A City That’s Hard to Love

Why the Middle Class Has Always Left Baltimore, and Always Will

The Baltimore Chop
May 1, 2015 · 49 min read

Editorial Note: This essay originally appeared as a three part post on my site, thebaltimorechop.com. 98% Of this post was written before Baltimore experieced massive rioting and declared a weeklong state of emergency on Monday, April 27. For even more context about Balimore’s problems and misunderstandings, please read the posts which preceded it about Baltimore’s current development, its reputation as a cheap place to live, the counterintuitive nature of its gentrification, and its misplaced love of Authenticity.

This week’s rioting has brought worldwide attention to the inquality and segregation in Baltimore’s neighborhoods. It’s also brought about many claims of love for the city, most of which ring hollow.

Neighborhood choice in our city is something I’ve thought very much about in the past and continue to consider daily. I wrote a detailed post last year about why new residents choose to live where they do in Baltimore City, a choice which has always been governed by our racial lines.

I am a white man who’s chosen to live across those lines, in the majority black neighborhood of Waverly. This essay describes that experience, which is also the experience in Baltimore’s other marginal neighborhoods like Belair Edison, Pigtown, and Reservoir Hill. (Although the experience of living in the very poorest neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester is decidedly different.)

The Tale of Waverly Dad

The very first concern he raises is affordability. As I stated previously, the household income figure for meaningful housing choice in Baltimore is close to $100,000. That’s what it takes to choose among several very good options. The poster states that he and his wife are both in Education. I won’t even try to guess what their incomes and credit scores and monthly obligations and down payment were. It’s not important. What is important is that if he says Waverly is the best he can afford we should believe him. Waverly is not a neighborhood that people choose if they can easily afford a better one. This definitely strikes me as the kind of honest and hardworking family who has a budget and sticks to it. What’s more, space is not a luxury to a family like this one, which may yet increase in size. Something with a pass-through bedroom or a galley kitchen is simply not an option. A 3 bedroom Daylight or Porchfront house is right-sized for a young family.

So here they are in Waverly, which should be a good place for them. If neighborhoods like ours, Pigtown and Belair Edison are ever going to improve we need to figure out how they can attract and retain families just like this one.

The thrust of our poster’s problem is that his neighbors are supremely ignorant assholes who pose a threat to his family’s physical safety as well as his property, all the while single-handedly destroying the quality of life on his entire block. He talks quite a bit about dirt bikes, but I’m not going to get too much into dirt bikes today. Maybe I will in another post. Then again, maybe I won’t waste my time with it because it’s a polarizing issue and something people rarely read about with an open mind. As is evident in the 300+ posts in the original thread, when reading about topics like dirt bikes people view things through their own lens and bring their own politics and prejudices to bear without stopping to think that maybe, just maybe, they have no fucking idea what they’re talking about.

Anyway, the point is that it’s not about the dirt bikes. It’s about antisocial behavior and how one house can explode the quality of life for an entire block in a marginal neighborhood, as this other Reddit poster is also quickly learning.

Waverly Dad made a few mistakes in handling his situation. They are mistakes that any normal and right-thinking person would be likely to make. His first mistake was trying to politely ask his neighbors to respect his family and their (the neighbors’) own block. In a good neighborhood (and if you have to make bones about what a ‘good neighborhood’ is you can go ahead and quit reading right here if you haven’t already) this would be the best course of action. One neighbor tells another how their behavior is affecting them, the other neighbor sees that point of view, they reach an agreement and become a bit closer because they’ve found a way to move forward that’s in their mutual interest. After all, they both realize that they’ve got a stake in the neighborhood and its quality of life and they realize they’ve got to live together going forward.

That’s not how it works in Baltimore’s marginal neighborhoods. In Waverly, where race and class tensions are high and where social problems like unemployment, addiction, and poverty are abundant your best and only action is to decide exactly how much your neighbors being assholes bothers you and pick your battles. Most things you’ve got to suffer living with. When you can’t abide something any longer your choices are to be ready for a confrontation or call the cops, which can lead to further confrontations down the road.

Of course Waverly Dad’s neighbors reacted to his polite and reasonable request with threats and vandalism. Of course they did. That’s how unemployed shitbirds who spend every day smoking weed, riding dirt bikes and throwing trash around behave. Their reaction was as predictable as the sun rising in the East. There are some of you reading this who will take that racially but it’s not meant that way. And frankly I’m not interested in defending against charges of racism. I have mostly great black neighbors and I’m sure this Reddit poster does too- but these aren’t them.

There are many, too many people out there who want to believe that poor people are just exactly like middle class people but with less money. But they’re not. Many poor people see the world quite differently than those who are living comfortably. Just as hard work is stressful, so too is living in poverty. In 2013 researchers concluded the stress of poverty can account for 13 fewer IQ points and that it’s roughly equivalent to spending each day as if one’s had no sleep. If someone’s tired and hungry and stressed all the time, it’s not a stretch to predict they’ll lash out. Much like Studs Terkel’s 1960′s SteelworkerThey gotta get it out. But threatening your neighbors and vandalizing their property is not acceptable. Just because we understand the rationale behind antisocial behavior doesn’t mean that behavior is excused. Growing up below the poverty line isn’t a free pass to be an asshole, no matter how traumatizing it is.

And it is traumatizing. A 2013 study from the University of Illinois at Chicago found that growing up poor can manifest itself by physical changes to the brain leaving the victims of generational poverty with and excess of fear and negative emotions and a reduced ability to cope with these issues. From the study’s author:

“Perhaps the most important finding,” Phan said, “was that the amount of chronic stress from childhood through adolescence — such as substandard housing, crowding, noise, and social stressors like family turmoil, violence or family separation — determined the relationship between childhood poverty and prefrontal brain function during emotional regulation.”

