The Third Rail

In Baltimore, public investment — and disinvestment — in transportation have figured greatly in the persistence of racial and economic inequality.

This is the third article in an ongoing series, “The Inequality Chronicles.”

In late April and early May 2015, Baltimore experienced days of protests following the death of Freddie Gray. [Edwin Torres]

The Baltimore riot of April 27, 2015, started with a shutdown of public transportation. When students got out of Frederick Douglass High and other nearby schools that Monday afternoon, just after Freddie Gray’s memorial service had concluded, and headed for Mondawmin Mall, the transit hub for some 5,000 of them, they found several hundred police waiting, mobilized by social media rumors of an after-school rampage that would start at the mall and head toward downtown, three miles away. They also found that the bus lines through the hub were suspended, as was service at the Mondawmin subway station. Students arriving via transit from elsewhere for transfers at the hub were simply being dumped there. “Students were trapped in the mess, whether they were choosing to participate or not,” one teacher who’d witnessed the scene recounted in a post on Facebook. “They were thrown into the middle of essentially a battle field.”

It was almost as if authorities were trying to engineer the confrontation that ensued between the growing mass of stranded youths and the outnumbered cops. Rocks and debris were hurled in both directions: Ramallah in Baltimore. So ill-conceived was the decision that, even after months of pressing by local reporters, no one claimed credit for having issued it — not the mayor’s office, not the transit system, not the schools, not the cops. The closure became an act of nature, as unavoidable as a power failure in a storm: transit was shut down.

Transportation enabled the white flight that has long been the defining dynamic of inequality in metropolitan Baltimore.

And, in a sense, there was something fated, or at least deeply fitting, about the role that the closure had played in the unrest, which, over the course of that day and night, would result in damage to nearly 400 businesses, 144 vehicle fires, fifteen structural fires, 202 arrests, and dozens of injuries to police officers. Transportation — links between places, or the lack of them — had figured greatly in the creation of the racial and economic disparities that were the deep-rooted cause of the uprising, more so than many appreciated. Transportation had made possible the flight of middle-class whites from the city — the flight that remained, more than a century after it had first gotten underway, the defining dynamic of inequality in metropolitan Baltimore, where the poverty rate in the core was triple that of the surrounding sprawl and where the prosperous suburbs had long been largely indifferent to the impoverished center. Transportation, or rather the neglect of it by ineffectual local leaders and a state government that had scorned the city from its founding, had helped perpetuate the inequities that remained following the flight, with whole swaths of the city so isolated that they may as well have been under quarantine.

And transportation held the promise of redemption: of rebuilding connections, bridging racial and cultural divides. Even as the riots were once again reinforcing the city’s all too deserved reputation for inequity, advocates and engineers were finally moving forward with a long awaited project that promised to reconnect the long segregated city and reduce the isolation of its poorest neighborhoods.

The invention of the streetcar in the late 19th century led to the development of suburbs like Roland Park. [Roland Park Revisited]

The Streetcar

In most U.S. cities, white flight from the mixed and crowded urban center to the spacious and segregated suburbs was a mid 20th-century phenomenon, propelled by the surge of postwar state and federal road building. But in Baltimore the flight had started much earlier, powered by an earlier transport system. In the late 19th century, the city was at the frontier of a new urban transit technology: a local inventor pioneered the nation’s first commercially operated electric streetcar in 1885; a city-wide system run with steam-powered underground steel cables and operated by the Baltimore Traction Company opened in 1891; and the nation’s first elevated line was built a year later. Within a couple decades, the city would be crisscrossed with 400 miles of streetcar lines.

And the city was at the forefront in another sense, too. Not only in the technological means for moving outward, but in the social and cultural motivation for doing so.

There is a story about cities like Baltimore that goes like this: For a long time — from the onset of the industrial era right up to the postwar years — things were good. In those decades everyone, white and black, had jobs at the docks and the plants and the mills, and the middle class was prosperous and unions were strong and income taxes were high and inequality was low. But then those jobs were automated or went to the Carolinas and Mexico and China, and the middle-class and unions went soft and taxes went down and inequality shot up, and because of all this the cities declined.

To a point this was true, because all those things happened, eventually, in the latter decades of the 20th century. But in Baltimore the timeline is complicated by the fact that people were leaving long before. They were leaving back when the city reached its peak, when it kissed the million-person mark just after World War II. And they had been leaving long before even that — making their way gradually up and out. Away.

In most large American cities, the rise of a significant black population — and the emergence of the “race problem,” to use the deeply inadequate shorthand for a long national history of segregation and prejudice — was a result of the Great Migration from the impoverished rural south to the burgeoning industrial north that started in the early 20th century. But in Baltimore, the country’s largest border-state city, the racial mixing — the racial animus — started decades earlier. The city had a sizable population of free blacks before the Civil War and received an influx of newly freed ones in the Reconstruction era, from southern Maryland and points south. This aroused the consternation of many city leaders. “History furnishes … no record of a successful intermingling between the great divisions of mankind,” warned the Baltimore Sun, the organ of the city establishment, in 1865. Two decades later, the Sun suggested the best course might be just to “let the colored people dissipate away.” 1

They didn’t. By 1890, 67,000 of the city’s 440,000 residents were black. The Great Migration simply built upon that base. By 1940, Baltimore had the highest proportion of blacks of the country’s ten biggest cities — a fifth of the city, 168,000 people — and that was before wartime mobilization brought tens of thousands more to work in the busy factories.

Roland Park was not only one of the earliest garden suburbs in America; it was also the first to deploy restrictive covenants.

