 Democratic National Convention, where Woodrow Wilson was nominated for president.

Fifth Regiment Armory Building, Baltimore.
Fifth Regiment Armory Building, Baltimore.

It’s weird to live in a place that has so many layers of history. I’m constantly reminded of history’s importance, but also, how easily things are forgotten– ignored– or simply paved over. As Natasha Trethewey implies with “Incident,” which I wrote about in my last post, the pantoum is strangely well suited for conveying the shifting memory of or perspectives on an event, a place, or a time.

All this makes me think about the park across the street from my house, of which I am the nominal caretaker. It also runs along Dolphin Street, also across from the Armory, and less than a block down the street from the sign that served as the occasion for my poem. It’s named after two African American shopkeepers who lived in my neighborhood, and was built on the site of what used to be a dairy farm. The grandson of one of the merchants still lives in the family house, with his wife Vanessa and his lovely daughter.

Contee-Parago Park, Baltimore. You can see the Armory in the background, to the right.
Contee-Parago Park, Baltimore. You can see the Armory in the background, to the right. My house is off the left side of the image, across the street. My neighbor’s house faces the park, to the left of the image.

When we moved into our house, the park was totally overgrown with poison ivy (I found out the hard way), the lights broken out, location for lots of drug drops and paid sex. It’s still kind of sad. We can’t afford to replace all the plants that get stolen every year, and none of us have time to water things as much as we should, but at least it bears some resemblance to a park. People sit in it now, especially on hot summer days. And we find fewer and fewer syringes and condoms in the beds during our biannual park cleanups. In ten years of living on this street, I’ve never actually seen anyone deal drugs or have sex in the park, but evidence gets left behind.

Unfortunately, the park seems to have been completely forgotten by the city. It took years of emails and phone calls before we could get anyone to replace the lights or to mow the grass. In the end, what worked was to insist on its historical importance, as the first Baltimore park named after one of its black citizens (it was established in 1971, three years after the race riots that resulted in the mass exodus of whites from the city). That got the lights fixed.

I don’t even know where to begin with the layers of irony here. I will just say this– it’s so Baltimore.