In West Baltimore, on the corner of Baker Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, a man stands in the December chill selling shoes off a makeshift table. A block north, groups of unemployed men gather on the street corners in front of the Arch Social Club, a historic African American men’s club.
“West of [interstate highway] 83 there is no viable business district, no economic engine or opportunities for young people,” says James Hamlin, the owner of a local bakery.
Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue was once a thriving cultural center for the city’s Black population during the era of segregation. Famous artists like Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington all arrived in the city to play at Baltimore’s Royal Theater.
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But the venue was demolished in the 1970s, and today most of the businesses that thrived during the era of segregation have closed. Most people who know the area think of the drug trade portrayed in the popular HBO show The Wire, or of the 2015 protests that erupted after police killed a 25-year-old Black man named Freddie Gray. Further east on North Avenue, the paint is chipped off the storefronts and the nearby townhouses are boarded up. It’s impossible not to notice the history of economic neglect in these majority-Black neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, residents claim that the city only responds to service requests, calls to change streetlights, or pick up trash in areas of Baltimore where the majority of the population is white. Black neighborhoods, many of which are cut off from other parts of the city by highways and a lack of public transportation, are largely left to fend for themselves.
But an ambitious plan put forward by the President of Baltimore’s City Council, 35-year-old Brandon Scott, aims to change that by tasking government agencies with finding solutions to the deep structural racism that has plagued the city for decades.
In November last year, the city voted overwhelmingly in favor of establishing a permanent Equity Assistance Fund that would be used exclusively to support efforts that aim to reduce race, gender, and economic inequality. The charter amendment that establishes the fund is one of the first in the country that explicitly mentions structural and institutional racism. A separate bill also obligates each government agency to analyze how it can address structural inequalities and come up with an equity action plan.
Scott, who has been working in local government since he was just 27, said his personal experience growing up in Baltimore motivated him to address the city’s longstanding history of inequality.
“I lived in Lower Park Heights, so you have vacant homes, violence, of course, blight, lead paint in houses, and all of that stuff going on. And then right above me you had some of the most affluent areas in the city,” Scott said, describing a scenario that is typical for Baltimore City.
“The area right to the east of us, right across [highway] 83, is Roland Park, which is one of the most affluent neighborhoods. So when you grow up in the city and you are surrounded by what you see, and then you see the opposite not far away from you, it changes the way you look at the world,” Scott continued.
The differences between Baltimore’s neighborhoods even affect how long residents live. In Baltimore’s Greenmount East neighborhood, the average life expectancy is around 66 years. In Roland Park, in contrast, the average life expectancy is 84 years. The disparities mimic the difference in life expectancy between some of the world’s most and least developed countries.
This starkly unequal landscape was created largely through deliberate policies that aimed to separate the city’s white residents from the Black population. At the turn of the century, in 1910, Baltimore passed an extreme ordinance that prohibited Black and white populations from living in the same neighborhoods. Segregation allowed banks and the federal government to exclude majority-Black neighborhoods from their loan programs, making it nearly impossible for Black residents to become homeowners.
The 1910 ordinance didn’t last very long. The Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional in 1917. But many of the city’s residential neighborhoods remain segregated over a century later.
Researchers have described Baltimore as having an L-shaped corridor down the center of the city where the white population lives, and a majority-Black, butterfly-shaped area that surrounds either side of the city’s main artery. Today, predominantly white neighborhoods in Baltimore receive between two and four times as much capital investment as majority-Black neighborhoods, according to recent estimates.
With all of this in mind, advocates argue that only robust public policy like the kind proposed by Scott can address the problems caused by nearly a century of racist policies.
But one year after the city’s residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bills, the details are still nebulous. Agencies are currently working on their assessments and action plans, and the first agency budgets to be shaped through a lens of equity will be presented in the late spring and early summer.
Mara James, a legislative lead at Baltimore’s Bureau of the Budget and Management Research, noted that there is some concern about how to finance the Equity Assistance Fund.
“The legislation established the Fund but did not designate a funding source. At this point in time, no funding sources have been identified for the Fund,” James said. “We value the efforts of Council President Scott to put equity at the forefront of the City’s work, but our office is concerned about the impact that any dedicated fund may have on the City’s ability to respond to fiscal emergencies or large future costs and ensure we continue to provide core services to residents.”
One number often floated publicly is $15 million, or roughly 3 percent of the police department’s annual budget. But current Mayor Jack Young has also expressed some concern about where the extra money would come from and whether it would be possible to skim money from the police budget.
“The administration is not focused on that legislation. We’re focused on developing an equity framework,” James Bentley, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said about the Equity Assistance Fund.
Bentley argues that the city doesn’t have the ability to finance the Fund because of a state-mandated policy that will require millions of dollars be invested into public schools over the next decade. But the mayor’s office wants to use data and statistics to find new ways to ensure that the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods get as much attention as the wealthier ones, he says.
“When you look at the data it clearly showed a discrepancy, that some areas get more attention to the detriment of others. Mayor Young wants us to use data to show where there are disparities,” Bentley said.
Young has also suggested that tax incentives could be used to attract business to parts of the city that lack economic investment. But some experts argue that purely economic policies may not be enough to achieve sustainable racial and economic justice.
“I wish there was one policy that would solve the history of a lack of investment or neighborhoods being where they are. Tax incentives alone can’t be the answer to structural racism,” said Leon Andrews, a director of the National League of Cities. “It can complement other things that you want to do, but if you just have tax incentives without thinking about the inequities and what that means for the neighborhood, you can repeat displacement and gentrification as we’ve seen in other neighborhoods. Tax benefits for what purpose? Who benefits?”
For many of the youth living around Pennsylvania Avenue, the government’s plans — mayor’s or council’s — mean little if they aren’t implemented.
“We have assets but we don’t have infrastructure,” says Hamlin, the local bakery owner. “The ideas are good but something has to happen.”