The strange story of my deep love of Baltimore begins with an unlikely matchmaker.
“Good Morning Sisters and Brothers!”
Whenever Ralph Moore speaks to a group of people (large or small) he begins with this heartfelt greeting.I always waited in anticipation for Mr. Moore’s “address” during the morning faculty meeting at St. Frances Academy because I knew he would tell me something I didn’t know or help me love someone I didn’t…yet.
A fixture in Baltimore’s civil society, Mr. Moore has long been a champion for various marginalized residents of the city. When I knew him he ran the community center next to St. Frances Academy. He hosted career fairs, neighborhood Halloween nights, peace camps in the summer, clothes drives in the winter. He was also tasked with giving the newly arrived Jesuit Volunteers a tour of this city where we would work for the span of a year.
A love affair between a 23 year-old Midwestern white girl and “Charm City” was no sure thing.
Fresh out of college in Minnesota, I had no context to understand the vast cultural and regional divides between growing up in southern Missouri and growing up in the inner city. It would have been so easy for my fledgling relationship with this complicated landscape to go awry, mired in mistrust and misunderstanding.
Instead, I first saw the city reflected in the eyes of Ralph, one of its devoted children. When somebody gazes at a space with such committed love in their eyes…well, the courage of that devotion can be contagious. Ralph didn’t begin our guided tour of Baltimore with the Inner Harbor. Didn’t take us to Camden Yards. He didn’t wax poetic about Natty Boh or Domino Sugar. Never once mentioned Edgar Allen Poe.
Instead, he began with the busses. Ralph, has never gotten a driver’s license. This was one way, he said, to always remain in solidarity with the working class and low-income communities he wished to serve. He said there was no better way to get to know a city than to hop on the nearest public transportation line. The physical infrastructure of a place reflects the human infrastructure of the society.
Ralph noted that most of the contiguous transit lines in Baltimore (including the light rail) run north to south, not east to west. This makes it easier for the higher income Baltimore County residents to patronize the inner harbor, Camden yards, Ravens’ stadium and for Southern residents to shop at the malls and eat at the restaurants in northern Towson. It makes it harder, however, for the low-income population located east and west (and those most likely to use public transportation) to get to work, to the super market, to school.
“Why would that be? That doesn’t make any sense!”
The same reason, he said, there are no metro stops in the richer areas of DC such as around Georgetown. Yes, those stops would benefit young people, but they would also make it easier for “them” to get “here.” He noted that MLK Boulevard, just like in so many other cities, serves as the dividing line between those in Baltimore who have and those who have not.
Before this moment, I had always seen roads as something that got you places…not something that kept you FROM places.
Ralph didn’t stop there. He pointed out that while northern cities have “good sides” and “bad sides” of town, southern cities like Baltimore have pockets of poverty bumping up against enclaves of wealth. This, he said was due to the necessity of having slave quarters in close proximity to the masters homes in which the slaves served. Though slavery was abolished, the structures that supported it remained, the juxtaposition of poverty made more visible, more present, more discomforting to those, in more well-off areas.
He went on not to praise but to critique the Inner Harbor. He spoke of promises made and broken by politicians, about over investment in the commercial waterfront to the neglect of the nearby West Side communities.
Perhaps it seems strange that romance with an urban landscape would begin with such stark realities, but what Ralph helped me realize is that to understand people, you must understand the places that have shaped them. As Winston Churchill once observed, “We shape our buildings; thereafter our buildings shape us.” Many of us have been selective in our love of the city. We have allowed ourselves to be shaped by parts of it, but few of us have given ourselves over to the whole.
There are those of us in the city who have never ventured west of MLK. Never renewed our license at the MVA at Mondawmin Mall. Never realized that the gothic castle we pass on 83 as we enter downtown is not a fairyland but a federal prison. We have confused our love of a landscape with a love of the community.
But can we claim to love Baltimore without loving the people within it? Can we claim to understand the city without seeking to understand its citizens? All its citizens? We become uncomfortable when the city view we love is obstructed by the people we don’t know how to love… …yet.
As we clean-up and start re-building in our city, our eyes are rightly turning towards each other, but they must also turn to spaces. We must ask if our spaces are equally inviting and accessible not just to various races, but various age groups. Is there a place for the “whiteheads” to enlighten the “young bucks.” Is there a place for the children to enliven their elders?
How do we grow spaces we can fall in love with as we fall (back) in love with each other? This is not a Utopian dream. Ralph Moore, his wife Dana, and people like them have been forging accessible spaces at boundaries and border crossings for decades. His community center with its peace camps in the summer and career fairs in the winter is a multi-generational space where the needs of all community members might be revealed and addressed.
One thing I Believe (Hon) about #OneBaltimore is that it is about to undergo a dramatic reshaping. The lines that have divided us are eroding and we must choose whether we will invest in walls or build bridges instead…because on the other side of the valley, the love of our life may be waiting.