We stopped at the traffic light intersecting at Broadway, “you see that large street to your right” said my colleague for the day, “that’s one of the most dangerous places in the city. You want to avoid it at unless you have a car.”
“It looks well lit though. ”
“Looks can be deceiving… I was in a safer spot last week and got mugged… actually you want to take a car or to Uber your way around this city.”
Baltimore conjures conflicting emotions in me.
From above, it looks like an amazingly beautiful city, skyscrapers emerge around the harbour, centred around a waterfront that seems to be home to a whole variety of watersports – this seems to be the life.
Yet peer a little deeper and the picture perfect image begins to unravel. Beautiful Baltimore begins to look like Hideous Baltimore… Or is it?
Depending on your disposition/perspective, Baltimore is either “the best place in the world to change the world” or hell on earth.
How is this the same city?
The operative word is perspective, because the facts of Baltimore do not make for good reading – around 24% of the city lives in poverty, high school graduation rates hover at 70% (the US national rate is over 80%, and the 70% number seems to have been severely inflated), the city is one of the most violent in the United States (with 1417 violent crimes per 100,000 people), it is the heart of the heroin crisis and the epicentre of the opioid crisis in America.
It is important to stress that these issues are located in specific enclaves in the city, Baltimore is home to many areas with problems, but Baltimore is also home to one of the most outstanding Universities in the world – Johns Hopkins University, it is a central part of the National Institute of Health (the world’s premier research institution), and is home to a thriving arts and culinary scene.
I looked at her, “damn, did you end up losing alot?”
“It was messy, I am technically working for the government so there were a lot of reports to make…”
“And how’s everything now, is it all settled.”
“Yea, it wasn’t a good experience, but these things happen in a big city. As long as I’m safe, I can hustle on.”
Baltimore is however more that just a city in the United States, it has a certain pride of place as being the place where the “Star-spangled Banner” was written in 1812 and where the first US flag was sown and flown. It calls abolitionist Frederick Douglas and Thurgood Marshall the first African American judge in the United State as one of its own.
This city, unlike San Diego and Los Angeles was founded not by missionaries but by businessmen in 1729 and named after, Cecil Calvert the 2nd Baron Baltimore from Ireland,the first European to lay claim to the Province of Maryland. Baltimore grew rapidly in its heyday, with a focus on labour intensive agriculture – Tobacco, grain and sugar cane. Because of this, Baltimore was central to the slave trade. Crop was a very important determinant of whether there was strong support for slavery in a certain state.
Apart from fertile land for agriculture, Baltimore also had a part from which to send and receive goods. As such much of early American history has a Baltimore connection – American Revolution, War of 1812, American Civil War etc.
The city’s heyday came in the 18th-19th century when its main industries were manufacturing, heavy industries and the rail industries, it was so important it served as an entry port to the United States for immigrants from Europe. The loss of a manufacturing base and the heavy as well as rail industries coincided led to a move towards the service-economy but also correlated with increasing social challenges (here and here).
Baltimore is to me the American experience. It looks chaotic, messy and depending on your perspective, on the decline. And yet through conversations with individuals, I was given a glimpse of the powerful story of the American spirit shining through. Is this not like America today? The political news cycle suggests a superpower in decline, a nation embroiled in hopeless naval-gazing, and a people growingly insular. But I see something different. I see average Americans fighting for what they believe, a generation of young people regardless of their political affiliations (which will change) becoming less apathetic than before, numerous Americans once on auto-pilot rediscovering the importance of free speech that once was taken for granted. This is a nation deep in the battle of ideas, it is sometimes ugly but that’s how the battle for ideas works. This too is Baltimore, in the short time I was there, I spoke to immigrants living the American Dream, fighters who never gave up, hustlers for a better tomorrow.
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
The Battle of Baltimore gave birth to the Star-Spangled Banners, today’s Baltimore continues to epitomise the American spirit – even in the darkest times the brightness of human endeavour can shine through.
Cover Image Source