Though the hows and whys may be up for debate, there is consensus on one thing in Baltimore, that the city is an economic fiasco.
High taxes for businesses, corruption, civil disobedience, violent crime and a decline in jobs spanning decades – all are identified problems, but worse may be that the issues themselves are now heavily politicized. Baltimore, as it has come to be said, “emphasized a state-sponsored capitalism … rather than market investments” in its search for a solution to its economic woes, a ‘Big Government’ perception that in a minority-heavy city only creates mistrust.
Is capitalism failing you? In Baltimore, the answer shards along class lines.
“Well I’m doing pretty good, but I work,” says David Evans, an assistant manager at U-Haul and a sales associate at Parisian Flea, an antique jewelry shop in Hampden, Baltimore. Evans also studies humanities at the University of Maryland University College.
“[But] you go a block away and ask and they’ll say something different, because they don’t work,” he says. “They care about their welfare check. So they’re not really a part of capitalism then.”
It’s a typical refrain – ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans which are 63% of Baltimore’s population, are lazy, too reliant on government assistance. But, often stuffed into soundbites, there’s more under the surface of this claim.
It’s not that they’re lazy, says Evans, just unmotivated. The type of work they’ll do for the amount of money they’ll get from the corporate world doesn’t outweigh working on the streets. They can do less work, albeit more dangerous work, for better pay running drugs or sex.
In this light, this development may say more about globalization. And that’s what’s more distressing in my mind–that whole swaths of the United States population are uninterested in working for its greater national economic system.
Racial divisions don’t help either.
“When it comes to the corporate jobs in town … [there’s] a sense of distrust of those institutions,” says Frank Patinella, senior education advocate of Transform Baltimore, a campaign to get decision-makers to implement a funding plan to renovate and rebuild public schools in the city.
And the distrust isn’t unfounded.
I’ll start with Johns Hopkins Hospital–Baltimore’s biggest employer today–and its affiliated medical research institutes that have a history of experimenting on minority groups. Johns Hopkins researchers deliberately infected 800 Guatemalans with STDs in the 1940s and 1950s. And the Kennedy Krieger Institute exposed a number of black children to dangerous amounts of lead for a 1993 study.
Then there’s the discriminatory practices of traditional financial institutions, including redlining or denying services to people in certain areas, usually based on the racial or ethnic demographics.
And as Baltimore lost a lot of its blue-collar jobs, which were predominantly done by African Americans, to cheaper labor overseas, the school system didn’t evolve to get people ready for the new digital and service economy, Patinella says. This also coincided with white and middle-class African American flight to the suburbs and the drug epidemic.
Baltimore public schools have been greatly neglected over the past few decades. The system has been greatly underfunded.
Student and teacher climate surveys tell a sad story. Winter coats have to be worn inside the classroom and nearly half of all Baltimore schools don’t have air conditioning. Heating and water pipes are exposed (pictures here), water fountains are shut off because old lead pipes haven’t been abated, and no science laboratory experience is offered.
The dilapidated school buildings in the city finally got the attention of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other Baltimore leaders. In 2013, the campaign won a bill, which is set to put $1 billion towards renovating and rebuilding 28 schools in the city. It’s a start, but Transform Baltimore will continue pushing, since 28 schools is only one-fourth of all the schools in the city and the surrounding area.
“Looking at the research, there’s evidence that shows a strong correlation between physical conditions in school buildings and achievement,” Patinella says.
It’s pretty obvious. A student’s attention span lags when they notice water dripping down the wall. And high-quality teachers don’t want to work in environments like that.
“Plus it sends the message that your education isn’t valued and you’re not worth it,” Patinella says.
He has tons of anecdotal evidence to support this. For instance, one student who toured a school with nice amenities said, “Wow, this school looks like a university; our building looks like a prison.”
While many Baltimore kids are doing alright, there are just too many barriers for a system that is integral to the U.S. economy and political structure; a nation needs well-educated participants and voters.
“I really don’t think city students are lazy at all,” Patinella says. “But later on as adults, I think there’s a gradual dropping off and withdrawal; there’s a sense of defeat so they just stop trying.”
Which is why it’s so important to intervene and provide the right kind of opportunities when Baltimore residents are young. In Baltimore, more than 85% of the district’s students live in poverty.
After the Baltimore riots, many businesses were asked to give kids in the area jobs.
“All the slots were taken right away,” Patinella says. Sure, some of the kids complained about the grunt work, but that stems more from America’s elevation of certain types of jobs and the condescension of others, such as garbage removal, plumbing or McDonalds.
One of the more interesting initiatives that Transform Baltimore stands behind is community schools, which partner with government agencies and private companies to provide benefits to other community members. Community schools become hubs for social services, says Patinella, such as health clinics, employment departments or college facilities.
This could be particularly helpful in Baltimore, where the school buildings aren’t the only amenities lacking funding in its blighted areas. Housing, community parks and streets all suffer as well, exacerbating the problem. This is similar to the less affluent parts of Brooklyn, where trash trucks don’t come by as often as in other areas, leading to overflowing trash cans that make the neighborhood look dirty and scary.
One of the main barriers to building sustainable cities that provide social services for all residents is the lack of collaboration between government agencies. For instance, getting the transportation department involved in the discussions about building community schools could be helpful in aligning bus routes.
But bureaucratic thinking holds the city back. Government agencies have their own budgets to spend in an allocated time period.
“The mixing of money becomes a complicated thing,” says Patinella.
Instead of siloing money, city agencies should come together to supply for the community as a whole.
Bringing the community together by developing community schools as a hub for social services of all kinds will benefit all levels of the economic pyramid. It might seem like the lovey-dovey sentiment that makes people roll their eyes, but the old adage “it’s all about who you know” is particularly advantageous for those in Baltimore’s ghettos.
One of Patinella’s epiphanies came after meeting Baltimore native, De’Von Brown. The African American student was sent to a boarding school in Kenya with 19 other at-risk boys in 2002. His parents figured they’d fare better in the African country, than on the mean streets of Baltimore. And turns out, most of them did, as chronicled in the documentary Boys of Baraka.
About two years later when they met, Brown said to Patinella, “People think it’s about the experience I had outside of Baltimore, [but] the big change was this, people didn’t take interest in me before the movie. I never had access to you and the other people at the top.”
Through the movie, Brown was able to connect with people that could help him reach his goals.
In a Washington Post article from July 2010, Brown said he still would have gone to college, but without the documentary, his life would have been different. “I’d be another kid doing well, [but] overlooked — the city has a lot of those kids.”