Hey, I wish it weren’t so either, you know? I’m a Progressive in good standing just like the rest of White Baltimore. I wish we lived in a world where the poor were noble and stoic like so many WPA photographs. I wish we lived in a world where it was the normal thing for the poor to have perfectly healthy brains and study hard and pull themselves up by the old proverbial bootstraps. (To be sure, you can point to several examples but escaping poverty is really fucking hard. If it were easy everyone would do it.) I wish we lived in a world where those who didn’t catch a break were still well cared for and received substantial help for their problems; food security or PTSD or addiction or whatever their problems may be. But I don’t live in that world. I live in the real world and my actions and opinions are based on what I find in the real world, whether I like and agree with what I find or not. So the choices are do nothing, call the cops or be ready for a confrontation. Most people are not well suited to confrontation, especially when it’s ongoing.

Now, there are those in Baltimore who think they know exactly what Waverly Dad is going through. But most of them don’t know shit. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking: ‘Well, I’ve been renting my house in Charles Village/SoBo/Station North for like 6 years now. How different could owning in Waverly/Pigtown/Barclay be? There’s enough crime and poor people and bullshit here too, you know? But we’re here to tell you that there’s a world of difference.

White Baltimore Reacts to Waverly Dad

You don’t really know a thing until you’ve lived through it. You think you have an idea, but you don’t. If you’ve never been in combat, you don’t know war. If you’ve never been imprisoned, you don’t know jail. If you’ve never been married, you don’t know marriage. Some things are learned only by experience and owning a home in a neighborhood like Waverly is one of them.

It’s galling to me to see people make comments on this guy’s post like:

‘All that secondhand weed smoke made you paranoid, bro.’

‘Uh oh! Better call in the SWAT team!’

‘You’re obviously not from here.’

’911 is only for emergencies!’

‘They’re just kids. Boys will be boys.’

‘You’re an entitled racist.’

‘But aren’t you glad there’s so much diversity and vibrancy?’

‘Just move to the suburbs, asshole.’

‘The city has bigger problems, so what?’

‘The kids smoking weed and riding dirt bikes all day are trying to better themselves.’

‘At least they aren’t dealing.’

‘Dirt bikes are like a parade.’

People who make comments like those to a father in distress have no fucking idea what it means to feel afraid in their own homes. They haven’t got a clue what it means to not let their kids play outside. If your Reddit flair identifies you as living in Lauraville or Bolton Hill or Hampden (and there are thousands of know-it-all assholes from all over the country in Baltimore’s subreddit this week) then you don’t know what it is to not just visit a marginal neighborhood, but to call one home- to go to sleep there and to wake up there and to live side by side with everyone else and their problems.

The author of that post is part of exactly the kind of family the city is bending over backwards to try to get to stay. Like many others, this father claimed a great love and pride for living in Baltimore too, but he’s learning some very hard lessons about what living here is really like when you don’t have a lot of money and you intend to do it permanently. If he decides to move, (and I wouldn’t blame him if he did) his decision will be greeted with nothing but snark and derision from the Internet peanut gallery which claims to love Baltimore life so much, not realizing they’ll probably face a very hard decision about leaving themselves before too many years have passed.

I’m sorry to say it, but if you don’t own a home your opinion on home ownership just doesn’t mean much to me. If you live inside the White L, your opinion on what goes on outside of it means very little to me. If you’re a part of the professional class, your opinion on poor and working class neighborhoods just doesn’t hold much water.

My Own Experience in Waverly

Living With Litter

Just the other day I saw a young black kid, about 11, walking down York Road balancing a large meal from Popeyes in his hands. As he opened each item, he’d throw its container onto the sidewalk.

I could take the Hillary Clinton It Takes a Village approach and politely inform the young lad about the implications of littering- for his neighborhood, for the Bay, for his own self-esteem, etc. But how do you think that would end? Unfortunately there’s no scenario where a middle class white man trying to correct a poor black child ends well. Probably not anywhere but definitely not in Baltimore City.

I’m not the only one to face this predicament. Dan Rodricks wrote very well about it in the Sun in December, describing a few times he’s called out litterbugs and been met with Fuck You. On the occasion of his December column it was not only he, but several other men also- black and white- who declined to chastise someone for littering. Because the chances of it sparking a confrontation are very high. Some naive white lady from Glen Arm disagrees, because things in Glen Arm work differently than they do in Baltimore City.

Let’s take for another example the time George Peters asked a lady not to litter in his neighborhood. George is the head of Zero Litter, an organization dedicated to curbing trash in the city. He cares a lot about Baltimore, and is very active in his own neighborhood’s affairs. I know George a little. He’s a very nice guy and not typically confrontational at all. But asking an old lady not to dump trash out of her car window in his neighborhood got him a big Fuck You for his trouble. As much as I admire George, I wasn’t surprised and would have counseled him to pick his battles more judiciously because that was exactly the expected outcome.

Or how about in September when two teenagers beat up a senior citizen for picking up litter they’d thrown in his vicinity. We’re not sure if those kids were black or white but it doesn’t matter. The point is they are ignorant, classless sons of bitches and drawing their ire in any way was bound to provoke a confrontation of some sort.

And these incidents were in Hampden. Do you think you’d have better or worse results on York Road?

The view from my balcony.

Illegal Dumping

In the case of this neighbor, I had to call the city on him. I hated to do it, but I know my neighbor. I know what his circumstances are and I know that asking him to hire someone to haul it away would probably be received well enough, but it would never get done. He probably figures it was me who had the city cite him and he’s been pretty tepid to me lately, but fuck it. I’d rather live with his disapproval than his garbage.

