The following is a fragment of the story of a white Ph.D. working at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, but it’s probably universal for any of us who worked at an urban university on the East coast — many of them are located in poorer neighborhoods, where property values are low, and we work there in a little artificial bubble of privilege.
The narratives that students and faculty told about Baltimore were stories of fear. There is almost a hazing of new arrivals. You’re told where not to walk, where not to go. You’re told where is not safe after dark. You’re told of all the muggings and the murders (even if, when you finally look up the statistics, you realise that affluent whites are not at all the victims of Baltimore’s crime problem). And it seeps into your skin.
I worked at Temple University in North Philadelphia, and it was exactly like that. I lived in a northern suburb, Jenkintown, about 10 miles from the university. It was your standard middle-class suburb; lawns and SUVs, upscale grocery stores and very nice parks. Some mornings I would take the bus, which wended its way through various other suburbs, all pretty much the same, to the Fern Rock transportation center, where I would take the subway under North Philly — I wouldn’t have to see it at all — to pop up at Temple. Other days I would take the faster route, catching a train a mile down the road and zipping straight to Temple by an elevated route…but then I’d see North Philly.
It’s a depressing sight: crumbling row houses, burnt out buildings, vacant lots filled with garbage. Every once in a while you’d see that people were living inside these shattered shells; through broken windows or houses with walls entirely missing, you’d see children sleeping on the floor inside. They were always brown children, of course.
There were several occasions when the subway broke down, and I’d walk to Fern Rock, or even, a few times, all the way home up Broad street. The place didn’t look any nicer close up. But strangely, I was never really afraid — I’d see lots of people, sitting out on the stoop, or hanging out in groups on street corners, or likewise doing their business in the ruins, and sometimes they’d look at me in surprise. Nerdy white boy strolling through their neighborhood? A curiousity! But I was never threatened or harassed. Most of the faces I saw had a look of resignation, not hatred.
It sounds just like Baltimore.
I grew to love Baltimore. I met my husband and some of my best friends there. But in five years living in that city, three of which were within a bock of the Caroline Street projects, and two local schools, I never made friends with any of the city’s African American residents. The bars and restaurants and cultural institutions that I love so much catered to that semi transient, mostly white, population that moved there for school or work, and left when they had kids.
And here’s the thing: the city that people like us lived in is nothing like the city that most of Baltimore’s population live in. Yet ours is deemed “economically important”. And I know full well that that economic importance is used to justify the police activities in Baltimore. After all, how will Hopkins and UMD attract top talent to a city without a couple of craft cocktail bars?
And we can’t accept that. My lifestyle in Baltimore ought not, must not be used to justify the violent oppression of those whom the city has ignored and mistreated. Fixing Baltimore must primarily fix the city for the majority of its population. Those of us who’ve lived there must recognise that, and put our experience of Baltimore aside. When we tell people about how hip and cool Fells Point and Canton are, when we talk about all the festivals, when we discuss the city as though the tiny portion of it we know is all the city, we are complicit in a narrative that wants to erase the reality of the city for most of its population. And that erasure, as we have seen, is more than rhetorical.
Jenkintown, Abington, the northern suburbs are pleasant places to live. Temple has a lovely urban campus, and was a great place to work. But in between is the place Steve Lopez described in his novel, Third and Indiana, the place called the Badlands. It’s a place rich in people, and poor in everything else, and it’s a victim of neglect and despair.
That’s what needs to be fixed. And it needs something other than gentrification, which usually means carving out a space for wealthy white people to move in, at the expense of the residents — we need to appreciate the people who already live there, and have worth and only need opportunity. But investing in infrastructure seems to be a low priority in this country, and investing in infrastructure that would benefit brown people? Not worth doing at all. That’s the legacy of the structural racism that dominates the United States.