BALTIMORE (AP) — Baltimore is crab cakes, the cobblestone walkways of Fells Point, a vintage baseball stadium, the retro weirdness of John Waters. Cherry blossoms line the streets of its affluent neighborhoods. They call it “Charm City.”
But there is another side of Baltimore that is far less charming. And on Monday, that side burned. Vast swaths of east and west Baltimore were consumed by flames and anger.
The immediate trigger was the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a traumatic spinal injury he suffered while in police custody. But in a startlingly segregated city struggling with failing schools, failing infrastructure, a failing economy and a police department under federal investigation, it seemed only a matter of time before this side of Baltimore boiled over.
“All we have left, all many of us have left, is our dignity,” said Robert Stokes, 36, as he stood with a broom and dustpan at Pennsylvania and North avenues, hours after people smashed windows, looted stores and set trash cans on fire. “And when that’s stripped away, what do we have left? What do we have left except for rebellion? You look around and see unemployment. Filling out job applications and being turned down because of where you live and your demographic. It’s so much bigger than the police department. This place is a powder keg waiting to explode.”
In some neighborhoods of inner-city Baltimore, the destruction’s aftermath was near indistinguishable from any other day. In Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray was raised and arrested, whole blocks of row homes sit neglected, some scorched, others boarded up. Neglected lots overgrown with grass are littered with trash and broken glass.
It wasn’t always this way. Baltimore was once a prosperous city, celebrated by journalist H.L. Mencken. It was a manufacturing dynamo, famed for the rye whiskey and straw hats it made, among other things. But the story of Baltimore is much the same as the rest of urban America since World War II; industry left, and fortune followed.
Since the 1950s, the city’s population has steadily declined, dwindling from nearly one million to 622,000. The city saw growth for the first time in six decades when it gained more than 1,000 residents in 2012; the next year, the count slightly declined.
The upheavals of the 1960s and `70s contributed to the disintegration. Rioting after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in 1968 left scars on the landscape that have never healed, and strikes by police, teachers and municipal workers in 1974 hastened the city’s decline. Corruption has been a constant issue; in 2007, Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned after being convicted of embezzlement while serving as City Council president.
Drugs, too, have been an ever-present problem, especially heroin.
As droves of city residents left the city for the suburbs, thousands of Baltimore’s row homes – some with castle-like spires on top – were left abandoned. Today, there are almost 17,000 vacant houses in Baltimore. Meanwhile, poverty and housing remain a problem. In October, the city’s housing authority opened its lottery for public housing units to Baltimore residents for the first time in 10 years. Within a week, roughly 60,000 people – about 10 percent of the city’s population – had signed up.
The big factories had closed, one after another; it was 10 years ago that General Motors shuttered its plant that made Chevy Astro and GMC Safari vans. City officials like longtime Mayor William Schaefer tried to make up the difference by developing the Inner Harbor, with its hotels, bars and restaurants, but that did little to spur much hiring across much of the city.
Nor has Johns Hopkins Hospital and University, the state’s largest private employer, served as an engine of economic growth in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester. A 2011 Baltimore Health Department report found that 55 percent of families there lived on less than $25,000 a year, and 30 percent were mired in poverty, roughly twice the rate of the rest of the city. Unemployment was 21 percent, almost twice Baltimore’s overall rate.
Steven Bowmen, leader of a local gang, said at a meeting with local officials on Tuesday that much of the rage behind the rioting is rooted in hopelessness.
“Honestly, I need a job,” Bowmen said. “At the end of the day, most of the youths need a job. We just need help.”
Baltimore is a majority black city; the city’s mayor, state’s attorney, police chief and city council president are all African-American, as well as 63 percent of its population. Even its police force – the impetus for the recent upheaval – is 48 percent black. But while the social problems here may not be overtly racial, the undertones of inequality are not colorblind.
“What you’ve got is a situation where there is a lot of pain and a lot of frustration,” U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings said Tuesday. “What you have is a lot of young people who feel they’re disappointed about their education, they’re disappointed about outlets, recreation centers. They’re concerned about being arrested and having been arrested. I had a job fair a month ago and a lot of people came up to me and said `I’m on a merry-go-round, I can’t get a job. I can’t get a job.’ Until we address the issue of African-American men and boys, we’re going to have problems.”
On Monday afternoon, as adults on their porches watched teenagers heave bricks and trash cans at lines of police, many faulted the city for failing to offer constructive activities for neighborhood kids. Chief among the city’s mistakes, they said: the closure of recreation centers serving some of West Baltimore’s most troubled neighborhoods.
In 2012, the city shut down the nearby Crispus Attucks recreation center as part of a plan to centralize the city’s recreation offerings and bring in private operators to manage other centers. But there was little interest on the part of companies.
The closures under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake merely continued a decades-long trend. In 1991, the city operated 76 recreation centers. As of the end of last year, the city managed 41 such facilities and eight after-school centers, according to the department of recreation.
Meanwhile, the city’s failing school system, which was under a federal consent decree for more than 20 years over treatment of special needs students, has fueled a sense of desperation among the city’s youth, as well as resentment, restlessness and anger, according to Rashawn Ray, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“They are reacting to something very specific – a feeling of hopelessness,” Ray said. “People who aren’t from these neighborhoods see one incident: Freddie Gray. But here, Freddie Gray triggers collective memory and experiences that they’ve had over time, like their lives don’t matter. People without jobs, trying to feed their families in neighborhoods without grocery stores. Sitting around not talking about, what did you do at school today, but did you get stopped by the police on your way home? It’s been brewing for decades.
“Why Baltimore, why now? Of course Baltimore, of course now.”
Associated Press writers Jeff Horwitz contributed to this report from Baltimore and Josh Boak from Washington.