City of Fire

City of Fire

September 22, 2016 | Michael Anft


As a young boy growing up in a White working-class neighborhood of Baltimore, I experienced the world of my African American “neighbors” in two ways. I saw them on television, usually as perpetrators of crime. Or I encountered them in person, when parts of their neighborhoods burned down.

My father grew up poor during the Depression in East Baltimore, where he became fascinated by fire trucks and firemen. Watching them at work was a reality show before the concept was created. “Free entertainment!” he told me, where something was always on the line—lives, people’s homes, livelihoods.

He would wake me in the middle of the night (“Mike! There’s a four-alarmer down on Biddle Street!”) and we’d race off, making our way down recently block-busted Harford Road; past Clifton, the former estate of Johns Hopkins; past the Gothic, spooky American Brewery building; and street after street of boarded-up and bombed-out row houses, in pursuit of smoke and flames.

Baltimore just after the 1968 MLK riots was more segregated than it is now, which is saying something. To be Black here meant to be separated or diminished by illegal housing practiceshorrible public transportation, and an apartheid version of education that had not changed all that much since the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Board decision in 1954.

Rioters had converted shopping districts into wartime ruins. Meanwhile, the city’s murder rate was already on the national radar, and a drug problem long in the making was ravaging what was left of entire sections of town.

Good manufacturing jobs that were open to Black men and women started to disappear. Civil rights legislation and Supreme Court victories did not add up to much, at least not yet—and certainly not on the streets where my father and I watched buildings burn with ridiculous regularity. Justice was something politicians talked about. Violence and escape via narcotics were the options left for too many who had been condemned by being Black in Baltimore.

Racism was a given. After the smoke from the riots cleared, much of the White working class voted with its feet, transplanting its vision of the American Dream out to the pallid monoculture of the suburbs.

It wasn’t that way in my house. We stayed put. Later, I attended junior and high schools with kids from those other neighborhoods. Unlike many of my neighbors, it was easy for me to see them as people.

I never pondered whether my dad was trying to do more than sate his lust for fire and action during those trips—until recently. Upon the death of Freddie Gray a little over a year ago, the brief uprising after it, and the tension that simmered into the summer of 2015, I got to thinking about those days and whether part of Dad’s motivation was to show me just how bad much of Baltimore’s population had it. (He and my mother were rare leftists in our neighborhood. My mom stood up at a meeting at my elementary school to decry the racism of parents who wanted to keep four Black girls from attending.)

On our way home, often in the morning’s wee hours, Dad and I would talk about what we’d seen—how quickly firefighters got things under control, whether arson was involved, how the survivors would manage. But we also discussed some of the people we’d met, fellow spectators who lived there, and mull over how they lived with so little in a landscape full of eyesores and with little hope of escaping. We would note their sense of humor, how they helped firefighters lay hose, how upset they were for their families or neighbors.

I’m sure now that my father wanted to nurture some empathy in me for people who looked different, and to do so on their turf, if only during a brief moment. For a boy who was 9, 10, 11 years old, the experience hit home. It also helped draw me toward a career as a reporter—one who went on to regularly cover class and racial schisms in Baltimore and elsewhere.

At this point in a reminiscence narrative like this one, there typically comes some kind of release, a reconsideration of how much things have changed, how things have gotten better. But for many in Baltimore, meaningful change has spent most of the past four decades playing hide and seek. Sure, the city’s waterfront has been “renaissanced” into a playground for tourists and the rich; a handful of neighborhoods have been taken over by well-meaning (and almost all White) hipsters and low-scale entrepreneurs; and a considerable part of East Baltimore has been bolstered, even rescued, by Spanish-speaking immigrants. Yet, way too much of the city looks and feels like 1969. Baltimore is still a city of fire.

A lack of justice surrounds the Freddie Gray case, as somehow no one in blue has been held criminally responsible for Gray’s broken, ultimately stilled body. Baltimore is still the place where a billionaire can get a half-billion dollars in tax breaks while ignoring neighboring areas, or where a private foundation formed to help the city’s disadvantaged invests in private start-ups in hopes they will hire a few people, maybe solve a problem or two. This city helps those who least need it.

Concentrating on racial rights, though necessary, has only gotten us so far, as any Baltimorean with eyes can tell you. Social justice measures are not enough to make the sweeping changes that struggling inner cities need to save the Freddie Grays from the lead paint-laden homes, dead economies, third-rate education, and targeted policing that stalks them, or to stop the schemes of rich developers who prey on the poor.

Even in liberal, social rights-minded Baltimore, economic injustice is the rule, as it is most everywhere else people struggle with poverty and the dereliction of our institutions. That is where the struggle lies. Fighting social problems one at a time, fire by fire, is not enough to fix this city. Years of strong journalism by a cadre of talented people, I am sad to report, has not appreciably changed that, either.

Michael Anft is a finalist for the NCCD’s Media for a Just Society Award for his long-form print article, The Running Man,” published in Baltimore’s Urbanite Magazine last November.

This is one in a series of blog posts written by 2016 NCCD Media for a Just Society Award winners and finalists. Read more about the series here. For information on submitting an entry for the 2017 awards, click here.