I had a wonderful conversation last week with my friend Jason Weixelbaum. He’s got a doctorate in history, with a focus on when and how big changes happen. We talked about how economies experience regular waves over time, up and down. The history-watchers track those waves, calculate the average time between the crests, and then use that to predict how much more likely it gets each year that a big change will start.
We’re down way low on the graph in Baltimore. We don’t know if we’re at the bottom yet, but we know we must be close, that change has to come. We can feel the potential in the air, odds increasing every year. Question is, when the wave finally rises, will we ride it or will we be washed away? Will the children of Baltimore finally prosper or will they get pushed out?
Who is Baltimore FOR? Is it for its people, or is it for the rich landlords, be they…
- Slumlords like Jared Kushner, who keeps his publicly-subsidized apartments in the county in awful conditions (https://www.newsweek.com/jared-kushners-company-faced-fines-and-code-violations-700180) AND is the leader in our state for arresting tenants behind on the rent (https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/investigations/bs-md-kushner-arrests-20170812-story.html),
- Purveyors of overpriced drinks on clear-cut lawns that used to be beautiful waterfront nature parks (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10216858672153081&set=a.1074607379399), or
- Private university administrators who pay off politicians to give them law enforcement powers (https://www.baltimorebrew.com/2019/03/04/on-a-single-day-johns-hopkins-officials-gave-baltimores-mayor-16000/) and enrich themselves while avoiding taxes (https://www.jhunewsletter.com/article/2018/11/hopkins-avoiding-taxes-is-civic-disengagement)?
It all comes down to land — who owns it and who pays for the privilege of existing on it. Since we’re talking history, take the Roman Republic. I was very affected, some years back, by the podcast The History of Rome by historian Mike Duncan. It’s a methodical but entertaining and accessible look at the cultural, economic, and military history of the Republic/Empire.
Rome was set up unequal from the start, with some citizens better than others, and many not citizens at all. Over time this led to excesses of corruption and extreme wealth concentration. Larger and larger farms pushed out small landholders, causing great misery and migration. The urban poor, lacking jobs, relied on charity from the city’s elite to survive.
Eventually, the anger of the people was great enough that they managed to elect a couple of representatives who fought for their interests… but any efforts at reform, particularly around the distribution of land, were met by the Senate with unyielding refusal. The elites refused to make a single meaningful concession, using any and all dirty tricks at their disposal to resist. The system broke down under the stress and dictators ruled.
Land in Baltimore City is a paradox. We have both too much of it and too little. Too many houses with no one living in them, yet too few places for people to live. What does it say about a community when it’s full of vacant homes with homeless people sleeping on the street in front of them? Who is that city for?
When the houses finally fall down, we’re left with vacant lots, posing another puzzle — too many patches of green, yet too few places for children to play, too few plots for people to cultivate their own food. We know our kids need to spend more time outside to develop properly (the research on this is deep and intense) and we know we need to grow more of our own food to be healthy and resilient.
In the face of all of the immense and immediate needs in our community, surely a city that was for its people would parcel out its “excess” land amongst those who need it and who’ll use it, right? Luckily, we do have many who think this way, and exciting things are underway.
One with which I’m familiar is Baltimore Green Space, which over the last dozen year has worked with neighborhoods to protect 14 spaces, including community gardens, pocket parks, horseshoe pits, and forest patches. If you want to see the most beautiful and cherished places in all corners of our city: https://baltimoregreenspace.org/preservation/our-protected-spaces/
Did you know that 53% of renters and 40% of homeowners in Baltimore City pay more than 1/3 of their income (the max considered “affordable”) for housing? I learned that from the Baltimore Housing Roundtable, which is focused on public housing, co-op’s, land trusts etc. Just the other week, Mike Tyson was telling me about the new Harbor West Collaborative in his part of town, doing similar things.
Let’s wrap with an update on the JHU Sit-In. After 37 days, rather than meet with the students, JHU prez R. Daniels called in the Baltimore Police Department. Fun fact, someone from UMBC told me that students there once occupied a building, and that Freeman Hrabowski rushed down to talk to them immediately. Another fun fact, a former JHU staff staff member says they spent years “hearing from people at a pay grade above me how difficult/micromanaging/bullying [Daniels] is.”
You can read more about the arrests in any of the many news outlets where they were covered:
Look at that list. The whole world is watching this. Are we?
On the eve of the arrests, there was rumored to be a police raid coming that morning at 3am and backup was requested. If nothing else, I have a phone and can document what I see, so I went and hung out, ate some fruit, led some stretching exercises, made conversation.
By 3:30, I went home. An hour and a half later, 80 officers removed the handful of unarmed protesters by force. Seven people were arrested, including one of my oldest friends, Opal Phoenix, who was subjected to degrading and bigoted treatment that completely violates BPD policy, which, as Jamie Grace Alexander points out in the Brew article linked above, just proves the point that there is no accountability.
All those arrested have since been released. In order to meet them as they came out, the weekly West Wednesday protest was held in front of Central Booking. For those just tuning in, West Wednesday, now in its 301st consecutive week, is a rally/protest/vigil for victims of police brutality organized by Tawanda Jones in honor of her brother Tyrone West, who died in the custody of BPD.
It was such a beautiful event, y’all. People shared food and spoke about the harm the had been done to them and others, the importance of continuing to fight. One man, Black, spoke passionately about how he never thought he’d see the day when we all came together like this. We took the street and walked down Fallsway, chanting “Free Keith Davis / Drop the charges!” and “Brick by brick, wall by wall, we will see this prison fall!”
If the waves of history teach us anything, it’s to pay attention right now. Student movements and solidarity move mountains. While the sit-in has ended, I think a lot of us are seeing this as a beginning.
Cultural event of the week: Up at The Peale Center through 6/2 is “No Walls, No Bans, No Borders”, “a benefit photography and art exhibit featuring the work of Baltimore-based activists connecting ideas of the violence of capitalism, colonialism, and the racist/fascist state both locally here in Baltimore and globally.”
Green events of the week:
At the War Memorial on Tuesday night, hear Joshua Harris (a strong contender for Mayor in 2020 if he chooses to run), and others on the whys and hows of the Green New Deal: https://m.facebook.com/events/404293606819883
Wednesday afternoon/evening, the State DOT is having an open house on North Ave. about setting transit priorities for the next 25 years. After so many years of neglect, we NEED to be at the table. Special thanks to Richard DeShay Elliott for sharing. https://m.facebook.com/events/449004198978176/
Song of the week: “Subdivision” by Ani Difranco
And I’m wondering what it will take / For my city to rise / First we admit our mistakes / Then we open our eyes / The ghosts of old buildings are haunting parking lots / In the city of good neighbors that history forgot