In the case of the trash pile that appeared 3 doors down last September, part of the pile was a full can of lighter fluid. Along come some kids about 10 years old who don’t live on the block and decide to light the pile on fire using lighter fluid. As you can imagine it went up pretty quickly. The wooden fence caught and in two more minutes balconies would have started going up. I hold a coast guard endorsement in advanced firefighting, and I know that a fire with plenty of fuel will double in size every minute. It’s not a stretch to say that the only reason houses weren’t burning was because I happened to be out back at that very moment and happened to own a working extinguisher and know how to use it.

Baltimore Was Burning Before the Riots

The view from my bedroom.

Lest you think this was just bad luck and an isolated incident, another (white) neighbor recently succeeded in burning her house entirely. It was the sort of thing that is often described as an accident, but it wasn’t a fucking accident. She left three space heaters plugged into the same outlet all night long while she was at the casino gambling, despite the fact that she’s on a fixed income. That’s negligence. That’s sheer and utter stupidity. This woman is over sixty years old and she doesn’t know that you can’t plug multiple space heaters into one source and can’t leave them on unattended. Space heaters are not new technology. Their dangers are known. They came with warning labels. All three of them. There’s just no excuse for that level of stupidity. We don’t even know if she’s got insurance- which is a major concern because it’s very likely her house was paid for and that she was dumb enough to let her homeowners’ policy lapse. When you move into a marginal neighborhood, these are the sort of neighbors you’re likely to get. The neighbor next to her, a good neighbor, suffered extensive smoke damage. More on that later.

This Neighborhood is Going to the Dogs

This isn’t Fell’s Point or Hampden where dog park culture is strong and vets and pet supply stores are popping up all the time and people buy their pets Christmas presents and celebrate their birthdays. If I’m wary of a dog getting out and biting someone (or me) at some point that’s a healthy and rational fear.

Honestly, this woman probably shouldn’t be owning a pet and it’s a very lucky thing that dog survived the fire. The right thing to do would be to call animal control and have the situation checked out by a professional. But I don’t want to see it euthanized and anyway I’m not going to take a woman’s pet away after she’s just burned her house. Not even the Chop is that low. But this is yet another situation where you have three choices, and all of them are bad. So you do nothing because it’s the least bad choice- you hope.

The view from my front porch.

Lack of Discretion

My worst issues were never with the neighbors exactly but with they people they bring around to the block. If your neighbors’ friends are making so much noise in the evening in a neighborhood like mine and you ask them to quiet down- even nicely- you have no idea who you’re fucking with. They might be decent and rational people. But they might not. They might have a gun on them. That’s a real concern. This is a city where working men get shot for asking their neighbors to turn the music down. I have friends who have been victims of violent crimes. That dominant White Baltimore attitude of ‘Oh, if you’re not dealing you’re probably safe. If you just use street smarts you’ve got nothing to worry about.’ is bullshit. Maybe that flies in Charles Village but it does not fly in Waverly where they beat and threaten to kill pregnant women.

Real Baltimoreans Have a Long Memory

The murder of the Dawson Family was nothing short of an act of terrorism. As an act of terrorism, it worked. Sure, there are still people fighting the good fight in Oliver, but for a lot of Baltimoreans black and white those murders took a huge toll on the psyche. Personally, I can’t spend very long thinking about it without tearing up. Even today. It’s happening right now. In a way, it made our two Baltimores understand each other a little better. I can only speak from the white side, but I’m sure it’s the first time a lot of white people got it through their thick heads that Holy shit! Black people are just as scared as we are! Maybe more! And they have damned good reason to be! Perhaps if the Internet were as advanced then as it is now there might have been much more useful public discourse between white Baltimore and black Baltimore- but 2002 was still a few years before the concepts of ‘Social Media,’ ‘The Blogosphere,’ and ‘the Smart Phone’ existed.

No one ever wrote a book about the Dawson Family. Someone should.

When you add to that the giant national embarrassment that was ‘Stop Snitching’ in 2004 and dozens, maybe hundreds of news items about witness intimidation and contract murders that have appeared since then you start to get some idea of why when you live in a marginal neighborhood the best course of action is usually doing nothing, and a mere Fuck You is getting off light.

Insiders and Authenticity

When we see people like Sean Wen say to the national press that Baltimore ‘isn’t getting enough love’ and he wants to move from Goldman Sachs to Canton to give it some love my answer is a big Fuck You. Because I still think of the Dawsons. Angela and Carnell Dawson loved Baltimore too. They loved it better than you ever will, Sean. They fought harder than you ever will. They fought harder than I ever will.

When you’re from the Baltimore that isn’t rich, every situation presents you with so many bad choices. You make the one that you think is least bad and you live with the consequences. When you can love a city like that, come talk to me. When you’ve learned to love a Baltimore where the answer to every plea is Fuck You, come talk to me.

It’s hard to do as a renter. As an owner your whole financial life is at stake.

Love Baltimore? Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

I paid what was a fair price for my house. It was a recent renovation and my buying it was the sort of thing that Baltimore’s boosters and cheerleaders would point to as an outstanding success story: a first time buyer is able to stay within his budget and get a beautiful house in a diverse neighborhood that’s walkable, bikeable, close to the Farmer’s Market, etc etc. The house was even a former rental, and having it bought by an owner-occupant is ostensibly a good omen for the neighborhood.

