Skip to main content

In Baltimore, riots appear where urban renewal didn't

This piece originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.


Volunteers clean up a CVS drugstore in Baltimore that was looted and burned Monday night. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Tanishia Lewis and her young children were filling trash bags in a parking lot Tuesday, joining others who hoped to quickly erase the scars left by rioters. But the problems in her West Baltimore neighborhood run much deeper than a night of burning and looting, and they won’t be easily scrubbed away.

“I have to go outside my community to go to the supermarket,” she said. “I don’t feel safe for my kids playing in the playground.

“There are some really good people here,” said Lewis, 31, who works for a nonprofit-community group and still lives in the neighborhood where she grew up. But “there’s no investment.”

Downtown Baltimore has seen large-scale projects dating to the 1990s — a popular aquarium and a baseball stadium, to name two — that have turned the Inner Harbor into a prime example of urban renewal, admired and imitated by city planners around the nation.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times) National Guard troops deploy outside Baltimore City Hall, where people protested the mayor's handling of recent events.

But the poor neighborhoods of West Baltimore that formed the epicenter of this week’s riots could be mistaken for parts of Detroit. Block upon block of three-story row houses are vacant, with smashed-in windows, boarded doors and garbage.

In the commercial blocks, a yellow ribbon promising “Coming soon: 99 cent store!” is faded and frayed, placed above one of many storefronts that have only shards of glass in the window frame. A few shops that remain in business cash checks, sell discount cellphone plans and rent furniture.

Until Monday, there had been one bright spot amid the despair: a relatively new CVS pharmacy, hardly a luxury showcase but good enough to fill prescriptions and sell milk in a neighborhood that had little.

Now, after it was burned by rioters Monday, it is a bleak symbol, the spot where angry protesters, police in riot gear and live-television trucks converge to tell a story of an American city in distress.

“This is a ghost town. The only store we have, they burned down,” said Ashley Ewell, a 27-year-old debt consolidator, standing near looters this week.

It’s no coincidence that the incident that touched off the unrest happened just six blocks from the CVS. Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who died last week after he was injured in police custody, was a product of this neighborhood, too.

Gray is the latest and most incendiary example of the distrust between police and many black Americans. Some Baltimore residents, echoing complaints from other troubled cities, say the police act almost as a force of occupiers instead of public servants.

“They’re more like an overseer,” said Damon Speaks, a black property manager here who said police once chased him, rather than a white burglar, when he reported that an intruder had broken into one of his buildings.

This neighborhood, site of the gritty television drama “The Wire,” has followed a familiar pattern of decay: a decline of good jobs, interstate highways that ripped across historical enclaves and public housing that became magnets for crime.

Generations who have grown up here in poverty say the 1968 riots after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination have become part of the neighborhood’s narrative, and the community has never fully recovered.

For four days that year, the city was under virtual siege, with bombs going off, buildings burning and looters rampaging. There were hundreds of injuries and thousands of arrests, and federal troops were called in to bring the city under control.

“History repeats itself, I guess,” said Briana Moore, 22, a junior at Coppin State University in Baltimore, as looters raided nearby Mondawmin Mall. “To me this is stupid. This is not going to solve anything. Breaking into malls, breaking into liquor stores, what does this have to do with Freddie Gray? This ain’t about justice no more.”

Many of the African Americans who have pushed themselves out of poverty have moved to middle-class suburbs in Baltimore County. That has left the local population even more isolated.

Priya Krishnakumar

The West Baltimore neighborhoods where the worst rioting happened — Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park — are drowning in some of the deepest poverty in one of the nation’s poorest cities. About a third of buildings are vacant or abandoned, according to a Justice Policy Institute study. More than half the residents aren’t working; about a quarter receive welfare.

Thurgood Marshall’s path from an elementary school in the area to the Supreme Court is celebrated on the “local heritage trail,” but most current residents don’t even finish high school.

About half the high-school students are chronically absent, and about 60 percent of adults don’t have a high-school diploma. The area has the highest incarceration rate in the state and one of the highest rates of heroin addiction in the country.

Robert Everett, a 51-year-old construction worker, grew up hearing about the heyday of Pennsylvania Avenue, the neighborhood’s main artery, when it was filled with clubs featuring Cab Calloway and Fats Waller. A statue of Billie Holiday, who spent her childhood in Baltimore, stands near a theater where she performed.

“I ain’t ever seen nothing like this,” Everett said. “It’s crazy, man, just crazy.”


This piece originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Follow Noah Bierman on Twitter at @NoahBierman, Joe Tanfani at @JTanfani, and the Los Angeles Times at @LATimes.

Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

JPI's work

Through a combination of groundbreaking research, communications strategies and technical assistance, we inform advocates, policymakers and the media about fair and effective approaches to justice and community well-being.

Learn more »

Contribute

We envision a society with safe, equitable and healthy communities; just and effective solutions to social problems; and the use of incarceration only as a last resort. Please help us end the #IncarcerationGeneration with a generous contribution.

Contribute »

Sign up for our newsletter