Posted on April 29, 2015

What You Really Need to Know About Baltimore, from a Reporter Who’s Lived There for over 30 Years

Michael A. Fletcher, Washington Post, April 28, 2015

It was only a matter of time before Baltimore exploded.

In the more than three decades I have called this city home, Baltimore has been a combustible mix of poverty, crime, and hopelessness, uncomfortably juxtaposed against rich history, friendly people, venerable institutions and pockets of old-money affluence.

The two Baltimores have mostly gone unreconciled. The violence that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral Monday, with roaming gangs looting stores and igniting fires, demands that something be done.

But what to do?

Baltimore is not Ferguson and its primary problems are not racial. The mayor, city council president, police chief, top prosecutor, and many other city leaders are black, as is half of Baltimore’s 3,000-person police force. The city has many prominent black churches and a line of black civic leadership extending back to Frederick Douglass.

Yet, the gaping disparities separating the haves and the have nots in Baltimore are as large as they are anywhere. And, as the boys on the street will tell you, black cops can be hell on them, too.

Freddie Gray’s life and death say much about the difficult problems that roil Baltimore. As a child, he was found to have elevated levels of lead in his blood from peeling lead paint in his home, leading to a raft of medical and educational problems, his family charged in a lawsuit. His friends remember him as a smiling, friendly guy who liked nice clothes and deplored violence. His criminal record says he operated on the periphery of the drug game. He did a short stint in prison, and according to news reports, his mother used heroin.

None of that is unusual in the West Baltimore community where he grew up–nor are they unusual in many of Baltimore’s impoverished neighborhoods. The federal government has said that Baltimore has the highest concentration of heroin addicts in the nation. Gray’s neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, once home to Thurgood Marshall and Cab Calloway, has more recently distinguished itself as the place that has sent the highest number of people to prison in the state of Maryland.


Most of these problems are confined to the pockmarked neighborhoods of narrow rowhomes and public housing projects on the city’s east and west sides. They exist in the lives of the other Baltimore of renovated waterfront homes, tree-lined streets, sparkling waterfront views, rollicking bars and ethnic restaurants mainly through news reports. The two worlds bump up against one another only on occasion. Maybe when a line of daredevils on dirt bikes–the storied 12 O’clock Boys–startle motorists by doing near-vertical, high-speed wheelies in city traffic, or when groups of kids brawl in the tourist zone surrounding the Inner Harbor.


Not long after I moved to Baltimore, my wife’s car was stolen in front of our house, which then was just four or five blocks from North and Pennsylvania avenues, the epicenter of Monday’s disturbance. The police came and asked the usual questions before my wife piped up, “What do you guys do to find stolen cars?”

One of the cops responded that the cars usually turn up a few days later when the joyriders run out of gas. Then, without irony or, seemingly, malicious intent, he looked at us–a young black couple–and said: “If we see a group of young black guys in a car, we pull them over.” We were speechless. Several days later, we were chagrined when my wife’s car turned up out of gas less than a mile from our home.