From almost the start, the burgeoning black population crowded into the neighborhoods of the near West Side, northwest of downtown along Pennsylvania Avenue. But as the numbers grew, so did the racial stress. White citizens in nearby areas began to fear the “intermingling,” and, once the streetcars started running, many of those with means left behind their grand townhouses for the verdant new developments to the north, places with names like Roland Park and Forest Park. These lovely neighborhoods exemplified the charms of the early streetcar suburbs (Roland Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.). But they exemplified as well the prejudice that at least in part explained why these new planned communities were such a sure investment for real estate developers. Not only did the Roland Park Company build some of the earliest garden suburbs in America; it was also among the first to deploy restrictive racial covenants on deeds of purchase. 2

Roland Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., was a world away from the crowded, racially mixed downtown. It was also protected by racial restrictions. Photograph by George B. Simmons, ca. 1911. [Roland Park Then and Now]

Those who could not yet afford to decamp to suburbia were left to contemplate the prospect of the vacated townhouses next door being occupied by aspirational blacks — in those decades the city was booming and even the ghetto was upwardly mobile. In 1910 George W.F. McMechen, an African-American, Yale-educated attorney, rented a home on elegant McCulloh Street, ten blocks east of where his family had lived in Sandtown-Winchester. (Sandtown is where Freddie Gray lived.) Reaction was swift and pointed. The city passed an ordinance in 1911 that decreed that no black family could move onto a block that was majority white — and vice versa — thereby “preserving peace, preventing conflict and ill feeling between the white and colored races in Baltimore city.” 3

For all the overt racism, what most characterized the city was its effort to avoid outright conflict.

The language of the ordinance reflected discrimination of a typically Baltimorean variety — brushed in a veneer of gentility. For all the overt racism — spatial segregation extended even to department store rules against black women using the dressing rooms — what most characterized the city was its effort to avoid outright conflict. Too much Deep Southern-style racism would have divided this border city’s whites, who counted among their number Quakers and northern-minded liberals who considered themselves above rank bigotry. But avoidance also meant suppressing honest discussion and self-scrutiny.

This 1911 ordinance was the first of its kind in the country; it was also immediately controversial and a few years later, in 1917, was struck down when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such race segregation unconstitutional. But soon enough its intent was carried through when, in the 1930s, the newly created, federally mandated Home Owners’ Loan Corporation began to draw colored lines — the notorious red lines — on maps across the nation. Working their way from city to city, federal appraisers diligently decreed which parts of town were stable enough to qualify for government-backed mortgages. In Baltimore the red lines tracing the riskiest districts neatly delineated the black ghetto.

Even as they were being drawn, however, the lines were weakening. By the early 1940s, a fifth of the Baltimore’s residents, mostly black, were squeezed into 1.5 square miles, one-sixtieth of the city’s area, with an average of eight people per home in black neighborhoods. Yet many had attained a measure of prosperity during the war years, building ships at Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point and planes at the Glenn Martin aircraft plant (once Mr. Martin relented and finally hired blacks). 4

There were, in other words, even more George McMechens with the means to move up and out. Except now the flight from the threat they presented was about to become super-charged.

A whole swath of West Baltimore was demolished to make way for the eastward extension of I-70 into downtown. In the end, all that was built was a 1.4 mile spur, the “Highway to Nowhere.” [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

The Highway

With its fixed linear routes, the streetcar produced a specific, limited sort of suburban geography: clusters of neighborhoods near station stops. With its limitless range, the private automobile empowered a new and endlessly extendable suburbia — and gave new propulsive momentum to the old racial dynamics. And so the flight of whites from the center proceeded ever further up the corridors of escape — Liberty Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road to the northwest, Edmondson Avenue due west, and Harford Road to the northeast. Equilibrium seemed impossible: in one neighborhood after another, as the middle-class blacks arrived, the middle-class whites left. Edmondson Village, a predominantly Catholic area on the west side, flipped almost entirely during the late 1950s, from majority white to majority black. In Blockbusting in Baltimore, historian W. Edward Orser relates the experience of a black homeowner who watched as the neighborhood “began to change on a massive scale.”

Margaret Johnson, a pioneer from the era of initial African American settlement … described her own feeling about the flight of her white neighbors: “They were friendly, but they were prejudiced. They didn’t want to live where colored people did … They don’t have to say it … They didn’t tell you [why they moved]; they just moved!” 5

In those decades, the blockbusters — the rapacious real estate agents who sold homes to blacks in white neighborhoods with the goal of triggering flight and profiting from the panic — were both accomplices and enablers. But just as in the prewar years, the public sector played a part too. It was the federal government that subsidized the mortgages for those new homes in the suburbs and explicitly refused to underwrite loans for blacks. (Or, as Ta-Nehisi Coates, who grew up in Baltimore, across the street from Mondawmin Mall, has put it, “The American real-estate industry believed segregation to be a moral principle.”) Still more important, it was the government that paid for the highways that made such a remove from the city feasible. The Baltimore Beltway — a.k.a., I-695 — was the very first metropolitan loop completed as part of the Interstate System. First planned in the late ’40s and finished in 1962, this high-speed expressway not only allowed motorists to access a much broader radius than had the older streetcars or even arterial roads; it also made possible a whole new realm of suburban existence — a circuit of edge cities and shopping malls running from Towson in the north to Columbia in the south — that could bypass the fading old city entirely.

The white migration out of the increasingly black city is still being rationalized as nothing but a reach for the American dream.

But even with these inducements, even with the high-speed roads and brand-new houses, the movement still required the instinct, the desire, to flee. To this day, the white migration out of the increasingly black city is being rationalized as nothing but a reach for the American dream, the single-family home with the big yard and picket fence. Yet it was hard not to notice that a lot of the houses beyond the Baltimore city line didn’t much look like the dream — didn’t have much of a yard and were perhaps even smaller, and certainly less grand, than many of the homes that were being left behind — the stately brick townhouses of Union Square, where H.L. Mencken lived; the more ornate ones of Reservoir Hill, with their porches and pediments; the spacious single-families in Park Heights. And hard not to notice too that the parks out in the suburbs were mere scrub, leftover lots amid the land speculation, compared to the rolling green landscapes of Druid Hill Park. Once, the city’s thriving Jewish community had gathered in dignified temples on the rim of Druid Hill, stunning markers of immigrant success over a couple of generations. 6 But in the postwar years these were abandoned for wan substitutes like the synagogue in the Owings Mills business park, across from the ready-mix concrete plant.

