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The Deep, Troubling Roots of Baltimore’s Decline

If we want to save Charm City, we must begin by reversing 100 years of segregation.

A group of volunteers walks down North Avenue looking for trash to clean up from Monday night’s riots, Baltimore, April 29, 2015. (Photo: Jamelle Bouie)

BALTIMORE—“We want people to register to vote, because that’s where the change is made,” said State Sen. Catherine Pugh, standing near the smoldering remains of the CVS on North Avenue, and handing voter registration forms to anyone who caught her eye. The street was thick with people—children on a day off from school, adults from the neighborhood, a few street musicians, an incense-waving activist, at least two men with bullhorns, and a gaggle of reporters—and it was a good day for any politician to show her face and shake a few hands. After handing a form to a young man and giving him a pen to fill it out, she turned back to finish her pitch for why this—more than ever—was the time for traditional political action. “I am a senator, I was a city council member. I know that by being there, it does make a difference, and if you don’t vote, it doesn’t happen.”

Pugh is a politician, and politicians—if they do anything—support the system they serve. But you can forgive the residents of West Baltimore—and East Baltimore, both united by huge blocks of long vacant homes and long boarded businesses—if they’re cynical about civic engagement. Since the civil rights movement, but especially since the 1968 riots—sparked by Martin Luther King’s assassination after 15 years of nonviolent protest—Baltimore has been a largely black city. This is mostly a function of population decline, stemming from the riots. From 1970 to 2000, the city’s population fell by nearly one-third, from 906,000 to 651,000. At the same time, the number of black residents rose. In 1950, just 24 percent of Baltimoreans were black. By 1980, it was 54 percent, and by 2000, it was 65 percent.

Now, Baltimore is a city of 620,000, and the large majority—63.7 percent—are black. And unlike Ferguson, where demographic strength lagged political representation, Baltimore’s black residents have turned their presence into black mayors, black city councils, and black representatives to Annapolis. Far from a rarity, black leadership in Baltimore is a given that even extends to the police. Throughout the 1980s, the city worked to bring black Americans on to the force and promote them up through the ranks. As writer Stacia Brown notes for the New Republic, “The city believed the presence of black people in politics and law enforcement could foster greater trust and more open communication between black citizens and their government.”

All of this was a vital and admirable contribution to the city’s civic life. And yet, the basic position of Baltimore’s low-income blacks didn’t change.


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In the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived before he died in police custody on April 12, one-half the residents are unemployed and one-third of the homes are vacant. Sixty percent of residents have less than a high school diploma, and the violent crime rate is among the highest in Baltimore. You can paint a similar picture for the neighborhoods and housing projects on the east side of the city as well. If you are poor and black in Charm City, your life—or at least your opportunity to have a better life—looks bleak.

But then, this is by design. In the early 20th century—as in many American cities—Baltimore civic leaders endorsed broad plans to “protect white neighborhoods” from black newcomers. The city was flush with waves of immigration—from abroad as well as the South—and more affluent blacks were leaving the older, poorer neighborhoods to move to predominantly white areas removed from the poverty and joblessness of the crowded slums. In short order, politicians and progressive reformers—motivated by benevolence, politics, and an en vogue scientific racism—endorsed segregation plans and racial covenants meant to cordon blacks—as well as Italian and Eastern European immigrants—on to small parts of land in the inner city.

By the 1930s, black Americans had grown to 20 percent of Baltimore’s population but were confined to 2 percent of the city’s landmass. And there was desperate need for new housing, as both formal and informal segregation kept blacks from expanding neighborhoods or moving into white areas (the same was increasingly less true of European immigrants, who—with upward mobility—could integrate into mainstream society). In the 1940s, local, state, and federal leaders pushed public housing to relieve the crisis. But it was segregated. Blacks would receive new housing in their neighborhoods, and working-class whites—in turn—would receive new homes in their own. Five of six public housing projects—McCulloch, Poe, Gilmor, Somerset, and Douglass—would be placed in the most dense black neighborhoods of East and West Baltimore. And while the war boom would deliver partial prosperity, many of these areas still lacked a stable employment base, even as they continued to grow with rapid influxes of new black residents.

Read the full article at Slate.

Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

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