I went into it with my eyes open- not just about the neighborhood, but about finance as well. I knew that I was leaving some money on the table long-term by buying in Waverly. My eyes are still open, and I don’t much like what I see. Neighbors who trash your street and tell you to go fuck yourself every single day and a constant fear of crime is only one of the ongoing battles you’ve got to fight when you own a home in a marginal Baltimore neighborhood. The other, more insidious struggle is financial: fought against shady investors, thieving corporations and the incompetent and uncaring bureaucracy of the city itself.

The Chop as Financial Case Study

Of course, I probably wouldn’t have an escrow shortfall at all if the city had its financial house in order. The city treats homeowners like a cash cow while most agencies and departments have gone years, decades without audits. Here’s a typical news story. Do you remember when that son of a bitch Ed Norris stole all that money? What? You don’t remember because you were not here in 2004? Let me remind you: He stole it because nobody even knew it was there in the first place. That was ten years ago and City incompetence and corruption has only grown worse since then. Would you like a recent example? One could write a whole book about city corruption so we’re just going to stop now and get back to making our point.

Anyway, I have no desire to do business with Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo fucked our city good during the subprime crisis. They fucked us so good they couldn’t even get away with how good they fucked us, having to settle an eye popping $175,000,000 discrimination suit over recent Baltimore lending practices. Part of the reason why my neighborhood and others like it look so bad, and are so far from improvement is a direct result of Wells Fargo’s unethical and illegal lending and foreclosing practices in Baltimore.

So Chop, if they jacked up your mortgage payment and you hate Wells Fargo anyway, why don’t you just refinance? Glad you asked.

I would love to refinance. It makes good financial sense for me too, since my credit is better now than when I bought. It’s very good, in fact. Interest rates are better too, and I should qualify to take more than a full point off my mortgage. Point and a half, even. For those of you who don’t know what a point and a half means: it means several hundred dollars a month. I also make a little more now and can show better earnings than I could in 2007–8.

In fact, last year I strolled on into M&T and had a chat with my banker. “How’d you like to start receiving several hundred a month from an existing customer who’s never missed a mortgage payment?” I said. “Sure.” They said, “Great. Let’s put the wheels in motion.”

Their initial offer was a very good deal. I could move to a 15 year mortgage from a 30 and still manage to save about $250 a month, owing only about $400 at closing. Wonderful. The little guy finally wins one. Not so fast.

In my case the refinancing process took months. The more time that went by, the more “issues” popped up. Each time an “issue” was raised, my prospective payment went up a little more. To the point where 15 years no longer made sense. But then came the big issue: They sent out an appraiser who barely gave the house a cursory glance before he went to pull comps. He didn’t do a good job of pulling comps either- didn’t distinguish between condition or sale type, just said ‘Your house is worth X dollars, good luck.’

It was a low number. Absurdly low. Punch in the gut low. So low he’s lucky I didn’t assault him physically. This kind of bullshit cursory ‘appraisal’ never would have happened just across the road in white Baltimore. In white Baltimore there’s a difference between the auction of a shell and a turnkey conventional sale. In Marginal Baltimore, apparently there isn’t. The final offer from the bank was within half a percent of what I was already paying every month. After several months of being strung along the only satisfaction I got was hanging up on a mortgage broker. Perhaps I might have better luck if I tried again, perhaps not.

Marginal Maintenance

But Chop, you say that could happen in any neighborhood. It is my contention that scenarios like needing a whole new roof in the first ten years are much more likely to occur in marginal neighborhoods where people fix what they can as best they can, not necessarily the right and thorough way. When I say our house was a rehab, it was a Waverly rehab, not a Canton rehab. It’s a nice house, don’t get me wrong, but I could see right from the start where some compromises had been made and it’s meant constant updating/upgrading of little things and more maintenance than would be necessary on a truly top-quality job.

It’s irksome to realize I need a roof at this particular moment, because while I was at sea in February I decided that this would finally be the Spring I got around to the expensive project of replacing the back door, which has looked like this since I was robbed three years ago.

Oh yeah, I didn’t mention that above when I was bitching about quality of life issues but someone broke into my house and stole two televisions, my bicycle, several bottles of liquor and various other items of value. Broke into several neighbors’ houses as well. So one of my many home improvement projects has been putting bars on my windows. Do you live with bars on your windows? I’m here to tell you, it’s pretty fucking depressing.

I’m trying to build a savings account, you know? It’s necessary. When your work is dangerous you sometimes get hurt on the job- like I did last year. I nearly lost a leg and honestly I could have easily been killed. Good thing wI also shell out for life insurance. Not being able to work again until I was fit for duty meant my five figure savings dwindled to zero figures before I was back to work again. I’ve built it back up past where it was, but I can’t save and buy a roof and buy a door and meet the dozens of other obligations that pop up all the fucking time when you’re working class. I just gave the IRS $600 because whoops they got some bad information in 2013 and here’s what you really owed. Laptop just died too. It’s always somethingwhen you’re near the bottom. The nearer you are, the more somethings it is.

But I need to hold off on the roof because here’s my homeowners’ insurance agent sending me a nasty letter. Looks like they’ve chosen me ‘randomly’ to have the outside of my house inspected. Now they’re telling me I’m obliged to repair the cement steps and the porch overhang or risk being dropped. So whatever funds I had for home improvement are going to be dedicated to the porch first, even though it’s about 6th or 7th on my priorities list.

I’m doing a DIY job of mending the steps. I have the skills and the tools and can do it easily enough, but it’s a lot of work and takes several days. When I finish the work and want to sit down and open a bottle of beer, satisfied with a job well done, what do I have to look at as a view from the porch? The trash pile in back and the burned out shell in front. I wish I could explain to you what it feels like to take pains to maintain your house in a neighborhood where so many others are dilapidated and roiting hit half the stores. I don’t have the words. I work hard out in the merchant marine and I come home and work hard taking care of my house and I want to feel pride in it but I can’t. It’s not possible to feel pride in a humble thing. Humility is the opposite of pride. Nothing is so humble as a house in Waverly.

