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A Tale of Two Cities: How Baltimore Reached Its Boiling Point

As one protester put it when describing the long-simmering tensions that led to violence in Baltimore, the city is divided between “haves” and “have-nots.”

by Colleen Curry
Apr 29 2015, 10:55pm

Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters

After years of long-simmering tensions caused by endemic poverty and social inequity, Baltimore has reached "a boiling point." Students organizing a march Wednesday night used that phrase to describe the situation in their city after the death of Freddie Gray, saying police brutality is merely a symptom of other underlying issues.

East and West Baltimore have for decades embodied the social problems found in inner cities across the country: lack of educational and employment opportunities, high drug crime, and pervasive violence. The New York Times reported today that the life expectancy in the city's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood is the same as Iraq and Kazakhstan. A majority of households make less than $25,000 a year. Unemployment is double the city average.

Some blocks around the intersection where the protests have been centered have more houses that are boarded up, vacant, and falling apart than ones that are occupied. Aziza Minor, a resident who attended Tuesday's cleanup and protest at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue, described the area as a "food desert" and said there are only liquor stores and the one CVS that was burned in the riots Monday night.

"It's no different from a third world country except it's in the USA," Minor told VICE News.

Related: State of Emergency - Baltimore, Maryland (Dispatch 1)

"The way police interact with African-Americans is a problem, but it's just symptomatic of a deeper problem of jobs, of opportunities, or quality education, or housing," State Senator Nathaniel J. McFadden of Baltimore told VICE News at a peace protest Wednesday. "When generations come up and, unfortunately, for many young people, teenagers, all they've seen is neglect, when you get up every day and see things like that it doesn't bode well for a child coming up."

Rev. Donte Hickman, the pastor of East Baltimore's Southern Baptist Church, has been a visible presence at the protests — both before and after Monday night when someone set fire to a $16 million community center he and his church had been helping to build. At a peaceful rally today in front of the state attorney's office, Hickman emphasized the need for the city to invest in improving living conditions in Baltimore's poor neighborhoods to prevent violence from erupting again.

'It's no different from a third world country except it's in the USA.'

"There are no job opportunities, there's a lack of education, and after-school programs," Hickman said. "There are boarded-up buildings everywhere where illegal, criminal, and dangerous things have been going on for many years. People live in rat-infested neighborhoods. There has been divestment in these neighborhoods for too long.

"They were supposed to use all this money from the casinos they built [and] give it to these neighborhoods but we didn't see a penny of it," he added.

According to Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute of Baltimore, children growing up in Sandtown-Winchester move an average of three times a year due to housing instability. She said more than 40 percent of high school students miss at least a month of school each year, and very few have access to quality healthcare.

Related: Baltimore Protesters Call for Peace and Justice After Chaotic Night of Riots

Morris described how "broken windows," a police tactic that encourages officers to arrest people for minor infractions, leads to kids having criminal records from an early age, which then makes it harder for them to qualify for already-scarce jobs.

"The official unemployment rate is whatever it is, 5 or 7 percent, but for black males it is much, much, much, much, higher," she said. "And then when you have a criminal record, it makes it even harder to compete. It makes it hard because you can't be a productive family member."

The Baltimore Sun reported earlier this year that the city has 16,000 vacant properties, which it called "leftovers from an era when the population was nearly twice as large." Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has championed a program called Vacants to Value that gives the city power to seize the properties and auction them off, which the newspaper said draws an average of $25,000 — and as little as $5,000 — per property.

"Development happens in other parts of town but not their neighborhoods," Morris said. "The schools aren't as good, the transportation isn't as good, there is substandard housing — these are all choices a city makes by how it spend its money. That has contributed sociologically and economically to the situation, on top of which [Gray's] death happened."

Marching through downtown Baltimore today, protester Pat White told VICE News that the city is divided into two parts, "one for the have-nots and one for the haves."

Related: Baltimore Gang Members Say Police Allegation They Are Uniting to Kill Officers Is a Lie

"Baltimore has a lot of problems: joblessness, racism, it is full of drugs, boarded-up buildings," White said. "It has been left behind. Until people can see what they can do with their lives, it won't get better. Baltimore has a lot of catching up to do."

'Development happens in other parts of town but not their neighborhoods.'

Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told VICE News the poverty that has plagued some Baltimore neighborhoods for at least three decades intensified when two major manufacturers — Bethlehem Steel and General Motors — shuttered their plants in the city. The closures eliminated 30,000 jobs and left an enormous gap in blue-collar employment opportunities. Cherlin said the city has invested significant money in Sandtown-Winchester, but not enough to make an impact.

"It hasn't been able to counterbalance the economic collapse, the lack of education, the pervasiveness of drugs in these neighborhoods," he said. "The situation in this neighborhood, compared to the glittering downtown, is a reflection of the social inequality we see nationwide."

Morris said the state needs to increase spending on educational opportunities for children and affordable housing, while Cherlin said increasing the minimum wage, offering an earned income tax credit, and subsidizing the wages of low-income taxpayers would help. Both said employing city residents for infrastructure projects would allow workers to earn an income and learn useful skills while improving the city's buildings and roads.

McFadden, the state senator from Baltimore, had a broader idea: A federal program analogous to the post-WWII Marshall Plan to help get poor urban areas across America back on their feet.

"If we can address international problems, and send money and attention to Iraq and Afghanistan and everyplace else, what about home?" he asked. "If we want to save our communities, if we want to be competitive worldwide, we need to address these issues. It makes sense."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen