Disaster Porn, East Coast Style

Baltimore, MD

If I had wanted, during my first day biking around, to see an artificially nice version of Baltimore, I could’ve chosen last Sunday. That night the Ravens were playing in the Super Bowl, and according to locals, the downtown had become in the hours leading to it an extended parade of purple and black, which began at the harbor and moved towards the stadium.

But instead I’d chosen to bike around early morning the next Sunday, after the city and its weather had cooled down from the teams’ victory. And rather than visiting downtown, where a few well-publicized amenities have produced a veneer of revitalization, I focused on the nearby neighborhoods, which better reflect its true identity.

These included McElderry Park, which is east of John Hopkins Hospital, and Hollins Market, which begins west of downtown, past Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Demographically speaking, both are typical Baltimore neighborhoods, since most of their residents are black, poor, undereducated, and supported either by the government, or low-wage service jobs—which make up a high percentage of jobs in the city. Because of their physical emptiness, these areas also symbolize another discouraging demographic trend, that of population loss, which is really at the heart of Baltimore’s problems.

After peaking at nearly a million people in 1950, Baltimore has lost population in every decade since, dipping in 2010 to the pre-World War I level of 620,961. Alongside this has unfolded the typical narrative of American urban decline, with neighborhood “blockbusting”, white flight, the loss of manufacturing jobs, the increase of poverty, and the explosion in social pathologies, from illegitimacy to incarceration to high school dropouts. Baltimore’s violent crime rate, while having drastically reduced since the early 1990s, is still roughly four times the national average. The city also records around 200 murders annually, and for several years has had, off and on, the nation’s second highest rate for this behind Detroit.

Such problems are exacerbated statistically in these two neighborhoods, where over a third of households live in poverty. And like elsewhere, the visual expression for these statistics plays out in the streets themselves. The ones in McElderry Park and Hollins Market are full of closed storefronts and overhead electrical wires, treeless sidewalks and trash-filled alleyways. Their prime development patterns are not only row houses, which extend block after block for miles, but ones covered with “formstone”, a uniquely Baltimorean stucco that has been shaped, in various shades of grey, to emulate actual rock. While once considered formidable, many of these houses now have broken windows and boarded-up doors, and cluster together in this dilapidated fashion by the dozens. There are few pedestrians on the streets, and many of the ones who do pass are homeless, looking to bum change or sell drugs. Others simply appear forbidding, and glance from the corners of their eyes as if thinking the same of you. On some lamp poles, cameras have been installed by the police that flash blue lights nonstop all day, giving one the sense of being not only in a dangerous area, but a totalitarian surveillance state. They should be interpreted, explained one officer, as a warning to “bike out of that area as fast as you can.” It’s no surprise that David Simon, while filming The Wire, used both neighborhoods to portray his depraved version of the city.

One of the flashing blue cameras that have been put by police onto lamp poles in high-crime areas.

One of the flashing blue cameras that have been put by police onto lamp poles in high-crime areas.

What’s interesting, though, is that the type of row housing found in these neighborhoods is actually popular elsewhere, and would be here if it were in better shape. Such housing is not only dense and walkable, but creates nice sightlines, and an intimate neighborhood feel, possessing what planners would call “good bones.” Its living appeal, and its historical significance to East Coast cities, has helped with the revitalization of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. But the decay that surrounds such housing here, especially in the inner core, shows how Baltimore has been passed over in comparison, rendering a city that’s architecturally interesting, but economically and socially dysfunctional. This phenomenon—of built forms that are interesting and blighted one in the same—also characterizes Detroit, and has made that city the Midwestern stop for photographers and other consumers of “Disaster Porn.” Baltimore, while nice in some areas, feels in others like the East Coast version for this. Scattered throughout the city are dozens of neighborhoods similar to McElderry Park and Hollins Market, and together they compile what one reporter dubbed Baltimore’s “other world”, marked by danger and abandonment, and stuck in time.

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1 Comment

  1. Makes one wonder what change in local (or higher) policy and/or private enterprise might help to bring Baltimore back to 1950, when it was more vibrant and at its population zenith. This city is another of those with potential to remake into some kind of urban utopia. And, unlike Detroit, it is nearby a more prosperous sister city – Washington D.C., the proximity of which could strongly help Baltimore to pull up its bootstraps.


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