Insurance Woes and the Cost of Living

The house next door is owned by a good neighbor, and it’s for sale. It’s a nice house for sale at a price that I definitely could not afford to sell at and it was listed BEFORE THE FIRE. I don’t know exactly why my neighbor priced her house for really what’s quite a lot less than it should sell for, but if it was worth that before the fire, what’s it worth now that it’s next to a burned out shell? This neighbor also suffered significant smoke damage during the fire, and has had to call in a damage remediation company and get rid of mattresses and had all sorts of other headaches. She’s probably got her own insurance company to deal with who are almost certainly increasing her premiums now, if they don’t find a backhanded way to drop her.

Speaking of high insurance premiums, mine are in the neighborhood of $1700 a year for what is a relatively small brick house. The national average for homeowners’ premiums is $800 a year. That means I’m paying roughly an extra $75 a month in my PITI mortgage total for the privilege of living in a dangerous and violent city. And that’s just insurance.

Should I even begin to discuss Baltimore City’s property tax problem? I could save $1200 year by buying somewhere else at the same price tag. Not just the county, but almost anywhere in America. And that’s the savings for my very modest house. For me, a $1200 a year raise would be significant.

But let’s say you’re doing really well. Two good incomes and trying to raise a family. You have a nice house near Canton Square in the heart of white Baltimore. You’re probably paying $500 a month or more just in property taxes. $6000 Every year- plus a piggyback tax on your income. Even for people who are doing very well, that’s an enormous cost when weighed against needs like child care, school tuition (Because our schools are bad. Bad bad bad very bad and not good. You can talk all you like about charters and everything else but a family’s success can’t be based around lotteries and good luck and maybes. Parents need good schools they can count on and they just don’t get that here. You could write another book just about our schools and the waste, fraud and abuse at their North Avenue headquarters.) Not to mention the typical family concerns of saving for college, retirement, etc.

But what of city services? Recycling! Those bastards at DPW throw more trash into the alley than all our neighbors combined. The more often it happens, the less keen I am on paying their pensions into old age. 311? Waverly Dad called 311 and they told him to quit calling. A professional fire department.Yes that is nice to have but if the people of our city didn’t like to set themselves on fire so often we could probably get by with a volunteer department.

Maybe you’re of the New Urbanist school that values walkability over all? Whatever. I don’t own a car now but if I lived outside the city or in a different city I could take my $2000 from just the first year of property tax and insurance savings and buy a cheap car… and get a driveway to park it in without fear of the windows being smashed once or twice a year.

Here’s the thing about walkability: it’s only worth so much. People, and especially people with young kids, who need to tote those kids around, who only go out socially maybe once a week anyway, generally need to own cars. Culture is great, but if you have to spend an extra 15–20 minutes driving to it so what? People will do that. It’s not a drawback. Outside Baltimore City I also wouldn’t need to worry about getting overbilled for ground rent, which seems to happen twice a year now.

Water and Blood

Even if your bill is accurate, it’s too damned expensive. Water rates are rising 42% in a two year period. Do you think the water coming out of my tap tastes 42% better than the water another city? Do my showers get me 42% cleaner than they did before?

When I tell my story or link to a news article like the one two paragraphs up, these are not isolated incidents. All Baltimoreans have seen the pipes crack and burst in the streets every winter. About half the long term residents I know have been overbilled for water at some point, with some facing the nightmarish scenario of a leaky meter which not only causes bogus bills in the thousands, but can damage your property as well. Talking with a cousin at Easter, he has four inches of water in his Canton basement. An acquaintance recently bought in Hamilton and didn’t hesitate to describe it as the worst mistake he’s ever made in his life after suffering $35,000 worth of water damage.

I see meters leaking on my own street all the time. Water just comes up out of the ground. I’ve lost track of how many times the city has closed the street and dug up a significant portion of it. Probably 8–10 times in the last four years on my one-block stretch of street. They were digging up the next block this week, and they’d probably be back at it today if not for the riots.

I get letters at least once a month from the mayor designed to scare me into buying an insurance policy specifically to cover the installation of smart meters. That contract was a $100,000,000 overbid giveaway to an SRB campaign contributor. It’s one thing to take taxes and use them for good. It’s another to charge me twice as much as it normally costs to keep digging up my street all the time. Oh yeah, That insurance is a sweetheart corporate giveaway too. And it’s not really insurance. And it is very likely to increase in price after you’ve signed up for it, just like Comcast which also has a monopoly in Baltimore City.

If you live elsewhere or are/were just a few years in town and have never paid a water bill I don’t expect you would understand this thoroughly. You have not walked a mile in my soggy shoes.

When aging hipsters like the Chop complain about our taxes being so high, we’re not turning into our parents- we’re upset that the 100% tax premium we pay goes straight into the pockets of the mayor’s rich developer friends or is used to pay $38,000,000 in police overtime and millions in settlements to a police force that’s been failing its citizens for decades, failed Freddie Gray, and failed us all again catastrophically April 27. That is, of course, another book of problems waiting to be written.

A Cultural Note

That’s a false choice which assumes no middle ground is possible. The people who would reduce a complex urban problem like gentrification to ‘Yoga studios good, Confederate flags bad’ have yet to reconcile that in Baltimore’s most desirable neighborhoods our historical old-fashioned overt racism has a direct connection to today’s ‘nice’ ‘good’ ‘hot’ neighborhoods. Without those Confederate flags, Hampden experiences the same White Flight that Lauraville and Belair Edison did in the 1990′s and there are no juice bars and gourmet ice cream shops and craft breweries in the neighborhood- and definitely no Rotunda project. Neighborhoods with black people in them are not readily gentrified. Capital, in the economist’s sense of the word, shies away from them. That’s a very ugly fact but it’s true, and it’s the reason you don’t find any fancy new businesses in the rest of West Baltimore. Hampden’s kitschy Hons were mostly racists who fought tooth and nail to keep blacks out of the neighborhood, and when we celebrate Honfest every year, that racism is part and parcel of the party.

Did any of the Millennials pouring in to occupy $2000/mo apartments and houses actually see Hairspray? It is a movie about racial hatred. When that movie was set in the 1960′s, and even in 1988 when it was released the notion of a fat girl wanting to dance with black guys on TV was radical. It was subversive. The genius of it was that Tracy Turnblatt was an unlikely hero. 1988 Was not the age of Lady Gaga and Glee where pop culture and the Internet celebrated outsiders. John Waters was able to make such a great movie only because he was an outsider himself.

But here’s the thing: we all like to think we would have been right there with Tracy Turnblatt fighting the good fight in the 60′s but most of us would not have. Most of us would have kept to our own neighborhoods and stopped watching the Corny Collins Show altogether.

I said before that the only way to become a Baltimore insider is to live through enough of the things that make us us. The protests for Freddie Gray and the rioting are one of those things. If you live in this city and you’re one of those people who spent all of last week in your own neighborhood complaining about traffic on Facebook, Fuck You. You’re not the kind of person we want to share a city or a neighborhood with. Freddie Gray was a citizen of this city and if you look at him as ‘one of them’ and not ‘one of us’ you are part of the problem. You would have been on the wrong side of history at any time, as you are now.

History didn’t just come to an end in the last year your college textbook covered. It’s still going on. It’s happening today. We went out on Saturday to what was the biggest civil rights march Baltimore has seen in the Chop’s lifetime. We marched from West Baltimore to city hall, where we demonstrated just like we did after Ferguson and after the Zimmerman verdict. We’ll keep marching. There’s other stuff we’d rather be doing. We’d rather get back to all those household repairs or go bet horses at Pimlico. But you don’t get to choose when history happens, you just get to choose which side of it you’re going to be on.

If you believe that what’s going on around the Western District and Gilmor Homes has little or no connection to your nice neighborhood down by the harbor you’re wrong. Maybe you will live in this city long enough to one day realize how wrong you are. But touching on our city’s racial problems brings us around to what is in the end the most insidious financial battle we find ourselves thrown into.

The Black Tax

When I did my math in 2009, I didn’t reckon with the Black Tax. The Brookings Institution called it The Segregation Tax when they studied it in 2001, but I’m going to go ahead and keep referring to it as the Black Tax, which is what it’s always been called in Baltimore. Here’s how Emory University professor Dorothy Brown explained Brookings’ findings in Forbes:

“When most black people buy homes, we hurt ourselves economically.

Home ownership has been an important vehicle in creating a solid white middle class, but it has not done the same for most black homeowners, because blacks and whites buy homes in very different neighborhoods. Research shows that homes in majority black neighborhoods do not appreciate as much as homes in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods. This appreciation gap begins whenever a neighborhood is more than 10% black, and it increases right along with the percentage of black homeowners. Yet most blacks decide to live in majority minority neighborhoods, while most whites live in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods.”

Also:

“Put simply, the market penalizes integration: The higher the percentage of blacks in the neighborhood, the less the home is worth, even when researchers control for age, social class, household structure, and geography.”

And:

“When blacks buy homes in majority minority neighborhoods, we increase the racial wealth gap. Whites who want to experience racial diversity at home also pay dearly.”

I’m one of those whites. I’m overpaying by hundreds every month to be in a house that’s surrounded by foreclosures and short sales, and may or may not be worth enough that I can afford to sell it. I do value diversity, and when I signed on the dotted line I put my money where my mouth is. I didn’t realize at the time exactly how rare that is. If I was naive in any way, that was it.

When you’re a white homeowner in a black neighborhood, you face the very same problems that black homeowners do everywhere, which are significant, life-altering problems even in neighborhoods of black affluence. They’re the kind of problems that force you to choose the least-bad option, and follow through on it reluctantly. That’s something Baltimore makes its residents do every single day.

My very favorite neighbor who I’ll call Eddie lives right next door. Like me, he’s in his 30′s, single, an area native and making near the same salary, which in a single income household is just enough to hang on in the middle class in Maryland. He also owns his house and it’s a pretty nice one. The biggest difference between the two of us is that Eddie is black.

When I came home this Spring Eddie announced, completely out of the blue, that he was thinking about moving to Houston. “No shit?” I said, “I’ve been thinking the exact same thing.” And I have been thinking of moving to Texas. Or Nashville, or Fort Lauderdale, or Atlanta or… just about anywhere that’s not New York, Massachusetts or California. As I said, Baltimore is not a cheap place to live. There are lots of nice cities where we can go live and have a nicer house in a better neighborhood at the same monthly payment and save up to $10,000 a year! That’s a 20% raise for me. That’s life-changing money. That’s how you get into the middle class and stay there. That’s how you save for retirement. If I were to pick Nashville, which is near the top of the list, that’s what I’d save when it’s all said and done. Working at sea, I don’t even have to worry about finding a different job.

Despite the fact that Eddie’s black and I’m white, we both looked at the same set of problems and identified the exact same solution. What does that tell you?

On Finding the Least Bad Option-

Option 1

But is that something I really want to do? As we’ve seen in studies and I’ve pointed out in blog posts, white people will continue to move to white neighborhoods and reinforce a racist system, even if that’s not their personal intention. To move to a ‘nicer’ neighborhood for me means to consciously move across racial lines, and in turn to become part of the problem.

The gentrification of Hampden and Remington is a done deal, even if it’s not yet in its final stages. I could find a Hampden house I like today and move into it. It’s not too late for that, but I can forsee a time very soon when you can’t find a decent conventional sale in Hampden under $300,000- just like you can’t find them around the harbor today. To move to Hampden would mean I was forced to root for gentrification and that I’d have to welcome people I don’t care for very much, like those in the Christian Science Monitor Piece, with open arms and a ‘howdy neighbor’ instead of the more traditional Baltimore salutation of Fuck You.

Besides, I’m only a 10 minute bike ride to the Avenue where I live now. It’s not even like spending more to live in Hampden gets me that much closer to the Wine Source or Atomic/CSR or 16 Tons or the other 2–3 businesses that I actually like which aren’t overpriced and pretentious… or Chipotle, which Hampden has now.

Option 2

As a working class person, home equity is the only chance I’ve got to build any personal wealth at all. It’s the only Authenticity there is. It’s what all those Germans and Polish, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Ukrainians and everyone else was trying to do in their little rowhouse neighborhoods 150 years ago. Around Chinquapin Park for example, I’d get a somewhat better neighborhood, but I’d give up the proximity and walkability that I do get in Waverly, and still have the same intractable citywide problems to deal with. Meanwhile I’d be no better off when it comes to appreciation.

Option 3

I want to call your attention to a very excellent Natalie Smith Sherman piece in the Baltimore Sun April 3 about the latest community efforts to revitalize West Baltimore. The article opens by focusing on Sarah Littlepage, a lifelong Baltimorean who’s lived in Union Square longer than I’ve been alive. She freely admits she’s jaded and tired of fighting for change and wants nothing to do with the new efforts. I don’t blame her. Why keep going to meetings and gathering signatures and doing the thousands of other menial boring things that are civic activism when nearly 40 years of it has brought no change? When you continue to see city hall make the same mistakes it always has? The supposed appeal of the new Southwest Partnership is its size, but size may also be its biggest drawback.

The piece laments the failures of past revitalization efforts (there have been many) and the treatment of neighborhoods by large institutions, but those institutions sit on the Partnership’s board. Also on the board are the types of investors who own hundreds of units of cheap rental housing and many of the area’s more than 3000 vacant homes. Not only should they not have a place at the table, but we should be passing laws that make it impossible for anyone with $15k laying around to buy a vacant house and sit on it “until the market improves” which it never will because all the real money is flowing to the White L and “investors” themselves detract from neighborhood stability and hurt property values.

Speaking of property values, the inequality even among West Baltimore neighborhoods is staggering, with the high end of the Southwest Partnership enjoying an average household median income over $52,000 a year and home values around $170k (almost exactly where I pegged it, by the way) and the low end living well below the poverty line. When you have a mix like that living together, you get the sort of problems living with neighbors I described above.

The Southwest Partnership is happy to report that they’re in receipt of a $200,000 grant from the Goldseker foundation, which is kind of a slap in the face in light of history. It’s enough for Goldseker to say they gave and get some good PR, and that’s it. Morris Goldseker in his lifetime put all of West Baltimore’s ragtag investors to shame. He was the single biggest blockbuster in Baltimore history and he practically invented the Black Tax. What is $200k? It’s enough to buy a few trashcans and some new signage for neighborhoods, the same kind of futile efforts going on in Belair Edison. $200k Would rehab about 3 vacant houses. It’s chump change. If you want real development, you need real money.

The real money is in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) schemes for large development. Smith Sherman’s article talks about UMD and Wexford wanting a TIF. They’ll probably get it, because the Mayor’s Idea of economic development involves giving large institutions whatever they want. Some Southwest Partnership board members are already dubious about UMD’s TIF because of course they are. They’re not natural allies. At the end of the day their interests are very different.

Then there’s the Poppelton TIF. The Poppelton TIF is a fucking Fiasco. Even if everything ran perfectly with it and they got the whole thing done ahead of schedule and made a good return for taxpayers- $1500 1BR apartments in Poppelton??? It’s gentrification at best and an unrealistic total failure at worst. Time and again we see what happens when we let developers promise the moon and deliver projects that make nowhere near the money they’re supposed to.

The casual observer might say ‘Gee, we give TIF’s to projects in white areas like Harbor Point, it’s only fair we should give them to projects in black areas.’ It is my contention that we should be giving out TIF’s sparingly, if at all. We’ve got dozens of very large projects happening right now. We don’t need every single one of them all at the same time. Even as we build a brand new downtown in Harbor East, the same old downtown we’ve always had is struggling with a persistent office vacancy problem, even as Kirby Fowler continues to tell us how healthy Downtown is.

If the projects that Baltimore developers are pitching are such great ideas, such good money makers, let them find the financing on their own! Let the market sort out which ones get built! If they’re really worth building they will pay back their investors no problem and generate tax revenue to boot! At a minimum if we’re going to let big development go hog wild inside the White L, we need a system whereby they’re obliged to make some direct investment outside of it as well. Setting aside a few apartments in your ‘luxury’ development to be $1500 “market rate” units doesn’t serve Baltimoreans at all.

