Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Problems: Segregation

It's 2009. African-Americans are serving as both Mayor of Baltimore and President of the United States. Yet Baltimore is still a very segregated city, over 40 years after the Civil Rights and Fair Housing Acts were signed by Lyndon Johnson.

It's a problem that often dare not speak its name, at least loudly, in polite conversation around Charm City. But when it comes to where people live at least, there are very few neighborhoods in this city whose populations contain a substantial mix of white and African-American residents.

When looking for apartments around town last summer, my wife and I saw the issue, for once, when it could be most handily utilized by one landlord or another, pushed to the foreground. A friendly enough Roland Park resident who sought to rent us a nice apartment near Johns Hopkins University turned up the pressure with what he must have thought was the "light touch" after we told him we needed time to think about it:

"Well don't wait too long," he said, "because the way things work around here is that it's easy to rent an apartment in wintertime. But the closer you get to September, when all the college students come back, the harder it is to find a place. And pretty soon you're going to find yourself on Greenmount Ave, in the 'hood". (emphasis added)

To far too many of the white residents of the city, "Good neighborhoods" in Baltimore, are invariably white neighborhoods. Bad neighborhoods are invariably black or, now to a small but growing extent, Latino. These "definitions" provide easy to recognize visual cues for the supposed safety of a particular area: all you have to do is look out the window of your car and see what ethnic group surrounds you. These lazy simplifications do nothing to provide people any understanding of the social stratification taking place within the African-American community. Some black neighborhoods are wealthier and have much less crime than others, but many white residents of the city are unaware of this, choosing simply to look at the color of the neighborhood before making a sweeping judgment that it's not a place they want to be. Worse yet is that the connections needed to form a community that serves all of us, with institutions all of us can trust and rely on, are never made due to the fears and prejudgments of those who hold us back.

Yet despite the obviousness of the segregation that surrounds us every day, it is rarely if ever even talked about, let alone addressed in any substantive way that could bring about a more unified, integrated city. This needs to change.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Problems: Drugs

Perhaps the most obvious and urgent problem afflicting the City of Baltimore is its enormous heroin epidemic. The famous estimate that has stuck in the both the press and popular imagination is that there are approximately 50,000 full blown addicts in the city, or 1 out of every 10 adults. But there is no way of knowing whether this number is accurate, due to the fact that nobody has even done the legwork, aside from former Baltimore City Public Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein's estimate 3 years ago, to figure out what the true metrics and dimensions of the epidemic are. This is an unforgivable oversight in and of itself, but more on that later.

While we may not know the exact size of the drug problem confronting the city, the signs of it are everywhere. You cannot drive through either the east or west side of downtown without seeing numerous junkies, dealers, syringes on the pavement, drug addicted prostitutes soliciting, or all of the above. Beyond all these commonplace signs of a dysfunctional society is the violence and sky high murder rate that encircles a drug trade and culture where the only recourse for grievances, petty and otherwise, is gunfire.

The toll goes even further than those lives taken in the drug violence or the zombie lives being led by those addicted to heroin. The neighborhoods most heavily affected by the drug trade have had most other forms of commerce move out, with sensible business owners deciding that the profit potentials in these areas are simply not worth the constant threat of violence and robbery.

What's notable about the drug and specifically heroin problem in Baltimore though is that the scope of it is much greater than almost any other city in the country. There are areas of blight in our neighbors DC, Philly and New York, but nothing to the extent of the devastation seen on the East and West sides of the City. Add to that the excruciating difficulty of getting heroin addicts off their drug of choice and the city becomes saddled with "The Crisis That Keeps on Giving" for generations into the foreseeable future, along with the crime and HIV rates that come part and parcel to the heroin epidemic. Finding some way to lessen or halt this ongoing human tragedy needs to be Job #1 in the City of Baltimore

The Problems

Obviously, Baltimore has plenty of problems, so in an effort to try to get our heads around some of them I'll present what I deem to be most difficult issues facing the city, one by one. Many of these problems overlap, racial issues beget poverty which begets a drug trade for example. But for the sake of simplicity I'll try to tackle them one at a time as best I can. Then it's on to some solutions...