As the number of homicides in Baltimore surpasses record levels and city leaders pursue shortsighted measures to reduce violent crime by locking up more of our fellow citizens, I am reminded of my youth growing up in West Baltimore during the late 1990s.
Though its broad cultural impact has made it somewhat controversial, the depiction in “The Wire” of life in neglected and disowned communities was often spot-on. As a teenager I hoped that life would improve in West Baltimore communities.
Yet still – and for far too many in our neighborhoods — the afflictions of petty crime, open-air drug markets and heart-breaking violence remain unchanged, if not worse. Notwithstanding temporary ebbs and flows, the reality is unnervingly constant.
I grew up in Bridgeview-Greenlawn, a small community along Bentalou and Edmonson avenues, with beautiful rowhomes surrounding James Mosher Little League’s baseball field, and not far from Carver High School. Like many young people my age, I was raised by my mother with the help of my grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Because my mother also suffered from MS, there were times we needed the help of my neighbors with tasks small and large. Without fail they were there for us, and for each other. They took pride in our community and were committed to its future.
My neighbors were proud of the life they had painstakingly earned for themselves and their families. They were retired educators from the city school system, members of the civil service, laborers at Bethlehem Steel, and held other bygone jobs.
As our neighborhood faced the challenges of urban life in the 1990s, including encroaching open-air drug markets, increasing crime, and underserved youth, these men and women fought back with love and a commitment to progress. They held community clean-ups to rid the area of blight and trash, established a scholarship award that was given to young people graduating from high school, and hounded the Western District Police commander at the slightest sight of drug activity in the area.
As I walked through my childhood neighborhood last weekend, I was reminded that while the beautiful rowhomes remained, the quality of life did not. I arrived at 11 a.m. on Saturday morning, on one of the hottest days of the year, and although there were Little Leaguers playing baseball on the same field where I once played, the children now must face an open-air drug market directly across the street.
Some of the men working the drug market recognized me from our youth and said hello. We had played on the same team in that Little League many years ago. We embraced and caught up on life.
To say the emotions this stirred were complex would be an understatement. Looking at the kids on the field, and thinking back on my classmates in childhood, I was struck by how strongly our futures are formed by whether or not we are given opportunities to succeed.
A bit later on Saturday I found myself on my former neighbor’s porch. A retired elementary school teacher, she described in unsettling ways the anguish of living in fear for her safety and the safety of her neighbors. She described the particular heartbreak of watching the children in her neighborhood grow up into the adults that made her neighborhood unsafe. With an uncommon grace that I can only imagine comes with age, she also expressed her hope that the young men selling drugs near her home would someday find meaningful work — a respectable job that would earn them a stable living and a home of their own.
There was no malice in her heart; just an understanding that our shared struggles are larger than any one person, and that the more of us who can move past them, the better off we’ll all be.
When a once struggling neighborhood achieves stability, be it by reducing the rate of violent crime, improving the quality of its zoned school, or any number of measures in between, every neighborhood that borders it benefits. For too long we have treated underserved neighborhoods as hopeless problems to be contained, rather than as manmade wrongs that demand to be righted. For too long we have thought of funding for undeserved neighborhoods as a drain on our resources, instead of as an investment in stronger neighborhoods for all of us. An investment in any Baltimore neighborhood is an investment in all of Baltimore, and it’s long overdue that we recognize that reality.
Baltimore needs more progressive leaders fighting for families in all of our neighborhoods, so that residents in every zip code in the city have access to opportunity and can enjoy an equitable quality of life. Progressive leadership means speaking up about those things too frequently whispered about but not discussed — like drug deals conducted next door to our kids’ schools. Progressive leadership is not watering down good policy, while turning a blind eye to ills that have lingered for decades.
For too long we have ignored proven practices from other cities, as if the status quo in Baltimore is all that could ever exist here. These are not the failings of everyday Baltimoreans. If we want to change Baltimore for the better, fighting for a culture of progressive leadership is the first place to start.
The memories of my youth and the plight of my West Baltimore community ran through my mind as I watched the City Council review legislation that proposes a compulsory one-year sentence for anyone found with an unregistered handgun within 100 yards of a public space. As many people have already highlighted, the proposal is problematic in any form. It is a simplistic solution for a complex issue.
Removing non-violent offenders from the streets does not create job opportunities, fund public education, improve affordable housing, or drive down poverty, each of which is necessary if we are to truly combat crime. At best, it is a distraction from the real issues and, at worst, exacerbates the problems affecting our neighborhoods.
Pursuing increased arrests that add to mass incarceration will do nothing to solve the issue of violent crime. Instead policymakers, civic and political leaders, should pursue policies that improve public transportation, increase access to living wage jobs, and invest in public education in order to ensure that young Baltimoreans have more and better opportunities and do not have to turn to lives of crime to make ends meet.
As we chart Baltimore’s future, we need leaders rejecting policies that pretend to solve problems by locking-up people but rather leaders fighting for increased opportunity to fulfill the dream of a thriving city for each of us, in every neighborhood.
— TERRELL BOSTON SMITH
Terrell Boston Smith is a former special assistant to Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) and a candidate for delegate in the 40th District, which includes the neighborhoods of West Baltimore, Hampden, Central Baltimore and Ashburton. He can be reached at email@example.com.