I moved to the Bolton Hill area in Baltimore about eight months ago. It’s a charming and absolutely gorgeous little neighborhood. The rowhouse facades here are historic and well-maintained, replete with architectural flourishes both subtle and grandiose: patterned brickwork, marbled vestibules, ornate cornices and so forth. F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived here, as did Frank Underwood. People’s gardens are small but immaculate, with blooms planted and arranged to color-coordinate with tree foliage. There is literally a street called “Lovely Lane.” It borders a tranquil mini park with a fountain, gently lit up at night with twinkling starry lights. The neighbors are a mix of MICA students dressed in a rainbow of colors and grizzled locals who have lived here forever. I love it.
As with most neighborhoods in the city, there is quite a drastic change when crossing the street into other territory. Eutaw Street borders Bolton Hill to the west. It’s a wide boulevard with a big grassy median, featuring gilded statues and park benches; on either side, massive buildings loom in various states of decay. One early morning, about a week after I moved in, I went for a jog around the area. Crossing the border of Eutaw, the area instantly felt sketchier as I jogged further westward. Gentrification had not crossed the boulevard. Several buildings over here were sealed with plywood shutters. Wrappers and plastic bottles cluttered the curbs. In the distance, I saw a wreck of a figure ambling slowly down the middle of the street. Another person watched me intently from his stoop. I turned around and jogged back towards Eutaw, never to cross back over it again on foot. Until Tuesday.
On Monday night, looters came and sacked businesses at a strip mall three blocks from my apartment. I lay wide awake, nervously checking newsfeeds, feeling anxious and helpless. What could I do? Through Facebook, I discovered that some neighbors had organized an event to help clean up the storefronts that had been damaged. So many volunteers signed up that the event organizers decided to connect with a larger volunteer hub that would meet at the epicenter of activities in West Baltimore, the intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenue. (Also known as Penn-North, and where that infamous burning CVS mentioned on all the news reports is located.) Wonderful, I thought – here was a concrete action I could easily grok: grab a broom, a dustpan and sweep away the city’s problems.
Work was canceled the next day, so I made plans to stop by the neighborhood hardware store (which had also been ransacked, but was still operating), pick up cleaning supplies and cross the border over into West Baltimore. Since I planned on walking there due to traffic closures, I decided to roust my roommate out of bed and volunteer him for the effort as well. As we were heading out, the roommate got a text from a friend who had also planned on going – she decided against it, because of some heated discussion on social media.
The central issue was this: a local activist posted that though help was appreciated, she was wary of well-intentioned but clueless outsiders from positions of privilege swooping in, and acting as “white saviors” for a community they know nothing about. The thread, as you can see if you click through and read, got super nasty very quickly, as people became defensive and immediately started attacking the original poster for her views (see Poppin’ Molly’s helpful guide to commentary nonsense before wading in to something like this). I’ll admit that I, a clueless swooper, felt stung by the initial post, and debated about whether or not we should go – especially considering the tone taken by some of the commenters who had been purporting to offer help! I decided to go and check things out, see if help was needed – and if told to scoot by a local? I would scoot. My roommate, for some mysterious reason (surely not because he was too lazy to clean), interpreted this to mean that going to the area was fine as long as he did not bring a broom, so instead he opted to bring his DSLR camera with a conspicuously gigantic lens.
We stopped by the Bolton Hill strip mall, which has the hardware store, a Rite Aid, a laundromat and a Sav-a-Lot grocery store. All of the businesses were boarded up and closed, except for the hardware store, which was open for the purpose of selling brooms and other cleanup implements to volunteers. “That’s how they got in,” said the owner, pointing to a gaping hole in the wall – looters had apparently broken into the laundromat next door and somehow carved a tunnel to get access to the hardware store.
Cleanup had more or less already been completed in this area, so we pressed on. We stopped by a liquor store up a block, where a couple of guys were installing plywood over broken glass panes in the door. That’s where we learned the order of operations of events – after the looters had broken into the hardware store and stolen the requisite tools, they came here to use them to break the outer bars reinforcing the door. “Smart,” said the owner, “but too bad they don’t use those smarts for something constructive.”
There was nothing really to clean here, either. I swept some glass into the curb to make it easier for people to parallel park in the street, but surely I could be of more use elsewhere. As we approached the Eutaw border, we encountered another volunteer heading in the opposite direction, with a shovel.
“How’s the Sav-a-Lot?” he asked.
“They got it, it’s closed,” I said, and the man looked crestfallen.
