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June 9, 2011

Trapped in a Metaphorical Cage

Patricia A. Kelly

I’ve been driving through downtown Baltimore a lot lately. I am perfectly capable of losing my own gas cap, but am quite sure it was stolen from the top of my car while I was prepaying for gas at a Hess station in an inner city neighborhood.


My payment was made to a small, dark-skinned, probably Middle Eastern man, balding and with a white beard on his chin and jaw. I could barely see him through the filthy, grill-covered payment window, and, not surprisingly, he didn’t see anything.


Imagine spending your days in that squalid little room, taking money, peering out of the dirty window and waiting for trouble. It made me think of a diving bell and looking out through the porthole at the alien creatures surrounding you.


I had already been looking at my surroundings during my trips. I saw, sometimes daily, on Edmondson Avenue and Mulberry Street, and Orleans Street probably a hundred vacant and derelict houses, sometimes blocks of 10 beautiful, historic row houses, with only two or three occupied.


I became familiar with the homeless man who daily works the drivers at the corner of Edmondson and Martin Luther King Boulevard for money. Sometimes there’s another person there selling cold drinks, but deference is given to the homeless man. Clearly, it is his corner.


I’ve observed the young people, testing fate by crossing the street in front of traffic, disheveled and smoking on porches, dressed up in exotic, tight fitting clothes.


Part of the neighborhood is divided in half by a wide stretch of land holding a short freeway leading to downtown. I’m sure that didn’t help what neighborhood existed when it was built. I wonder if traffic then justified the expense. It certainly doesn’t now.


There’s some redevelopment, too, with new, smaller, unimpressive row houses, complete with signs, “Private,” “No Dogs Allowed in Development,” window bars and graffiti.


Baltimore has suffered, along with St Louis, Philadelphia and Detroit, the largest city population loss in the United States. Loss of manufacturing, which provided jobs with middle class wages for many people without a lot of education or skills, has struck a huge blow over the last four decades. The population, which peaked in the 1970s, was almost 800,000 in 1982, and 620,961 and still dropping in 2010


Estimated vacant, derelict housing stock stands between 10 and 20 thousand units. Demolition, after finding absent owners, can cost as much as renovation, but, market value after renovation, can be much less than the cost of the work. The numbers may be even worse. 2010 Quick Facts states that, in 2009, there were 294,579 housing units and 237,819 households. A significant amount of commercial space is also vacant.


There have been initiatives over the decades to re-develop, but with limited success. The idea is to “right size” such cities, creating larger houses on larger lots to fill up the land area with housing for fewer people. The biggest successes I’ve seen have been around the harbor and the theater district, although there are newer row houses near Martin Luther King Boulevard as well.


Back on Edmonson Avenue, the view along the street is of substantial, early 20th century row houses, and then late 19th century brick row houses. The further you drive, the more derelict buildings. There are blue, flashing lights on high poles, which are cameras monitoring neighborhood activities. Every shop window is covered with strong bars of grillwork, and, looking inside open doors, one can see more grills and bullet proof glass through which your take-out food is served.


Living under blinking lights, surrounded by security grills reminiscent of a concentration camp doesn’t sound like a good life to me. It illuminates the stress factor in studies that suggest that malnutrition, stress, illiteracy and toxic environmental impact the neural development of children. Poverty alone is associated with decreases in supportive, consistent and involved parenting, and leads to decreased socio-emotional function. Major impacts lie in the areas of language development and “executive function,” which impacts ability to plan, remember details and pay attention in school. One quickly scanned study abstract went so far as to compare this developmental anomaly to an adult living with the impact of a stroke.


What is to be done about this in a city with a budget such that it would take decades to tear down existing derelict buildings? What can be done to assist people who have generations of history of living in something akin to a gulag, people who are actually accustomed to living behind bars under flashing blue lights?


That brings me back to pondering, “Why my gas cap?” It won’t fit a car that’s a different model than mine. Was it just risk taking behavior, the impact of living in a crime riddled environment, anger at me in my pretty pink sweater, or did the person have a 2000 Nissan CRV? The little man with the beard, trapped in his cage, and I will never know.


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