Looking to History for the Answers: Urban Decay
Blog post by Digital Projects Intern O. Cade Simon. To read more posts by and about interns click HERE.
The infrastructure of a city often defines its residents and eventually its reputation. There are interesting exceptions to this, Baltimore being a prime example. Baltimore City is a city where everything changes every two blocks, sections of the city appear dilapidated row houses next to abandoned structures sometimes half demolished. These areas in Baltimore appear as if time has left the city behind, with the exception of the bright blue light emitted from the video camera installed atop the intersection. A short drive and a mile later expensive refurbished housing or preserved massive brownstone homes can be seen, people abuzz in green fairly cared for spaces with a notable lack of surveillance cameras, liquor stores and wandering homeless. Return west and there are entire blocks of homes that have been abandoned for years right next to an occupied home.
Yet Baltimore parades a different image of itself, a city boasting massive hospitals blazing a forefront in the medical world, Johns Hopkins, Medstar, Mercy and others. A city with a tourist friendly harbor with new businesses, local manufacturing and big names. Expensive waterfront property, large boats. What used to be immigrant neighborhoods and docks worked by various generations turned into areas desired by a new resurgent interest in younger generations of working class families seeking urban lifestyles. A twist as the children of families who left the city years ago through generations of rapid white flight return only to establish their own enclaves effectively gentrifying areas.
While this seems harmless initially the situation’s consequences are clear in a brief visit to West Baltimore. As the jobs become more exclusive and move elsewhere or are filled by new roles the already poor and disparaged neighborhoods further decline in essential areas. Public education, housing and maintenance, businesses that remain are small and locally owned as larger business move to the fringes of the city. As these poorer areas are alienated furthering an ‘Us vs Them’ attitude which broods and the melting pot that Baltimore stood as for generations quickly homogenizes.
Looking around I realize how many cues can be taken from history to help address this very real; problem. Recently I visited DC where we visited the National Library of Congress. They had an exhibit on the life of Jacob Riis, an American immigrant living in New York city. He noticed the squalor conditions the poor and immigrant families endured in the city encouraging him to document their struggles and improve the living conditions. A bold man who made friends that ascended to high places such as Theodore Roosevelt. I saw a lot of similarities between the disintegration of infrastructure and the consequences it had on New York at Jacob Riis’s time and the aging infrastructure of certain areas in Baltimore now. Water pipes in Baltimore are old, the harbor all though transformed is still suffering from pollution and years of neglect. The New York of Jacob Riis’s time was still experiencing a massive influx of immigrants, this is where the problem differs. Baltimore is experiencing an increase in people moving into the city in exclusive areas such as Canton, Harbor East and North Baltimore. The population enduring the declining living conditions has been here for generations.
As Baltimore moves to make a name for itself hopefully the gap stops widening as people invest more in the city as a whole rather than some exclusive areas. If history has shown us anything all it takes is one determined person willing to get their hands dirty and make connections. Jacob Riis’s legacy has taught us many things and his observations motivate decisions made today. A small example being his decisions to create public play areas for children to keep them out of trouble, this is especially relevant in Baltimore as public figures push for more of these communally accessible spaces for the youth.