Growing up not far from those grand temples along Druid Hill was Kurt Schmoke, who would follow in the path of George McMechen and become another African-American, Yale-educated attorney and, in the mid-’80s, the first black to be elected mayor of Baltimore. Schmoke’s parents were archetypes of upward mobility, a Department of Defense chemist and social worker who had moved in the 1950s from the heart of the black West Side to the newer neighborhoods of the northwest — solidly built rowhouses with deep porches, not far from the Druid Hill zoo and reservoir. He enrolled as a second-grader at Gwynns Falls Elementary. “I had a white teacher. The principal was white. I remember some sixth graders being white,” he recalls. “By the time I got to the sixth grade, there were few white teachers. And no white students.” 7

Mondawmin Mall swiftly transformed from a place with a Jim Crow coffee shop to a place where whites feared to tread.

It happened so fast. Gwynns Falls’ student body was all white before Brown v. Board, in 1954, made school segregation unconstitutional. Baltimore officials responded with surprising speed, in at least some parts of town, and when Gwynns Falls opened that September, it was 44.5 percent black. One-sixth of the white students withdrew quickly, and more followed, and by next September, the school was more than three-quarters black. The year after that, when Schmoke arrived, it was 93 percent black. In a mere three years, it had flipped almost completely. 8

It caught even the businessmen unawares. Developers had designed a small shopping mall — one of the first in Baltimore, a big deal — in the heart of the neighborhood. Their assumption that the clientele would be white was so strong that the mall included a Jim Crow coffee shop, not so subtly named the White Coffee Pot. But by the time the mall opened, in 1956, the expected patrons were already heading west up Liberty Heights Avenue. Within a few years, Mondawmin Mall had transformed from a place with a coffee shop that didn’t allow blacks to a place where many whites feared to tread — and outside of which, years later, teenagers and cops would face off with rocks in hand. 9

The Baltimore light rail line, opened in 1992, snaked slowly through downtown traffic and stoplights, mostly along the once thriving retail corridor of Howard Street. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

The “Loot Rail”

In the car-centric postwar years, as mile after mile of the Interstate was paved, the old streetcars began to disappear. By the early ’60s, the system had dwindled to two lines, the north-south Number 8 and the east-west Number 15, and on November 2, 1963, they ran for the last time. Baltimore was now a bus and car city. The privately run Baltimore Transit Company, which had operated the streetcars and buses since 1935, was subsumed by the state into what would eventually become the Maryland Transit Administration, in 1970.

It was a fateful transition: the assumption of the city’s transit system by the state government. For Maryland’s relationship with its largest city had been fraught from the very start. Unlike Boston and Philadelphia, Baltimore was founded not by pilgrims or idealists newly arrived from the Old World; it was settled at a later stage of colonial development, when Maryland was already firmly in the grip of the distinctly un-idealistic, slave-owning proprietors of large tobacco plantations. These men looked warily upon the new settlement along the Patapsco. With reason: as a burgeoning harbor town and hub for milling grain, the city was not dependent on slave labor, and so was bound to present a political challenge to the plantations on that paramount matter. When Baltimore got its charter in 1729, its commissioners were selected not by local residents but rather by the overlords in the state capital of Annapolis. It was not until well into the 19th century that the city, one of the largest in the country, was given seats in the House of Delegates (just two, in a chamber of eighty). 10 These historical fault lines — the tensions between the wealthy rural landowners and the growing industrial city — proved to be deep and potent. And they help explain why, in the mid 20th century, the state was so ready to reassert its authority over its largest city — a city at that point in profound upheaval.

The demographic data are as revealing as ever: From 1950 to 1970, Baltimore’s white population had plunged by a third (reduced by 243,000 people). Over those two decades, the proportion of whites in the Baltimore metropolitan area who lived in the city proper plummeted by more than half, from 65 percent to 30 percent. Meanwhile the population of Baltimore County, the suburb immediately surrounding the city, had more than doubled. So racially monolithic was this influx that the county’s share of black residents, never high to begin with, dropped by half.

[Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

The planned but unbuilt I-70 extension resulted not only in widespread demolition but also disinvestment along the route through Harlem Park. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

But again, it’s vital to understand that most of that flight came long before the convulsions of the late 1960s and ’70s — before the dramatic surge in street crime and heroin addiction, 11 before the proceduralism of civil rights gave way to the agitations of black nationalism, and also before the big plants, like Bethlehem Steel and Western Electric, started to really shrink in the late ’70s and ’80s. In April 1968, when the city was gripped by three days of riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination — six dead; more than 700 injured; 5,500 arrested; 1,050 businesses looted or burned — it was more coda to white flight than instigator of it.

Baltimore had unraveled — had been unraveling for decades, unspooling itself over a wide expanse of central Maryland. And to make it possible to traverse the new metropolitan distances, the state proposed a transportation solution that underscored the starkly bifurcated politics of city and suburb, black and white. For those in cars, there would be more highways; including, notably, an expressway to connect the harborside downtown on the east with I-70, the transcontinental Interstate that ended not with a link to I-95, as planned, but at a park-and-ride on the western edge of town. To construct this elevated roadway required knocking down much of Harlem Park — one of the near west neighborhoods that had long been a stronghold of middle-class African-American community. If you went by in 1969, you’d have seen the painted interior doors from the demolished homes — blue, pink, red — standing forlorn guard in a circle around the gray rubble.

Baltimore had unraveled — had been unraveling for decades, unspooling itself over a wide expanse of central Maryland.

And for those without cars, the state planned a mass transit system — a recognition on the part of at least some in power that civil rights meant not just equality in schools and workplaces and housing (the Fair Housing Act passed in April 1968) but also the means to access schools and workplaces and housing. Three months after the 1968 riots, the state released a master plan for Baltimore that envisioned three rail lines running through downtown — a U-shaped route from northwest of the city and back up to its northeast; a north-south route extending to BWI airport; and an east-west route straight across. It was an ambitious plan — its span outstretched the Beltway — but not excessively so for a city that remained, even with the outward flight, the seventh largest in the country.

The city’s first rail transit line, opened in 1983, runs for 15 miles. It remains the city’s only heavy-rail subway line, grandly named the Metro. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

The Baltimore plan was released within days of the proposal for the new Metro system in Washington, D.C., which had experienced its own riots that April. Washington was, at the time, significantly smaller than Baltimore, by about 150,000 people. But it had the incalculable advantage of housing the fast-growing federal government, which wanted the Metro, and would pay to get it built. It also had a bureaucratic advantage: the Metro project was overseen by a metropolitan board — people drawn from the region who had its interests at heart. Overseen by a state with a long record of ambivalence toward its major city, the proposed Baltimore transit system benefited from no such will or wherewithal. As the ’70s wore on, successive administration in Annapolis strung the project along largely in hopes of collecting bigger cuts of federal aid. And further delaying matters was resistance in the suburbs. Baltimore County fought to secure promises that the transit stations in their midst would be solely park-and-ride: suburbanites wanted no multi-family apartments built to take advantage of the transit proximity. Anne Arundel County, a heavily white county to the south, home to Annapolis, fought for years against any lines at all.

The inadequacies of public rail left many Baltimoreans ever more reliant upon a bewildering scattering of bus lines.

The first leg of the first mass transit line did not open until 1983. When the line was completed a decade later, it ran below ground for 6.2 miles and above ground for 9.2, extending from the suburbs northwest of the city through downtown before ending at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the east — well short of completing the envisioned U. Rather grandly, it was called the Metro — the city’s lone heavy-rail line claiming the name that in cities like Paris and Washington designate entire systems. The second line, the north-south one, opened in 1992. To save money, it was downscaled to light rail. It ran south from the northern suburbs (though it skipped one of the toniest, the enclave of Ruxton, which wanted no part of “loot rail”) and into the western edge of downtown, where it slowed to an excruciating crawl as it negotiated the stoplights of the urban grid before continuing south to BWI airport, for a length of thirty miles. This second line did serve to bring the (mostly white) northern reaches of the city and suburbs to Harborplace, the durably popular mall-like tourist trap that opened on the Inner Harbor in 1980, as well as to the handsome new baseball park at Camden Yards, which opened at the same time as the light rail. But the line’s utility did not go much beyond that; in fact the light rail didn’t even connect with the Metro — the closest it came was a block’s walk at Lexington Market.

That was Baltimore mass rail, two decades after the system was proposed: two lines that did not connect, far short of what one needed for the network effect of a true system. Inevitably, the inadequacies of public rail left many Baltimoreans ever more reliant upon the buses — a bewildering scattering of lines that typically followed the old streetcar routes, comprehensible only to those with no alternative but to rely on them. 12

By 1990, only 15 percent of whites in metro Baltimore lived in the city, and the schools were more than 80 percent black. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

In West Baltimore neighborhoods like Harlem Park or Freddie Gray’s Sandtown-Winchester, life expectancy is roughly two decades shorter than in wealthy enclaves like Roland Park, just a few miles away. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

People still describe suburban flight as a reach for the American dream — the big house in the suburbs. But many of the abandoned city houses were grand. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

Ramelle McCall was one of those with no alternative. He grew up in Sandtown-Winchester in the ’80s and ’90s, and early on had become aware of the risks of his environment — there was his uncle, a Vietnam veteran turned cop who was shot dead on duty in East Baltimore in 1972, and later on, there were his two incarcerated cousins.

He had also become aware that it would require superhuman patience and will to extricate himself from the traps of the neighborhood. One crucial test of patience was the daily commute: Ramelle was on all too familiar terms with the city’s transit patchwork. His mother was a bus driver who, he says, “busted her butt for the MTA.” Mornings, she’d drive all the way across town to the Eastern Division bus depot. Her routes took her all around the east side — just as poor as the west side, but somehow less bleak in its decline, perhaps because it had always been the humbler side of town, with narrow rowhouses for the workers from the nearby docks and canneries. Some of her routes even went out into the east-side working-class suburbs of Dundalk and Middle River. Sometimes she’d bring Ramelle along, giving him a broader view of his city. Eventually, she got her big break: when the light rail opened in 1992, she became its first female operator. Riding the rails beat the bus, hands down — no more snaking around the spaghetti lines of the bus map, sitting in traffic, making the constant stops and starts required by a system that seemed to overcompensate for the long waits between buses by making it possible to get on or off every few blocks. “She loved it,” McCall recalls. “It was a straight shot. She was able to take great pride in it.” 13

Soon enough, McCall started depending on this threadbare network himself. An aspiring young actor, he managed to transfer into an arts magnet high school in the county and thus escape a city school system that bore the traces of white flight even more starkly than the city itself, with a student body that was, by 1990, more than 80 percent black. Rising at 5 a.m., he’d catch a ride into downtown with his mother. They’d drive past the gash that had been left on the near-west side by the late-’60s demolition for the I-70 extension — that misbegotten project had been abandoned in 1981, leaving an orphaned 1.4 mile expressway, the “Highway to Nowhere,” that jutted west from downtown only to peter out in the midst of the Harlem Park neighborhood it had wiped out.

Downtown, Ramelle would catch the No. 8, the north-south bus that had assumed the route (with the same number) of one of the last two streetcars, which would take him on the hour-plus ride up into Towson. Just zoning out with his music, almost two hours end to end. College was more of the same. To get to Villa Julie College, a commuter school outside the Beltway, 14 he’d take the No. 15 bus — the one that ran the route of the other last streetcar line — to the Metro rail and then to another bus. The bus on the final leg would be full of domestic help coming out for the big houses in Baltimore County. Housekeepers and the college kid.

