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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Baltimore past and present




     The picture above was yesterday at the corner of Pennsylvania and North Avenue.  It is an unfortunate image for a community that was once the thriving hub of African American culture in Baltimore in the 1940's and 1950's.  The picture below was from that area in the 1950's.




    The area theaters hosted performances from Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, Eubie Blake and Nat King Cole.  West Baltimore was also the home to civil rights leaders such as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Mitchell. So how did things change from the past to what we saw this week?
      From 2001 to 2011 I worked coordinating support services for grandparents raising grandchildren in Baltimore.  This work took me into the communities of Baltimore that most of us never visit.  For most of us Baltimore is the Inner Harbor, Oriole Park and maybe Johns Hopkins.  But for 10 years I got to see the communities in Baltimore that have been devastated by drugs and crime.   I can't remember how many times I have driven along North Avenue and seen the active drug trade being played out along that avenue.  I maybe the only Columbian who has been in the CVS that burned yesterday.
      In talking with the grandparents in our support groups, many of which great grandparents in their 60's, 70's and 80's, I heard how their growing up years in Baltimore would probably resemble many of our memories.   I learned that riding bikes in the alleys of Baltimore was safe and the closest thing to getting in trouble was opening a water hydrant on a hot summer day.   I remember hearing the reality that you had to be good because every mother in the neighborhood knew who  your mother was and would report any misbehavior before you got home.
      Well paying union blue collar jobs brought many of the parents of these grandparents to Baltimore.  Bethlehem Steel, General Motors and the Port of Baltimore were employers that provided their families a middle class life with intact families.  That was the Baltimore of the past that has largely disappeared.  During the 1960's many middle class African American families began leaving West Baltimore for safer communities in Baltimore County like Randallstown.  As the stable jobs disappeared drugs like heroin and then crack cocaine became more common in these communities.  Police enforcement in an effort to control this drug problem created increasing tensions between the police and the community.  What were once thriving communities with a rich culture became streets of boarded up row homes.  Drug turf was protected by growing gangs.  The imprisonment of African American men caught up in the drug wars left most families broken with single mothers and grandmothers struggling to raise their children.
     So where does that all leave Baltimore today?  Answers will be hard to come by but the recent events will at least open our eyes to realization that many of the systems that create community stability in Baltimore are broken and have been for a long time.  Two prominent areas that will have to be addressed are the development of more employment opportunities and a recognition that dealing with the drug problem in Baltimore has to be more comprehensive than arrest and imprisonment.   Maybe it is time to really provide the needed drug treatment resources that have been underfunded with those dollars going to the cost of maintaining prisons.

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