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Baltimore, Wilmington, Philly, and Newark — Inside the Forgotten Corridor

Business travelers on Amtrak's upscale Acela train between New York and Washington, DC also make stops in cities with some of the country's most troubled urban centers.

by Charlie LeDuff
May 27 2015, 4:55pm

Photo via Flickr

Related: Watch Charlie LeDuff's 'The Americans,' featuring his trip

I don't want to keep kicking presidential hopeful Rand Paul, but if the shoe fits.

Paul said he took a train late last month from New York to Washington, DC on one of the evenings Baltimore was a pyre of discontent and shattered glass following the death of Freddie Gray.

"I came through the train in Baltimore last night," [sic] the faint-hearted senator told conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham. "I'm glad the train didn't stop."

I don't know what should bother Americans more: the fact that a guy asking us to elect him our leader was happy to avoid an American city desperately in need of a leader, or the fact that the senator didn't realize his train actually did stop in Baltimore.

That's right — not only did Paul not get off the train, he apparently didn't even look out the window long enough to realize the train had pulled into Baltimore Penn Station. (Of the current crop of presidential candidates, only Ben Carson has visited the city since the riot.)

The episode reminds me of a day last year when Paul ran away from me in the Russell Senate Office Building when I attempted to ask him to explain his and his fellow senators' taxpayer-funded perks and office expenditures.

The train Paul ostensibly rode makes short stops on its way from Wall Street to the Beltway. They include Newark, New Jersey. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wilmington, Delaware. And, yes, Baltimore, Maryland.

Since Paul couldn't be bothered to look out on everyday America, I thought I should ride the train to disembark and take a look at what goes on in the houses and apartments between the towers of power. And I am unhappy to report that the roof is on fire.

Manhattan has three of the five richest zip codes in America. The District of Columbia is surrounded by a half-dozen of the richest counties in the United States. In between are four of the poorest, most violent urban centers in the nation. It is a stretch of the country where the train has gone off the rails — even literally — due at least in part to Congressional and bureaucratic ineptitude.

It wasn't too long ago that American power lay in the industrial might of these cities, the largest in their respective states: shipping, steel, chemicals, automobiles. Washington minded the bureaucratic shop. Wall Street invested your savings relatively quietly. It was the cities in between that created the wealth of the nation.

A Latino mechanic in Newark told me it's beyond race — that anybody in a position of power becomes, in effect, a white man, whether it's a black cop or a Latino executive or a female president of the United States. Later, a bodega owner said he wished that cops would spend more time in his violent neighborhood. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

A white truck driver in Philadelphia said the next thing to blow will be the white middle class, the people he believes are footing the bill for everything and getting nothing in return.

A part-time plumber in Wilmington made a grand sweep with his hand as he said he, like so many other Americans, will need to work until the day he dies.

A lack of money has got as much to do with the state of urban unrest as rogue cops. At least that's what a black dope slinger on a Baltimore corner told me.

"The trailer park probably feels it," he said. "But the ghetto feels it first."

We were standing not a mile from the epicenter of the unrest when three meaty white cops approached.

"I thought I told you motherfuckers to clear off the corner," one barked. "You," he said pivoting toward me. "Get the fuck out of here!"

His belligerence was startling considering the city was a tinderbox of black versus blue. Then, seemingly thinking twice thanks to the cameramen with me, he softened a bit.

"You guys gotta go, let's go," he said. "You want to film? Go down there at the corner, not up here."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I said so, sir."

"The First Amendment," I reminded him.

"I'm protecting you, sir. Okay? If you get shot, robbed or something…."

"Understood," I said. The guys I'd been standing with on the corner turtled-up into a meek round-shouldered passivity.

"Let me ask you this," I said to the cop. "You don't come from a rich place, do you?

"No."

"You're not a rich man?"

"No."

"But you're the guy we pay to keep order."

"Exactly."

I turned to the guys on the corner. "You guys aren't rich, right?"

I turned back to the cop. "They're cutting your pensions. You guys got a pension?"

Macroeconomics. Class and racial warfare. Politicians who cower on trains. Trains that run off the tracks. Government ineptitude. Rotting schools. Riots. It was too much for the cop.

"I warned you guys once," he said to the group I'd been standing with. "If I get any assault calls, drug calls, somebody's gonna go to jail eventually, all right? Understood?"

And with that the cops walked away.

"It's bigger than us," said one of the black men, watching the cops clomp down the block. "Bigger than all of us."

Related: Detroit's 'Walking Man' Walks On

"That's well put," I said. "Look after yourself."

"You all too," he answered.

And with that, we got off the corner and back on the train. Which most definitely stops in Baltimore.

Follow Charlie LeDuff on Twitter: @Charlieleduff

Photo via Flickr