Baltimore: The Consequences of Planning That Isolates Neighborhoods

Cross-posted from the Safe Routes to School National Partnership

Photo: Everett Aaron Benjamin
Photo: Everett Aaron Benjamin

If you travel up North Mount Street between Laurens Street and Presbury Street you find the Gilmore Homes, now most infamously known as the place where Freddie Gray’s life began to slip away. I walked up North Mount, not shocked by what I saw, but filled with dismay.  You could not go one street without a burned out home, abandoned property, or empty lot.  Three corner stores represented the only nearby neighborhood grocers, and transit was scarce.

Yet, still this predominantly low-income, African American community was vibrantly hopeful. Folk were out on the stoop with barbecue and music; kids were out and about playing; and everyone was biking and walking. Yes, you read that correctly — biking and walking.

From the older gentlemen in their work attire to the cluster of young boys that directed us to the mural honoring Freddie Gray, to the scores of people who stopped by as we served food, water and medical supplies, biking and walking were everywhere.

Seeing this caused me to ask this question: How many of these people are faces in our data and how many of them are missing? In other words, what assumptions are we making in our program and policy strategy that causes us to miss the opportunity marker in who can be served and advocated for?

In Baltimore, the repercussions of eminent domain, freeway expansion, gentrification, foreclosures, and the dismantling of public housing have eliminated safe and healthy mobility for many underserved communities and cut them off from the ability to meet their basic needs. This was no accident or oversight.

In 1944, Robert Moses, a dominant national voice on the planning and build out of urban expressways was talking about slums and the poor people of color who inhabited them when he said, “the more of them that are wiped out the healthier Baltimore will be in the long run.” From 1951 to 1971, 80 to 90 percent of the 25,000 families displaced in Baltimore to build new highways, schools, and housing projects were black. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the evolution of these young and old residents’ mobility choice is rooted in the historical consequences of being cut off.

Baltimore is not new and Baltimore is not the only. The combating of violence, racial profiling, health disparities, low physical activity levels, food deserts and lack of neighborhood schools is rooted in the question of access. Does this community have access to its most basic needs and what have been the historical ramifications of these communities being cut off and disposed of? We know that people of color who are also low-income are more likely not to have a car, more likely to walk or bike to school and have taken up bicycling at a faster rate than white Americans from 2000 to 2009 — but do we know why and do we know the reverberating effects of that why?

Equity in place is not simply the maturation towards inclusion — it’s a tailored strategy that affords equal opportunity. As many of us grapple with the uprising in cities like Baltimore, it is important to recognize that ever-present disparities unquestionably play a triggering role. The recognition that those fires did not first start a couple of weeks ago is critical if we are to understand what the problems are without overlooking their complexity and origins. Though data identifies the problem, it’s the on-the-ground community building that brings the right solutions into focus. As advocates, we have to welcome the challenge of facing the history that ignited such disparities and make equity a priority.

  • sahra

    It’s not just the history that explains the “why” that is important, but also the present manifestations of the “how.” Just because you have a lot of biking and walking in that community, it doesn’t mean that people have freedom of mobility. As we know, law enforcement can be a great constraint on how freely young men, in particular, can move around in the streets. But so can gang territories and crime issues. People cannot get easily from A to B — they may have to take convoluted routes, avoid side streets and stick to large boulevards (or sometimes even certain sides of larger boulevards), avoid taking the same route every day so as not to be predictable (and vulnerable), avoid being out after dark, avoid walking alone, or drive if they need to get beyond a specific radius, particularly if they are young men. Addressing mobility in a real, lasting, and truly equitable way in troubled communities like Gray’s will necessitate advocates taking a deeper look at both the infrastructural and socio-economic constraints on mobility and how they impact how (and how far and how easily) people actually move around.

  • Maggie

    I’ve been wondering about job centers and commuting patterns in Baltimore too. It’s my understanding that you have a hollowed-out industrial core, downtown stadiums and offices that balance parking with transit access, pockets of revitalized residential areas in the city, compelling American historical sites, a fair number of hills, a world-class research university, but newer job centers like the NIH or NSA tend to be in suburban fortress compounds.

    Washington Post published a couple weeks ago that Freddie Gray grew up in an old rowhouse riddled with lead paint, followed by a (black) op-ed columnist who argued for razing parts of the old homes in Gray’s neighborhood; that’s what sparked my thinking on this.

  • Richard

    “If you travel up North Mount Street between Laurens Street and Presbury Street…..Three corner stores represented the only nearby neighborhood grocers, and transit was scarce.”

    I dont get how this area is poorly served by transit. It’s .3 miles from 2 subway stations. There is frequent bus service on North Avenue, Fulton Ave, Pennsylvania Ave, and Gilmor st. It’s a neighborhood with high walkability only 1.5 miles from the center of downtown. A little over a mile brings you to two different MARC stations with frequent train service to Washington DC.

    There are dozens of neighborhoods that were cut up by freeways in Baltimore. Dozens of neighborhoods that the city seems to have turned its back on. The area where Freddie Gray was killed is not one of them.

    In a city that only has one subway line, is rather spread out, and with poor bus coverage; it is hard to imagine a residential neighborhood with better transit than Sandtown.


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