Amurrrica Has Failed
On May 15, 1911, Baltimore Mayor J. Barry Mahool, who was known as an earnest advocate of good government, women's suffrage, and social justice, signed into law "an ordinance for preserving peace, preventing conflict and ill feeling between the white and colored races in Baltimore city, and promoting the general welfare of the city by providing, so far as practicable, for the use of separate blocks by white and colored people for residences, churches and schools."(p. 289)
Civilization recedes to the mean.
Obviously the white leaders of Baltimore, circa 1910, had empirical evidence of what could be unleashed if mechanisms weren’t put in place to safeguard the civilization they created. Returning to Garrett Power’s 1983 essay, we learn:
Between 1880 and 1900 Baltimore's black population increased 47% from 54,000 to 79,000. During this same period, the city's white population was increasing by 54%. Hence, while the black population was increasing by 25,000 people, the proportion of blacks in the population was on a slight decline.
Negro newcomers with little money and limited job opportunities sought out the cheapest housing in town. They rented shanties and doubled up in small houses, resulting in Baltimore's first sizeable slums. The first slum to reach maturity was "Pigtown" in Southwest Baltimore. A contemporaneous account from 1892 describes it as follows:
Open drains, great lots filled with high weeds, ashes and garbage accumulated in the alleyways, cellars filled with filthy black water, houses that are total strangers to the touch of whitewash or scrubbing brush, human bodies that have been strangers for months to soap and water, villainous looking negroes who loiter and sleep around the street corners and never work; vile and vicious women, with but a smock to cover their black nakedness, lounging in the doorways or squatting upon the steps, hurling foul epithets at every passerby; foul streets, foul people, in foul tenements filled with foul air; that's "Pigtown." (p. 290)
But during and immediately following World War II, an expanding black population created explosive housing pressures. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, the demand for housing finally resulted in black settlement in adjacent white areas to the west of Fulton.
Following a pattern long established in Baltimore race relations, when blacks moved in, whites rapidly moved out. One black resident of the area remembers this episode of white flight:
Black people started moving out of confined areas somewhere around 1947 or 1948, but what would happen was that whites would evacuate a block or two blocks, and black people would move in. The evacuation would take place first. I remember streets like Fulton Avenue, Monroe Street – they were once totally white, and they went through the transition and changed somewhere between 1946 and 1949 – that was the time I was in the service. When I went in, there were no black people and when I came out, they were black streets… But it wasn’t integration… it was an evacuation.While the movement of the color line brought new housing opportunities to some, the older section of black homes east of Fulton Avenue deteriorated in the post-World War II period. A 1944 Baltimore Sun reporter wrote: “Homes are very badly in need of repair and paint; dead rats lie in the street where they were crushed by automobiles; alleys are littered with debris and foul-smelling garbage; lots where homes formerly stood are covered with a thick layer of ashes.” (p. 210 – 211)
What was it they knew?
You don't want people being murdered on your streets, regardless of the reason or cause," said Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a consortium of business executives.
The group has pumped $350,000 into various crime-fighting efforts, studies and the hiring of a prosecutor to target gun offenders, arguing that the high homicide rate and violent reputation has hurt Baltimore's standing in the business community.
For the most part, homicides are concentrated in depressed areas of the city, away from downtown and many residential areas. But Hutchinson said he feels uneasy walking in parts of other cities, such as Atlanta and New Orleans, and imagines that visitors feel the same about Baltimore.
The homicide rate, he said, "has a tremendous psychological impact outside the city."
The young man is tapping the name on the concrete wall of 2510 E. Biddle St., tapping it insistently, emphatically, as he makes his point. This name, spray-painted here and across the street and around the corner, these words, "1 Love Dre 1975-1999," were not left randomly to disrespect property and community.
"Don't disrespect this by calling it graffiti," he says. "This is a piece of my heart right here."
His name is Troy, and pieces of his heart are all around East Biddle Street and Milton Avenue: "RIP Dre The good die young. Last days."
Tombstones cover one wall across the street: Dre, Knuckles, Shawn, Wayne, all of them gone, but not forgotten. Remembered by Troy and other young men in the one public way they feel they are allowed.
"All We Got Is Us," they have painted on one wall.
They all know one another. They grew up together, the dope dealers and gunslingers, friends and relatives, all of them running together in neighborhoods as close-knit and tight as any other. Only here the scourge of drugs and crime and urban decay has settled in for a long, long stay. Theirs is a world of boarded-up homes and burned out rowhouses and this question: "I wonder if heaven got a ghetto?"
On some walls, the names overlap, fresh tags stark against older ones faded by rain and sun and time, reminders of the more than 3,000 people killed in Baltimore in the last 10 years. These young men live with that violence, locked as they are in an embrace of life and death and memory and respect.
Dre's friends say they would never think of going to a graveyard, sitting down with a bouquet of flowers and weeping. That is not their way. A candlelight vigil? Be real, they say. Imagine a dozen young black men gathering in a rough part of town to remember a dead friend. The police cars would be rolling up. So, none of that.
But this you can do, they say, paint a name on a wall, smoke some marijuana, drink a 40-ounce or two of malt liquor and pour one out for Dre, or Shawn, and stand on the spot where a bullet took his life.
Across town, the brothers at Edmondson and Fulton avenues are working the cell phones like mad. Everybody has one. They are constantly flipping them open, then closing them, flipping them open again for a 15-second conversation.
Not much to say. The walls say it all. "RIP Duncan 99; RIP T-Kelly 00; RIP Vic 01," each name penned on a separate brick.
A few feet away, Lil Tee-Tie has a tag. He's still alive. But gone. Most likely for the rest of his life. He's doing triple life plus 60 years.
They remember their own.
"10-15 Years From Now Yall Gonna Miss A Nigga Like Duncan." That's Shine's message to the world, his last word about his cousin.
At East Preston and Ensor streets, Mo, Gillette, Lou and the others have gone beyond the RIP theme. They already have a wall dedicated to "Lipton" and "T. J.
Money" and "Wilcox." Now they are leaving empty liquor and beer bottles on the stoop of the boarded up house where Mo spent the first 23 years of his life.
The neighborhood people covered the stoop with empty bottles. Then, they say, the police took every one. The young men brought more. And so it went. There might be 100 now, empty Hennesseys and Remy Martins, Steel Reserve 211s and Coronas. Mo left a magnum of Heineken.
"I know if they look down they're smiling because we ain't forgot them," says Gillette. "Every drink we tip out, they get some."
The American experiment has failed.