Edmondson Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Edmondson Village in West Baltimore. In the 1950s, the white, mostly Catholic neighborhood flipped to almost all-black in a decade. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

The Bus Stop

Sherrilyn Ifill had seen it too, in the same years as Ramelle McCall was making his treks. Ifill, an attorney, had come to town in the early ’90s to teach at the University of Maryland School of Law and was then living near Edmondson Village, the far West Side neighborhood that flipped so quickly in the ’50s. 15 She’d seen the women standing out at the bus stops on Edmondson Avenue before daybreak, waiting to ride to work downtown or at the big east-side hospitals. She had thought often about the consequences of their long commutes, the kids left to get themselves off for the day on their own, the twelve-year-old getting breakfast for younger siblings, getting them dressed, getting them to school.

“And once they get to school and maybe don’t have their homework and maybe haven’t had their breakfast, what’s the teacher’s reaction to that student?” Ifill said in an interview. “What’s our reaction as a society to those children? We talk about that mother, about people not doing their job. But we aren’t willing to follow the thread to that bus stop on Edmondson Avenue — to understand the larger problems in the context of transportation decisions over decades, in the context of why Baltimore doesn’t have a city-wide system.”

Why indeed. In fact what was missing from the planned city-wide system, what would have served those women and McCall, was the third rail line, the east-west one. But in those years, in the 1990s, it remained a mere rumor, three decades after the release of the 1968 master plan.

In the absence of the third planned rail line, residents rely on buses to carry them east-west across the city. This bus is headed west on Edmondson Avenue to the Social Security complex outside the city. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

Riding the bus in Baltimore is a confounding experience. Buses run way behind schedule and stops are maddeningly close together. Here the 23 is headed east on Edmondson Avenue toward downtown. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

That it had remained unbuilt for so long seemed not unrelated to the fact that its route was from one poor area of the city to another. Unlike the other two lines, which connected at least some suburbanites to their jobs downtown, the third line was intended to transport people from West Baltimore to jobs across the city in the downtown business district and at the big employment hubs at either ends of the line, the Social Security and Medicare complex in the west and the Hopkins-Bayview medical complex in the east. Whatever grudging support the first two commuter lines had gotten from the suburbs was even harder to come by for the public transit line that would serve the struggling city. For by then white flight had persisted to the point where the city, in the ’90s, was now more than sixty percent black and the city’s share of the region’s white population had fallen by half again in the two decades since 1970, to a mere 15 percent.

To be sure, there were still pockets of the white working class, the ones who had not been able to afford the flight out — mostly Eastern European along the harbor, and, in the uptown mill village of Hampden, the descendants of the Scots-Irish who’d come up from Southern Appalachia for the war industry jobs just as Southern blacks had. And there was the white middle and upper middle class, what remained of it: a funnel shape, wide across the north-central old-money triumvirate of Roland Park, Guilford, and Homeland, liberated of covenants and slightly frayed into shabby gentility, 16 but still deeply homogeneous and chock-a-block with private schools, then narrowing below the main Johns Hopkins campus in Homewood into the handsome brownstone districts of Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill, and, below that, by the harbor, the historic quarters of Federal Hill and Fells Point. In these precincts, an air of liberal concern for the rest of the city predominated — these residents were, after all, willing to pay far higher taxes than they would if they moved to the County. But the extremity of the gaps was undeniable: life expectancy in Roland Park was twenty years longer than in West Baltimore neighborhoods like Sandtown-Wincester or Harlem Park or Upton-Druid Heights.

Simply talk metro solidarity, and the calls would pour in from the suburbs, crackling with resentful indifference.

The city’s contradictions were playing out in its politics. For the first time, the majority-black city had elected a black mayor: Kurt Schmoke, who took office in 1987 and would serve three four-year terms. Soon after taking office, the polished Yale graduate would make national headlines by proposing to scale back the local response to the federal War on Drugs, which, together with the epidemic of heroin, had helped turn Baltimore into one of the most violent spots in the Western Hemisphere. (Schmoke’s efforts to de-escalate the campaign were the partial inspiration for the “Hamsterdam” episodes of The Wire, described by one commentator as its “bravest and most radical story line.”) But years later Schmoke recalls that he got hardly less blowback whenever he would argue on the radio call-in shows for a seemingly more prosaic notion: “metropolitan cooperation.” And this was without him even raising the matter of suburban annexation, which he believed was the ultimate solution to the city’s plight. (A statewide constitutional amendment passed in 1948 — as white flight was accelerating in the postwar years — made it all but impossible for the city to annex more territory from Baltimore County, from which it had been independent since 1851. 17) Simply talk metro solidarity, and the calls would pour in from the suburbs, crackling with resentful indifference. “Most people who’ve left the city don’t feel they have any particular responsibility for its current situation. That includes elected officials as well as private citizens,” Schmoke said in a recent interview in his office at the University of Baltimore, where he is now president. “They don’t see the need to try to assist people left behind.”

That was putting it mildly. Lack of responsibility doesn’t fully capture, say, the sentiment behind the 1997 declaration by a commissioner in Carroll County, a rural area turned exurb to the northwest of the city. “If Baltimore dies, it dies,” he said. “Maybe we will dig it up and make farmland out of it. Why should we bail Baltimore out or be drawn into its problems?”

Few put the sentiment this bluntly. But it was widespread enough that most politicians felt obliged to pander to it. Indifference to the future of the city ran deep and informed not just transit decision-making but housing policy as well. Even at the end of the 20th century — several decades after the Fair Housing Act — most suburban counties still allowed landlords to discriminate against tenants with rental vouchers, and rebuffed efforts to construct subsidized units in their own jurisdictions — the sort of policies that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights had once said amounted to a “white noose” around Baltimore. 18 This had not kept a growing stream of middle-class blacks from moving into the suburbs, but it helped explain why they ended up clustered just across the city line from West Baltimore, in areas barely less segregated. 19 In 1994, an eastern Baltimore County legislator warned that public housing programs would bring in black tenants who needed to be “taught to bathe and how not to steal.” That same year, the uproar over Moving to Opportunity — an experimental program to move low-income families out of poor neighborhoods and into the suburbs or better areas of the city — was so strong that even Democrats like Senator Barbara Mikulski, a native of Southeast Baltimore, sided with opponents, effectively putting a stop to the effort. 20

This, then, was the “context” that helped explain “why Baltimore doesn’t have a city-wide transit system” — and why the third line hadn’t got built. Even more than with the Metro and the north-south line that brought suburban day-trippers to the Inner Harbor, it would be up to the city to muster the support to construct this last part of the ’68 master plan.

But by the turn of the millennium, the city was turning enough of a corner that going it alone was starting to seem feasible.

The Red Line

Back in the early ’70s, long before she had helped block Moving to Opportunity, Barbara Mikulski had made her name in Baltimore politics as a neighborhood activist leading the fight against one of the proposed new highways, a link between Interstate 95, which crosses just south of the city on an east-west axis, and Interstate 83, the expressway that enters town from the north. The link would have cut straight through historic Fells Point and Canton, on the waterfront just beyond. These neighborhoods were mostly white — and, unlike the I-70 link, this highway was blocked before any demolitions. 21

By the first decade of this century, these southeast Baltimore districts that had been spared were the locus of a remarkable rebirth. Redevelopment had spread beyond the Inner Harbor — the narrow neck of the harbor was now bracketed by a wall of wall of Ritz-Carlton condos on one side and, on the other, by “Harbor East,” a growing cluster of high-rise hotels and upscale office buildings. The old white working-class neighborhoods spreading up from the docks, Canton and Locust Point, with their intact blocks of 19th-century rowhouses, were being populated by urban professionals. There was even a new world-famous sports clothing company, Under Armour, that set up its headquarters in the old Tide Detergent plant down along the water.

Southeast Baltimore has been the locus of a remarkable rebirth, with a growing cluster of upscale office and residential buildings. Harbor Point, on the waterfront near Fells Point, is scheduled to be completed in 2022. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

All this upmarket real estate redevelopment was heartening, though any full accounting of the history has to come with an asterisk: it was all made possible by considerable public funding going all the way back to the quasi-public corporations and tax credits first established in the ’70s by William Donald Schaefer, the city’s eccentric, boosterish mayor, and then used to spur the Inner Harbor and other downtown projects, including the National Aquarium and the convention center. 22 Not only were the gleaming new buildings — largely focused on stimulating tourism — not doing much to benefit those in nearby West and East Baltimore; the subsidized projects were, quite literally, capitalizing on their struggles: their private sector developers were qualifying for tax breaks from the city on the grounds that things were so bleak so close by that the only way these new projects could succeed was with public subsidy. The men who ran the Baltimore Development Corporation had a phrase for it: “the Baltimore arithmetic.”

The upmarket redevelopment of Harbor East was made possible by considerable public funding.

Nonetheless, as the neighborhoods prospered — the arrival of Whole Foods in Harbor East seemed to put an exclamation point on the revival — they helped give new life to the prospect of the old third rail line. No longer was the line merely a link for impoverished West Baltimore; its eastern stretch would run through the most active and gentrifying frontier in the city, especially if it was directed on a more southeasterly route, closer to the waterfront. This potential helped generate support for the line among the city’s business establishment, which, stodgy as it might be, recognized that the rising cities that Baltimore aspired to be grouped with, places like Denver and Minneapolis, were building rail lines for the millennials who actually seemed to prefer transit riding to car commuting.

Fueled by this ferment, the third line finally got moving. In 2002 Governor Parris Glendening, a Democrat from the Washington suburbs who was enamored of smart-growth urbanism, gave the nod to get the east-west line built. After exhaustive study, a plan was eventually developed for a fourteen-mile route from the Social Security offices in the west to Hopkins-Bayview in the east. As with the second line, the north-south one, the third line would be light rail, to cut costs. But to avoid the creep through downtown that slowed that earlier line, the new one would incorporate a 3.4-mile tunnel. It would be called the Red Line.

The light rail served to take some white suburbanites to downtown destinations like the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards. But many still scorned the “loot rail” — the wealthy inner-suburban enclave of Ruxton rejected having a station altogether. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

The $2.9 billion plan was far from perfect: for one thing, to transfer from the new line to the Metro line downtown, one would need to walk a long tunnel. But the Red Line would at last provide a real conduit from the heart of West Baltimore to downtown and the jobs centers at both ends of the line, something more reliable than the No. 15 bus that Ramelle McCall had ridden all those years. Well below half the households in the corridor lacked a vehicle, which was why four of the ten busiest bus lines ran along this stretch, and why several of these neighborhoods had the longest commute times in the city. The new line would give an incentive to developers to invest in the West Side neighborhoods close to the planned stations. And it would redeem the debacle of the “Highway to Nowhere,” that notorious west-side swath of eviction that had begun years before with the Harlem Park demolitions. The Red Line would finally make productive use of this right-of-way, give it purpose.

At first there was some wariness in the West Side community — fiascoes like the Highway to Nowhere had left a legacy of distrust. But, over the aughts, the project’s boosters — a mix of planners, engineers, and advocates who’d been working for years to make Baltimore transit not just a couple of lines but actually a system — held countless meetings along the route and even sent dozens of community members around the country to study similar light rail lines. There was some resistance, too, in ever-more gentrified Canton, among the neighborhood old-timers and the empty-nesters who’d moved back into the city — and who, in an echo of the suburbs’ fear of the “loot rail,” fretted about making their increasingly tony neighborhood that much more accessible. But many of the new arrivals, especially the younger ones, saw the new line for the progress it represented. Brooke Lierman, a Washington-area native who’d moved to Baltimore to clerk for a federal judge, had decided with her husband to remain in Fells Point precisely because it would be getting rail. “We’d lived in cities that were more transit friendly,” she said. “We were very excited at the prospect of living in a neighborhood that had a station.” 23 She joined the advisory committees not only for her station area but also for the whole line.

Developers were snatching up parcels near future Red Line stations, sites that hadn’t garnered interest in decades.

Imperfections aside, the project was solid enough to qualify for $900 million in scarce federal funding. The state raised its gas tax to cover its share of the cost (and also pay for a light rail line in the Washington suburbs — the Purple Line — that had been thrown in with the Red Line to build support with D.C.-area legislators). Developers were snatching up parcels near Red Line stations, sites that hadn’t garnered interest in decades. Contractors were readying to bid on a project that would put thousands to work.

Still, over the decade, the process began to drag out. Glendening’s successor, Republican Robert Ehrlich, who took office in 2003, did little to advance things during his four years as governor. His successor, the Democratic former mayor of Baltimore, Martin O’Malley, was more supportive, but over his two terms he didn’t act with much urgency — as much as he championed his city, he’d never focused closely on its inadequate public transit, and the NIMBY resistance to the line in Canton had given him pause. 24 With his tenure coming to a close, O’Malley was planning on handing the project off to his anointed successor, Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown. After $288 million worth of planning and design, construction was set to begin in 2015.

The Country Roads

Best laid plans. For even as Baltimore was showing signs of comeback — in addition to the waterfront development, the homicide rate was falling and population loss was leveling off — the old wariness had lingered in the suburbs, the suspicion that the troubled city was getting more than its share, paid for by the tax increases of the O’Malley years. The perception was at odds with reality — the city’s legislative delegation had shrunk by half since the 1970s, from forty-four to twenty-two, as the state’s political weight shifted toward the growing D.C. suburbs — but the resentment persisted nonetheless, and, in 2014, it got its vehicle. The Republican nominee challenging Anthony Brown was a commercial real estate broker from Anne Arundel County by the name of Larry Hogan. Burly and affable, Hogan was an Everyman figure, and not overly ideological. But he deftly tapped into a well of regional resentment toward Baltimore — he was the man for the outlying areas. He made plain his scorn for costly investments in the city — including the Red Line. “We’re going to focus on building roads,” he said.

Larry Hogan tapped into a well of regional resentment toward Baltimore — he was the man for the outlying areas.

Somehow, Hogan’s campaign didn’t set off alarms in the city. It didn’t help that Brown himself, from the Washington suburbs, showed relatively little interest in Baltimore and was not exactly rallying voters with his lackluster campaign. 25 But it was also striking how little the city’s own leaders, from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on down, were doing to make the stakes plain to residents — especially when it came to its biggest infrastructure project in decades. On November 4, 2014, Hogan won by six percentage points, aided not just by big margins in the Baltimore suburbs, including Baltimore County, the state’s bellwether, but also by the startlingly anemic turnout in the city.

The cost of this apathy soon became all too plain. One month after the election, Hogan declared that he viewed Baltimore as a failed city. “What has been happening — taxing and spending and pouring millions into the city — has not helped. It has really hurt,” Hogan told The Sun. “There’s no businesses, there’s no jobs. The city’s declining rather than improving.” Upon taking office, Hogan cut $36 million from the city’s schools. 26

Lacking connections to other lines — the “network effect” of successful transit — the Metro is often eerily underpopulated. It served as the setting for Frank Underwood’s murder of Zoe Barnes on House of Cards. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

Three months into his tenure, Baltimore exploded when Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year-old who grew up around the Gilmor Homes on the West Side, was arrested for running from the police and allegedly carrying a switchblade, and died six days later of spinal injuries suffered in police custody. 27 The riot that followed Gray’s death was far less destructive than the three days of rioting that followed King’s death in 1968 — for one thing, nobody died. But it was enough to draw the cable-news anchor-stars, and to prompt countless meditations on inner-city failure (and, because this was Baltimore, endless invocations of The Wire). Many cast Baltimore as a sort of freak anomaly, a Third World city that had broken loose from another continent and floated up the Chesapeake Bay.

In fact it was not. Inequality — the income ratio between rich and poor — was barely higher than the norm for American cities, partly because the wealthiest residents in Baltimore were nowhere near the stratospheric heights of their counterparts in richer cities like Washington. The city was less segregated by class than many others, thanks in part to the remnants of its white working class. And even as segregated as it was by race, in this, too, it lagged many other cities. As stark as the region’s black-white disparities were, the area’s median income for black households was the second highest in the country, after Washington, thanks partly to those growing middle-class black suburbs. 28 But there was one ranking in which Baltimore did stand out. Exactly one week after the riot, Harvard researchers Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren released a high-profile nationwide study showing what a large impact a child’s environment had on his or her future earnings. The city that was found to have the very worst impact on poor kids’ future opportunity was Baltimore — especially when it came to boys. 29 Here, just days after the riot, was social-science affirmation of what news viewers were seeing displayed, the consequences of the social isolation in the city’s poor neighborhoods.

The light rail has to share the road with cars on Howard Street, slowing it down considerably. Thus the proposed third line — the Red Line — was designed to traverse downtown in a tunnel. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

It was precisely to reduce isolation and, quite literally, to improve mobility that transit boosters had rallied behind the Red Line. Indeed, Chetty and Hendren also found strong correlation between length of commute and economic mobility. Which was why it was such a blow to the civic solar plexus when Larry Hogan announced, in late June, two months after the riots, that he was pulling the plug on the project.

It was a devastating blow to the civic solar plexus when Hogan pulled the plug on the Red Line.

Hogan had made gestures of concern for West Baltimore after the violence, setting up a temporary office there and walking the streets. But there would be no post-riot epiphany to trump his underlying anti-urban bias. He would fund the new Purple Line in suburban Washington — icing on the cake for a Metro system now light years ahead of Baltimore’s, further widening the regional inequality between the two cities — but he would forfeit the $900 million in federal funding for the Red Line, write off the $288 million the state had spent as a loss, and redirect $736 million of the additional state money allocated for it to roads in exurbs and rural counties.

