Politics & Media
Jun 17, 2008, 05:34AM

Fear In The Streets

Walking around Baltimore, especially at night, can be a harrowing experience. If this is “post-racial” America, one writer hasn’t yet discovered it.

Bmore.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Photo by Oslo In The Summertime

Home for me is a small rural town on the eastern shore of Maryland, split by Route 50 between miles of open farmland. The population is about 12,000, and the recent opening of the Target store was the biggest news in years. About a mile from my house is the town “ghetto,” Port Street, a lower class, mostly black neighborhood consisting of a single road lined with run-down duplexes and vacant lots. Occasionally, there’s a shooting or a robbery which inevitably makes the front headlines, but that’s about it. It’s still a relatively safe area to walk through at night and I do so without fear.

I used to think that Port Street was as bad as it got. Living in my small town for the latter 10 years of my life, and in a similar area near Cape Cod for the first, I had no basis for comparison. I was sheltered, safe, and carefree. Then I moved to Baltimore.

In 2006 I started attending Johns Hopkins University, which is located in a quasi-dangerous area in northern Baltimore, a neighborhood marred by gang activity and small-time robberies and muggings. The incoming class went through the obligatory seminars on “Staying Safe in the City,” where we learned to stay out of specific areas during certain hours, keep our wallets and cell phones safe, never walk alone at night. It was a big step coming from a town where I could leave my car parked downtown with the windows down and the keys in the ignition.

I was skeptical at first, thinking that the city really couldn’t be all that bad. The beginning of freshman year gave me nothing to refute this thought, as I was living in the security-protected, on-campus housing, rarely venturing outside my boundaries. It wasn’t until later that year, as I began to spread my wings a little bit, when I began to see the dark underbelly of Charles Village.

Speaking with a few friends in the graduating senior class, I learned about Chris Elser, a student who was killed in 2004 while trying to defend himself from an intruder attempting to steal his computer. I saw the criminal reality more first-hand last December, when three friends were robbed at gunpoint a few blocks from campus. One of those three was mugged again this spring, beaten over the head and given a concussion as he was trying to surrender his wallet. Even last week, a man attempted to rob the Laundromat a mere block away from my apartment and was shot three times by the owner.

By now I’ve learned the tricks of protecting myself in what’s called Charm City, but what bothers me is the fact that I’m forced to make these changes in my life to survive. There’s a degree of helplessness and even inferiority when I have to wait until morning to walk to the 7-11 down the street, when I have to close my phone and stay alert when I hear alleyway footsteps behind me. The crime in my city controls where I go and when I go there; it shouldn’t, but it’s necessary.

Another necessary skill I’ve learned is racial awareness. It somewhat sickens me that in the 21st century, we still have to acknowledge race as a factor in society, but with a current election dominated by it, I think it’s impossible to ignore. And in Baltimore, or any high-crime city for that matter, it’s foolish to ignore race when one is traveling through a sketchy area.

Of all the crimes I listed above, the culprits were black males. Most of the street gangs that operate in the city are composed of young black men. The repetition of these crimes over the years creates a sort of inherent racism among those who live in the city, whether they’re aware of it or not. In a dangerous area, such as East Baltimore (which makes the Hopkins neighborhood of Charles Village look like Mayberry), the sight of a young, black man in a do-rag and baggy jeans is going to conjure more feelings of anxiety and paranoia than a white man in a suit and tie. It’s ugly, but again, difficult to ignore.

And I’ve discovered that the targeting of the young black individual is not exclusive to the white community. I picked up a glimpse of the black perspective earlier this summer, when I waited tables at a restaurant in Baltimore. At one point, toward the end of a night shift, one of my co-workers, a black woman, began to complain about the customers seated in her section. She was furious because from the luck of the rotation, all of her tables were black customers, and she wasn’t expecting to receive decent tips from them. What I found even more interesting was the fact that not all of her customers were the typical thuggish-looking Baltimore characters; some were just regular people, dressed relatively nicely.

Race may be an explanation of individual people’s actions, but it would be dangerous and inaccurate to label it as Baltimore’s problem. The problem is a cultural one. Kids in the inner city grow up with older brothers and even fathers who are members of gangs. Their friends join up and go through the initiation rituals of robbery and assault as young as 14. They see it every day on the streets and at home, and it becomes a part of their life.

Baltimore public schools are under-funded and far below par in test scores and academic performance. Students have no Sidney Poitier to turn their lives around and get them off the streets. That hope is replaced by the glamour and wealth that the gangs promise. They not only offer opportunities to make money, but also a sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that many inner-city kids would not find otherwise.

Living in Charles Village is strange because there is such a distinct cultural and socio-economic divide. In a single afternoon one can see published professors and drug lords walking the same streets. Down the road from the pristine Hopkins campus, you’ll find run-down projects and condemned buildings. As exciting as city life has been, especially coming from rural America, it’s a wearying experience, and sometimes I miss the quiet country nights.

  • I sympathize completely. Walking around at night in an urban environment is plenty unsettling. Glad to know I'm not the only one.

    Responses to this comment
  • Although I think Kendall might be a bit hyperbolic—college neighborhoods aren't generally hotbeds of crime, save Columbia in Manhattan—this was a brave article since it's a topic no one wants to talk about. I've been to Baltimore many times, although I've never lived there, and it's a strange city: de facto segregation, with the Inner Harbor and fancy neighborhoods almost completely populated by whites, while East and West Baltimore by blacks and immigrants. In many ways, I think Manhattan is a lot safer than Baltimore.

    Responses to this comment
  • Two of my friends were chased down Franklin Street a few months ago by a gang of kids. They were throwing rocks at them and yelling about bikes. Needless to say, I don't care to walk around Baltimore past sunset anymore.

    Responses to this comment
  • "What I found even more interesting was the fact that not all of her customers were the typical thuggish-looking Baltimore characters; some were just regular people, dressed relatively nicely." Is this a joke?

    Responses to this comment
  • It's great that we're having these kinds of discussions, and I think Demian is right that Obama's candidacy will spark more open communication about race in this country. That being said, I found this article entirely too willing to generalize a racial component from a few anecdotes while ignoring the more obvious and fundamental class issues involved in crime. A guy in a do-rag and baggy jeans makes you feel nervous compared to a guy in a suit? Duh, and it doesn't matter whether the guy in the do-rag is black, white, or purple. Race is too easy and too simple of a lens for understanding these issues. This article makes it sound like racism is somehow inherent to or necessary for modern urban living. It's not. Poor people are more likely to commit crimes. In Baltimore, most of the poor people are black. That's an essential distinction to keep in mind. Too often race is used to explain away crime because tackling the underlying economic issues is too hard, too complicated, and requires too much sacrifice from the privilege white college students enjoy as a matter of course. I don't like where this article takes its conclusions. Somehow we go from black urban crime in a Baltimore neighborhood, a real problem, to the stinginess of black tippers. That's one anecdote, one small example of a black person having stereotypes about other black people in a restaurant. Quite honestly I don't see how that has anything to do with being aware of your surroundings while walking through potentially dangerous parts of a city. Nobody avoids a mugging by expecting black customers to tip 10%. Yet we then fly back into an overly generalized discussion about gangs, the lack of role models, and under-resourced schools. Moving from black tippers to urban schools to gang initiations only seems to explain away race instead of examining it critically. We're about to have black man become president! I suppose he must have beat the odds and found his Sidney Poitier? Or maybe race doesn't matter as much as class, a barrier Obama transcended when he transferred to Columbia. If there's anything that his candidacy should tell us, it's that we need to be open but also very careful in how we discuss race. I'm not sure this article is careful enough.

    Responses to this comment
  • dan_glada, I don't have a lot of firsthand experience with New York City, but to quote wikipedia: "Among the 182 U.S. cities with populations of more than 100,000, New York City ranked 136th in overall crime (with about the same crime rate as Boise, Idaho)." To Timothy, I will also say that many college campuses have extremely high crime rates, but not particularly in "violent crime" categories. As for Baltimore, it is a very interesting city that goes "block by block." There are bad areas, good areas, and then transitional areas with lots of spillover. I feel safe walking around at night, but know that there are some areas that I wouldn't (shouldn't) walk through. It's a complex problem (gangs, drugs, concentrated poverty, education, police, transit issues) in a city that has made tremendous strides in recent years and will hopefully continue to do so.

    Responses to this comment
  • Here's a fun fact: If Baltimore had Manhattan's population density, they'd be clocking 4000 murders a year! This is why I live in crime-free Sweden (Norwegian hate-crimes do not count, as Norwegians aren't people).

    Responses to this comment
  • Nice. My bad--I just figured that you were piggybacking on Timothy's comment which referenced New York. For the record though, I wouldn't be caught dead on the mean streets of Boise either. Consider my head hung in shame.

    Responses to this comment
  • Doing Deities, as usual, makes very thoughtful comments. But I don't think Kendall's article necessarily goes in the wrong direction. It's his opinion, based on his life, and whether you agree with his conclusions or not, what he's saying is real to him.

    Responses to this comment
  • Man, two days on Splice, two cities crossed off my list, at least without a police escort. Truth be told, same could be, and is, said about L.A., but at least I know how to get around here and what areas to avoid.

    Responses to this comment
  • There is no "charm" to Greenmount ave., which is the ghetto of all ghetto's near where I live. Oddly enough, there is a small jewelry shop on Greenmount, I bet it gets hit weekly.

    Responses to this comment
  • Timothy assesses Kendall's direction in this opinion piece to be 'right' -- or at least not wrong, as Doing Deities suggests it might be. In fact, Kendall's writing here has no direction, other than deeper into the expression of stereotypes and personal fears and prejudices. Certainly, everyone is entitled to an opinion; but what should not only attract, but also hold, our interest is an opinion that does have a direction, towards understanding and judgment: A writer merits consideration when mere opinion ("Here's something I notice") begins moving towards understanding ("Here's what that something is, as based on ideas and story elements that I invite you to appreciate"), and ultimately towards judgment ("Here are my claims about why the ideas I am conveying and the story I am telling are truthful and valid"). Eureka exclaims, "Eureka! Someone else shares the same fears I do." But then Eureka is left with those same fears. Kendall doesn't help her evaluate them. The piece fails.

    Responses to this comment
  • I don't agree with Joe Boyce that Kendall's piece "fails." He's not a sociologist, just a young man adapting to an environment different than the one he grew up in. His opinion is probably not popular, but I believe it's sincere.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment