33rd Street: Creating Communities to Connect, Not Divide

“Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods.” For anyone who has spent much time in this city, that slogan rings true. There are more than 250 neighborhoods in a city with a population just over 620,000 — about one neighborhood for every 2500 residents. There are some advantages to having this network of small, very local geographies. Community associations, especially the good ones, are able to focus their energy on a small area and a manageable group of people. Issues like crime, trash, and vacant homes can be addressed in a hyper-local way: everyone in the neighborhood knows where the problem spots are. These associations are a great place to organize block parties and other fun events, and to develop relationships with some amazing and committed leaders.

However, this “small neighborhood” approach does create a number of problems. In particular, it limits the capacity and ability of these communities to push for larger changes that go beyond their borders — more often than not, it takes more time and effort to get each of the neighborhoods in an area on the same page than it does to actually create the change. The biggest problem, though, is when these neighborhoods create identities for themselves that cut themselves off from what’s happening on the other side of their boundary lines. This issue, unfortunately, is not an accident — but comes directly from the history of how those lines were created. The boundaries of many Baltimore neighborhoods were often designed to keep residents separated from each other, for three different, but mutually reinforcing reasons. Because of that, they often continue to serve that function even today, whether they do so consciously or not.

First, many neighborhood boundaries exist, explicitly, for the purpose of racial segregation. Baltimore’s racially restrictive zoning codes and housing covenants defined clear lines for where black residents could, and could not, live. Those lines often persist into the modern day, even ones that were created over a century ago, because nothing has ever been done to integrate those communities. Places like Roland Park and Guilford were deliberately developed as exclusive white enclaves — and today, those neighborhoods are still exactly that, even if the covenants that originally created them no longer exist. The 1937 “Residential Security Map” — the one famous for redlining certain communities, to make it more difficult for them to get financing for mortgages — reinforced and created a number of the neighborhood lines that still exist today, like Eutaw Place. If you haven’t read Antero Pietila’s Not in My Neighborhood, pick it up and you’ll get a whole collection of stories about how race came to define the borders that have become a part of Baltimore neighborhood maps.

Class segregation — often, but not always, connected with racial segregation — has also created many of those lines. If you have ever looked at purchasing a home in Baltimore City, you have likely noticed how similar houses that are relatively close to each other can have entirely different price points. The only reason: they are located in different neighborhoods. This is not an accident; the higher prices in one neighborhood make it more difficult for people with lower incomes to purchase there. It serves as an economic barrier. In turn, people with higher incomes know that if they are buying in an expensive neighborhood, only other people who can afford it will be living there. People are willing to pay a premium for the privileges that come with this type of high-end community: more attention from city services, a better school district, design features that keep “other” people out (low-income and/or black residents) like one-way streets and gates. Spending more to get that “brand-name neighborhood” is worth it for many people, and the real estate industry is happy to profit from the added price of exclusivity — a price preserved by ensuring the more costly neighborhood is clearly separated from its cheaper neighbors.

Finally, splitting communities into small neighborhoods has often been a useful tool for advancing a personal and/or institutional interest. If a larger community is working together on their common interests — even when there may be differences of opinion or serious disagreements — they have a combined power that can stand up to the City or to major institutions when there are actions that threaten the collective good. On the other hand, if there are multiple groups claiming to represent an area, that can be exploited and turned into a competition between these groups. It’s “divide and conquer,” and it is practiced here in Baltimore all the time. Many neighborhoods are left fighting each other for the crumbs that come falling down — instead of being able to, collectively, fight for a seat at the table where they can have the whole meal. Then, long after the original issue has been resolved, the boundary that was created because of that divide and conquer strategy remains, and neighborhoods are fragmented and never brought back together again.

So if neighborhood boundaries are often a part of the problem, what’s the solution? How can communities organize themselves at the local level in a way that brings people of different races and incomes back together, instead of reinforcing that separation? In particular, how do we organize communities so that they are pushing for equity, seeking to build up the parts of their community that have experienced disinvestment — instead of creating a boundary against those areas, creating different neighborhoods, and then pretending like the problems aren’t shared? Racial and class segregation work by convincing us that we can ignore certain people by pushing them into communities that are disconnected from the dominant society; how do we reverse that process by re-connecting and re-integrating those communities, and making sure that they are allowed to participate fairly in the benefits of society?

One way to do that is to start working along connecting corridors, finding the places where a common interest around a shared path can unite different groups of people. The York Road Partnership is a good example of a place where this is already happening: people on both sides of York Road, a traditional racial dividing line, are joining their neighbors from the other side in addressing shared problems, like public safety and nuisance liquor stores.

For me, I really want to see this approach take place along East 33rd Street. This 1.5 mile corridor goes from Charles St. in the west to Hillen Rd. in the east, connects nine different neighborhoods, and can be walked from end to end in about half an hour. These nine neighborhoods (Coldstream — Homestead — Montebello, Ednor Gardens-Lakeside, Waverly, Better Waverly, Abell, Harwood, Oakenshawe, Guilford, and Charles Village) represent a diverse cross-section of who lives in this city: children and young families; youth and college students; older families and seniors; white, Asian, and black; the affluent, the poor, and everyone in between. But right now, even in places like this where we have mixed-race, mixed-income communities, we divide them into smaller parts in order to maintain the lines of separation — and so it becomes harder to bring people together across barrier lines, like Greenmount Avenue, to push for our common interests.

But what would it look like if, instead of nine neighborhoods, it was actually just one community? Within that mile and a half, there are some incredible assets and resources. It’s between two major universities, with Morgan State’s Community Mile coming south along the eastern side, and Johns Hopkins University on the western side. There are two business districts, one in Charles Village and the other on Waverly Main Street. The corridor has its own hospital (Union Memorial), grocery store (the Waverly Giant), and farmer’s market (Waverly). There are recreational opportunities at the YMCA, Lake Montebello and the 29th Street Community Center; elementary and middle schools, including a brand new building in Waverly and one coming for Montebello Elementary School; and high schools, in Baltimore City College and Mergenthaler Vocational (“Mervo”). There’s a brewery (Peabody Heights) and even an urban farm (Real Food Farm). This only begins to scratch the surface of the assets that are here, all along this one short stretch.

Re-imagined as this one connected corridor, East 33rd Street becomes a place where people can live, with a wide range of housing options; work, in higher education, healthcare, or as entrepreneurs; learn, with a brand new library and schools that go from pre-school to the university level; shop, in the two local business districts; play, with all of the entertainment and recreational options available; eat, with plenty of dining choices and places to get local food; and otherwise meet all of their needs — entirely within that 1.5 mile, half an hour walking corridor. All of the pieces for a great urban environment are already there; they just need to be brought together.

From there, it becomes possible to work towards a set of goals that can make the corridor even better for everyone. Some of those projects could include: strengthening transit investment, by developing 33rd and Greemount as a transit hub and extending the Green Line to Morgan State; re-developing vacant homes as permanently affordable homeownership opportunities through a community land trust; investing in Waverly Main Street to be a thriving, local, Black-owned business district; making 33rd Street more pedestrian- and bike-friendly; and providing quality opportunities for children and youth of all ages. The key is to invest in this community in a way that meets the needs of the current residents, and guarantees that it remains a mixed-income, mixed-race community where everyone benefits and everyone participates in decision-making. There is plenty of existing neighborhood work already occurring around all of these issues, but it is hard for a small community association to take on these larger goals without burning out their key leaders. It takes a joint effort across the whole corridor to make it happen.

What we need, on 33rd Street and on other similar corridors throughout the City, is to start looking at what connects us, rather than reinforcing the lines that have divided us. What keeps us segregated is often not that we’re all that far from each other — the black and white neighborhoods of Baltimore regularly touch one another — but the fact that we believe in the power of those lines, and act accordingly. If we start to connect, however, Baltimore might become a city, not of racially and economically divided neighborhoods, but of great places for everyone.

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