Learning to love Baltimore has been a protracted and grueling process, but I came around. What does it mean to adore and loathe one’s place of origin in equal measure? I have lived in Baltimore all but two years of my life. I have seen the truly beautiful here, and I have seen abject ugliness. Much of my family is here, as are most of my friends. In 2007, months prior to the crescendo of this country’s financial crisis, I ran like my ass was on fire (it might as well have been) to New York City, desperate to get away from this place, thinking that my hometown was the problem. Perpetually strung out on drugs and expecting the world to hand me a living in the arts with no effort on my part, it wasn’t until years later, having gotten sober, that I realized my problem was my perception. There was no escaping that this was my home.
Baltimore has been aptly described as a city of insane people trying to act normal, the inverse of those mostly sane New Yorkers trying to act crazy.
With all the societal ills and inequalities plaguing this city, I have, in the past, hesitated to say that I’m proud to be from Baltimore. I am, however, regularly reminded that there is still beauty and good to be found here. There, unfortunately, will always be darkness, but that darkness mustn’t define us.
During my harrowing yearlong stay in New York, more than a few people asked how true to life the portrait of Baltimore painted by HBO’s stellar post-American drama “The Wire” was. It’s no secret that our drug economy tops the annual revenues of some large corporations, homicides in the city approach 300 bodies annually and our seemingly endless blocks of vacant homes, or “abandos,” are a far cry from formerly vibrant neighborhoods long-forsaken by the all-but-vanished U.S. manufacturing sector.
There is death, there are drugs and there are men, women and children who fall through the societal sieve meant to keep us all safe and provided for. Likewise, there are plenty of individuals working to get our city back on track. This is a wholly American town to be sure, and “The Wire’s” creator, David Simon, always did stress that his show was not only a story about Baltimore, but also a story about America.
I have the dubious fortune of experiencing many facets of this fucked up and wonderful place. Having spent a dozen years as “The Other” in elite Baltimore private schools, I would learn the sting of being called a nigger. Yet I would also gain a wealth of knowledge not possible had I been left to languish in Baltimore City’s crumbling public school system. Having grown up with primarily upper-middle and upper class whites, I have seen how the 1% lives, and have come to understand that money certainly does not buy happiness. Conversely, having struggled with addiction until two years ago, I’ve copped on the corners shown in all their grimy glory on “The Wire.”
I am admittedly still trying to sort out my place here. It could be argued that we all are. Many times, it does seem like the easier, softer way to simply pick up and leave again. In the face of out of control violent crime, a public school system in disarray and a lack of leadership at the political level (This city desperately needs a succession of Cory Booker-style mayors and cooperative city councils to even begin to see the positive trajectory we all seem to know ourselves to be capable of), the decision seems pretty straightforward.
Yet, things like the recent 300 Men Marches (where volunteers march through the city’s worst neighborhoods engaging youth, enforcing the virtues of education and denouncing drug violence) and the completion of the new Baltimore Design School on the Eastside prove to me that forces of good are still afoot. There can be no doubt cast upon the notion that we all have a vested interest in improving our only home.
Detroit, a former bastion of American enterprise, is now mired in bankruptcy and corruption and is being viewed by many as a harbinger of things to come in America. Baltimore and places like it may be next. It truly seems as though we’ve been on the brink for some time. This can be a hard town to live in, for some more so than others. On the night that I am writing this, the city will have seen seven shootings in the past 24 hours. Balkanized like many other US cities, one could easily walk from our most affluent neighborhood, Guilford, to the scene of an attempted murder on Greenmount Avenue in less than 15 minutes.
Perhaps this is a large part of both Baltimore’s and our nation’s problem. “Out of sight, out of mind” seems to be a way of life here, for people across all strata of life. The almost daily murders that occur in Baltimore every year don’t directly affect the vast majority of its citizens. Thus, much in the same way that most Americans are not affected by the deaths of, or trauma suffered by, far-flung soldiers in a volunteer army, we’re able to put aside thoughts of the unpleasantness and suffering. I am not innocent of this. Collectivism is an all but dying notion.
Yet, when the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl this past February, there was a collective jubilation the city hadn’t known since the last time the team had claimed the championship, in 2001. It was as though, despite the fact that this was “just a game,” and most of the city’s population would not see any sort of monetary boost as a result of the win, we all felt as though we were in on something good. Furthermore, the team, initially counted out and facing tragedy and adversity on and off the field all season, persevered by means of dogged self-belief and unity.
Something as arguably banal as the crowning achievement of a football team served as a sort of brief inspiration, a note slipped under our door reminding us that the only way we can excel is together, with each other in mind. Easier said than done, sure. But while I don’t always agree with our bus benches’ inscription touting this as “THE GREATEST CITY IN AMERICA,” I wouldn’t want to be from anywhere else.