“That’s the grocery store in the area. There are only two places anywhere near here with real food,” he said. “Everything else is fried chicken and chips.” He had evidently been one of the lead organizers in the effort to put a grocery store accessible to West Baltimoreans; now, this source of fresh produce was closed indefinitely.
After chatting with him briefly, we pressed onwards, crossing over into the next neighborhood: Upton, where I had trespassed earlier. Upton, among other ills, is lousy with boarded up houses, some left empty since the 1968 riots. There are little corner convenience stores selling tobacco, junk food and lotto tickets; none of these appeared to have been looted. I did wish that instead of a broom, I had gotten a pair of those pincers people use to pick up litter – we could have been on that street all day, just extracting garbage out of ditches. We passed a playground overgrown with weeds; children were out playing on the swingset, since the city schools were closed in the aftermath of the riots. Other than the children, we didn’t see too many people until we got to Pennsylvania Avenue, which was hopping.
The shops here are an assortment of fried chicken joints, convenience stores, wig shops, liquor stores (these were looted), nail salons. Tons and tons of people were out and about – residents from the neighborhood, volunteers like us, most carrying brooms – though by the looks of it, there wasn’t much left to sweep up. At least not glass or debris. Honestly, it was a little tough to tell which businesses had been recently hit by rioting. One place had obviously been freshly lit afire, but many of the other buildings looked like they had been hit by some disaster an indeterminate amount of time ago.
We walked up and down the Avenue, me wielding my dumb useless broom and feeling stupid, and my cheerfully oblivious roommate snapping the photos which you see in the gallery below. I increasingly became conscious of people staring our way and murmuring “Why are you taking pictures?” Eventually he got the memo and stopped. We were, of course, not the only ones – the street was lousy with press of all sorts, interviewing people on the corners about the clean-up efforts. Journalists from as far away as Denmark and Ireland were out and about. Most people had either a broom or a camera (or both).
We paused briefly to chat with volunteers from a church group in West Baltimore (yes, they also had brooms). When they found out we were from Bolton Hill, they too asked us about the Sav-a-Lot. “Damn! How are people gonna get food?” Though intellectually, I knew that this grocery store is important for food access for West Baltimoreans, I don’t think the emotional import of it really sank in until talking with people and witnessing their reactions. I think of it as a fall-back grocery store for when I am too lazy to get into my car and drive to the Safeway on 25th, which is better. But most of the residents here do not have that luxury.
The event had been planned for 10 a.m., but the locals had been out far earlier than that to sweep. Of course they would, for who would just sit around and wait until mid-morning to clear debris from your storefront? The volunteer nexus was crowded with people and brooms, and even more do-gooders kept arriving with yet more brooms. It was like a massive coven of really helpful witches.
Since there was clearly no use for us at this juncture, we returned to our charmed neighborhood. I actually was glad for the stupid broom, since it acted a bit like a passport – without it I would have never thought about walking to a place which, in physical distance, is only a mile away. It might as well be another planet. Even though I felt like a lame stupid privileged ghetto tourist and I was essentially a lame stupid privileged ghetto tourist, I do not ultimately regret going for that walk.
For I’ve become too rehearsed at “unseeing” this other world that is a mere stone’s throw from mine. We inhabit more or less the same space, but with vastly different levels of access. The Baltimore I experience is so absurdly different from this other Baltimore. The people living in this area have essentially been in war-zone conditions for the past two weeks. But it’s still very much a community, with residents who know and love each other, and want nothing more than to live in a safe and thriving environment. The people who live here, by and large, are not out to ruin your Orioles games or steal your Michael Kors bags. Several basic infrastructures, ones we have taken for granted, have completely broken down for our fellow citizens, and the riots are a symptom of this failure.
I do not know what it will take to fix the deep fractures that divide this city. It might help matters if more of the people from my Baltimore crossed over and saw this other Baltimore, and not just in newsworthy times. To come over with open eyes and ears, without being patronizing, without getting defensive and immediately yelling at people who disagree with them to shut up. To refrain from finger-wagging, and instead, do some soul-searching.
Some volunteer organizations helping to directly serve this area:
Note: the title of this week’s column refers to one of my favorite novels of all time, The City & the City, which I will not shut up for hours if one just so happens to bring it up in conversation with me, or if China Mieville just happens to come up randomly in conversation, or whatever. Ahem.
Kim Le is a writer and shiftless gadabout who hails from the distant wheat fields of Kansas. Obsessions include sustainability, yurts and extreme DIY. Also, she makes sculptures out of food, mostly potatoes. She never updates her blog at http://badmetaphor.net.