Finally, when Smith Sherman’s article mentioned a 1978 “wave of optimism” for West Baltimore it put me in mind of a very sensible post in the Baltimore Brew on re-engineering MLK Blvd. Gerald Niely’s plan should be implemented ASAP (although it and other good ideas like tearing out the elevated portion of the JFX probably never will be) but what may be most striking is his offhand memory of what Baltimore was like in 1978:

“Until around 1980, West Baltimore held its own. East Baltimore was still under the cloud of a looming expressway, and the Hollins Market area was vying with Fells Point to be the center of Baltimore’s hipster bohemian culture.

As for gentrification, it was no contest — the West Side’s Union Square was the clear winner over southeast neighborhoods like Butchers Hill or Canton.

Then the southeast was liberated from the expressway threat while Poppleton, Harlem Park and Greater Rosemont were upended by the “Highway to Nowhere,” an isolated segment of I-70 rammed between Franklin and Mulberry streets.

The decline of the west began in earnest.”

No wonder Sarah Littlepage is tired and jaded. She herself is of an age where she’s not likely to move, unless it’s to a retirement home or a condo in Boca Raton. She chose her least-bad option decades ago and has been fighting methadone clinics and litter ever since. But what are her Millennial neighbors supposed to do when they start having kids and hear the county calling and find themselves faced with that choice- our choice? If you want to know what life is like in Marginal Baltimore, don’t take our word for it. Track down Sarah Littlepage and see what she has to say to someone who’s not a reporter.

One Step Forward, One Step Back

But let’s face facts- Waverly isn’t the kind of place where the best case scenario often comes to pass. I do hold out hope that my house will remain attractive to a traditional buyer, especially a first-time buyer- because it’s bound to be one of only a few problem-free conventional sales in a neighborhood plagued persistently by foreclosure listings, short sales, handyman specials and other less-than-ideal listings.

A word about foreclosures: in their 2015 book Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate Spencer Rascoff and Stan Humphries (Zillow CEO and chief economist respectively) decided to calculate what they call the Real Foreclosure Discount (RFD) to determine the actual effect of foreclosures on home prices. They calculated the Baltimore Area market to have an RFD of 20%, which is in the top five nationally. As they put it on pages 89–90:

“You don’t need a discount to entice someone to move on a home in South Beach, or in Southern California, for instance. Miami’s discount is a scant 2.9% percent. In Sunny San Diego, the RFD is only 2.4 percent.

The flip side of this dynamic is that areas with low demand will see the highest foreclosure discounts. All sellers have to drop their prices sharply to entice people to buy at all, and that includes the sellers of distressed properties, banks. We see this most clearly in Rust Belt cities.”

They don’t say it, but their findings have everything to do with the Black Tax. A glance at Zillow right now shows twenty foreclosed homes in Waverly proper and only four in Hampden proper. While I’d like to sell my house to another owner occupant, it’s much more likely that offers made to me would come from investors in the landlord business. They can make cash offers and avoid paying interest and other charges which are most of homeowners’ monthly expenses, yet they can get away with charging ‘market rate’ rent and taking in a pretty good profit, with houses paying for themselves entirely in 5–10 years. We’re not at all sentimental about the house or the neighborhood.

Would I sell to an investor? Hell yes I would.

But only if I can afford it. In the worst case scenario, I move out and put the house up for rent, becoming an investor in my own right. I’ve got no desire to do this, but it beats the hell out of losing many thousands of dollars I don’t have to lose. I know what houses rent for in this area and I’m certain I can cover my mortgage and maybe make a couple hundred every month. As hard as it’s been for me to maintain the house and contribute to and feel invested in the neighborhood, it will be twice as hard for a renter. It won’t get done. In that way, the story of the great success for the first time buyer and the neighborhood on the edge does not have a happy ending, because nothing in the neighborhood has changed.

It’s a shame, and no one is really at fault. What so many young, idealistic renters and out-of-towners can’t understand is that no matter how much a person or a family loves the city, we owe it to ourselves to try to make the best life possible for ourselves and our kids, and unless you’ve got the kind of money that can be thrown at your own problems to solve them or insulate you from them, that usually means choosing a life outside Baltimore City. You make the least bad choice, and you follow through on it reluctantly, no matter how much you’ve loved the city.

At the End of the Day

As I write this our city is just a few hours into recovery from the worst rioting any US city has seen since 1992, or at least the WTO riot in 1998. Right now there are people out cleaning up all over the city. Which is a good, positive thing. There are also those shitass liberals who work at Progressive websites and are complaining all over the Internet from their own cushy white neighborhoods in Brooklyn or Chicago that “The Media” won’t make the cleanup the main story. But the media shouldn’t. What happened on Monday was a big deal and shouldn’t be glossed over.

The time for thinkpieces, hot takes, and scolding Tweets is not today. Inside the city, at city hall and even at the corner of Pennsylvania and North there are those who would be quick to claim the moral high ground.

But in the city of Baltimore there is no moral high ground and there never has been. Things here just don’t work that way.

Community cleanup and volunteer efforts are a silver lining on a very Dark Cloud. They’re also not exclusive to Baltimore. People in cities and towns all over the world do that sort of thing after all kinds of disasters. But this is not an earthquake or a tornado. This is something we did to ourselves.

The National Guard is still mobilized in the streets. No one can even say for sure that the imminent danger of civil unrest is actually over. If those cops aren’t indicted and jailed things will certainly get worse before they get better. You may have your opinion about the way things ought to be, but unless you’re living under a curfew this week we don’t want to hear it. We’re not living in the world the way we think it should be, we’re living in the world the way it is.

Everyone thinks they love Baltimore, but few really know it for what it is and truly love it anyway.

It’s a city that’s hard to love.

The Baltimore Chop

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A daily blog about events in Baltimore. Your source for downtown dramatics, indie culture, and the Mobtown social scene. thebaltimorechop.com