Baltimore still on fire with unresolved problems

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Michael Olesker’s column is republished with permission from Talk Media News.

Baltimore (Talk Media News) – The standardized American pop culture images of Baltimore, in which John Waters’ funky “Hairspray” and Barry Levinson’s comic “Diner” yielded a while back to David Simon’s “The Wire,” were all overwhelmed one year ago by the death of young Freddie Gray and the nationally-televised looting and arson that followed.

Now, as the city braces for the anniversary of those troubles, political leaders and police try to convince themselves and anxious residents that they’re ready for any hint of a repetition.

“We’re much better prepared than we were back then,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said one afternoon not long ago, as she strolled about South Baltimore’s trendy Fells Point neighborhood.

She said it with an assured tone but a wistful look on her face. Much has changed in a year, and much has not, and all of it goes beyond pop culture images.

In the immediate aftermath of the disturbances, the mayor fired the police commissioner, Anthony Batts. It was only a start. The mayor found herself so roundly criticized for her low-profile, low-energy response to the troubles that, within weeks, she announced she would not seek re-election.

But, when she and the new Police Commissioner Kevin Davis talk today of being “better prepared” for any new demonstrations, they’re mainly talking about security issues.

The things that set off last year’s troubles have not changed.

Freddie Gray’s death was only the immediate impulse for the rioting. The 25-year old Gray died of injuries suffered while in police custody in what felt like a national season of police killings of unarmed young black men.

Gray was a chance for some Baltimoreans to express long-simmering anger – an anger that hasn’t gone away as the city awaits criminal trials of the six police charged in Gray’s death..

But many of the reasons for that anger have not gone away. Since its last big round of rioting, in 1968, the city’s been famously rejuvenated by its Harborplace tourist area, its hip waterfront residential neighborhoods, and by the new, high-end Harbor East shopping and residential area. All are reason for great municipal enthusiasm.

But it’s also a city of many who have been left behind – and they’re the ones who were out there looting and burning a year ago.

They’ve been left behind by all those, white and black, who had enough money to flee to the surrounding suburbs over the past several decades. And left behind by a shrinking industrial base that once supplied economic security for many thousands of working class families. When those jobs disappeared, they were replaced by service jobs that don’t pay much better than minimum wages. Hooters doesn’t pay what Bethlehem Steel once did.

Left behind, too, is a city with an estimated 16,000 vacant houses, and thousands more that are pitifully run-down.

Across Maryland, the median value of a home is $293,000. Across the city of Baltimore, it’s $158,000. During last year’s disturbances there were sullen crowds gathered in front of TV news cameras on West Baltimore’s North Mount Street.

There are 23 narrow row homes on that block, which sits in the shadows of the Western Police District. On this one little street, nine of those houses are abandoned and boarded-up. Not long ago a house on this block sold for $26,000. Many considered that overpriced.

And that’s a pretty typical picture for West Baltimore.

During last year’s troubles, Americans watched on TV as a mob looted and burned a pharmacy at West Baltimore’s Pennsylvania and North avenues. A few months back, the pharmacy was finally re-opened, amid much community relief.

But it’s a neighborhood where the median household income is $29,000. (Across Maryland, it’s $73,000.) Roughly 90 percent of all public school children in the area – most of whom come from single-parent homes – qualify for free lunches. When last year’s troubles shut down the schools, it was left to area churches to feed many of these kids.

So it’s nice that, approaching the one-year anniversary of the Freddie Gray disturbances, the mayor believes Baltimore is “better prepared” to handle any further trouble.

But it leaves the city still facing the myriad of problems – poverty, family breakdown, decaying housing, contentiousness with the cops – which were the real causes behind last year’s troubles.