By way of rationale, Hogan dismissed the Red Line as a “wasteful boondoggle,” and the downtown tunnel, in particular, as a costly indulgence — as if it was outlandish for rail lines in cities to run underground. Soon afterward, it would emerge in public-records requests from a pro-transit group that his administration had given the question zero study. In the absence of a regional transportation authority to provide continuity from one administration to another, a new governor could simply toss away a project on which previous administrations had spent nearly $300 million.

And he could do so without risking much ire from a city that had grown to expect so little in the way of high-quality public transportation. Which helps explain why even when the project was on the verge of construction, the Red Line seemed somehow not quite real: those who would depend upon the new line were, after all, among the city’s most disenfranchised and least politically engaged; whereas in hyper-engaged quarters like Roland Park, it was a remote irrelevance. Not to mention that Hogan had gotten little apparent pressure from local elected officials and business leaders in the months prior to the decision. The city’s power brokers had supported the project, but not enough to go to war over it. They were not the ones standing at dawn at the Edmondson Ave bus stop.

Brooke Lierman moved to Baltimore to work for a federal judge, and was elected to the state legislature in 2014. She stayed in her Fells Point neighborhood partly because it would be getting a rail transit line. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

The decision did land heavily for at least one elected official. Brooke Lierman, the young lawyer who’d moved to Fells Point, had been elected to the state legislature in 2014. She had remained involved in the Red Line planning groups, and she was out of town at a conference when she learned of the rejection. She rushed to the rest room, fearing she’d get sick. “I was nauseous and sick not only because of all the hours and nights and weekends and years people had put into the project to make it the best it could be for the city, but also because it had seemed like a project that could unite Baltimore, by providing jobs and linking neighborhoods,” she said later in an interview. “And especially after the unrest in April, to have that taken away from us felt like an almost insurmountable blow.”

But clearly the unrest had not moved Hogan. Others, too, were heedless of the link. The Washington Post, for example, had called for more investment in Baltimore and access to jobs after the riot — but it applauded the rejection of the Red Line, saying it “never made transportation or financial sense.” Hogan did in fact link the riot with his decision — but only to justify it. “We just spent $14 million extra money on the riots in Baltimore City a few weeks ago,” he said — as if the city could only expect so much support, and had foolishly blown it on a riot. Three weeks later, his administration released a revealing map showing how the money for road upgrades would be allocated around the state. Not only did the governor’s map show no money for Baltimore City. It did not show the city at all. By some Freudian slip, the city of 620,000 people had mistakenly been swallowed up by the Chesapeake Bay. Disappeared.

The Lawsuit

Any fallout Hogan might have risked from his decision was quickly overshadowed by the events of the city’s terrible summer of 2015. Forty-one people were killed in May, the month after the riot, more homicides than the city had seen in a month in a quarter century, and July trumped even that, with forty-five, tying a mark set in 1972, when the city had 275,000 more people. Many in town attributed the spike to the fact that the police had by their own admission pulled back after the riot, aggrieved over the charges against their colleagues in the Freddie Gray case and their superiors’ handling of the riot.

Ramelle McCall grew up in Sandtown-Winchester. His mother drove city buses and became its first female light-rail operator. He returned to Baltimore after being ordained as an Episcopal minister.[Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

Ramelle McCall had a different perspective. He’d left Baltimore after college for divinity school and ordination as an Episcopal priest. He had then come back home, where he was assigned the ministry at the Church of St. Michael and All Angels, in the heart of the city. In an earlier time the big stone church had been home to the city’s highest-church Episcopalians, its WASP elite, but post-white flight the congregation had dwindled to a few dozen regulars, almost all black. On Sundays, they sat on only one side of the huge nave, to make attendance seem less sparse. From this vantage, Rev. McCall linked disregard for the city with the disregard for life within it. “People are dealing with distrust,” he said. “It only makes sense for people to say, ‘No one really cares, so why should I care?’”

With the city fixated on the violence, the mourning over the Red Line carried on quietly among the clutch of people who had spent years working to make it happen. “It’s devastating,” said Matt Gallagher, O’Malley’s chief of staff in Baltimore and Annapolis, in an interview. “There was already $300 million worth of activity in the pipeline, and it’s just been sucked out.” He fumed at the re-appropriation of gas-tax revenues, and at Hogan’s claim that the project’s fatal flaw was its downtown tunnel. “It’s absurd, like that’s some big revelation: ‘They need a tunnel!’ It betrays a superficial understanding of how these things work.” Gallagher had a simple explanation. “They don’t care,” he said. 30

Elijah Cummings, the Democratic congressman from Baltimore who had helped secure the $900 million in federal funding, couldn’t believe Hogan had given it back. “We’re talking about thousands of jobs,” he said. “It would’ve helped a lot of small businesses. But more importantly, it would’ve helped people get to work.” He was also thinking of all the people in the neighborhoods along the line who had gotten involved in the planning. “It was devastating for people trying to have faith in government,” he said. “A lot of these people had never spoken to each other before they started working on the line. They became friends, they worked it out. The next thing you know …” He trailed off. “They don’t understand.” 31

In September, some of those people gathered for a sort of Irish wake for the Red Line. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, said its backers had failed to build support in the suburbs, the implication being that this might’ve made it palatable to Hogan. “Their politics aren’t in Baltimore City,” he said. Cynthia Shaw, an elderly woman from Edmondson Village, asked about the upgrades that her community group had devised for the area around the planned station. “What happens to the trees we were planning, the other designs? Who do we talk to?”

A local activist asked why the cancellation of a major public transit project wasn’t being challenged from a civil rights perspective.

And Richard Chambers, a local transit activist, rose to demand why the cancellation of such a major project wasn’t being challenged from a civil rights perspective. He pointed out that the state legislature had voted on an increase in the gas tax with the understanding that it would be used for a transit project to benefit low-income minorities in Baltimore. Instead, the money was now being entirely redirected to road projects in wealthier, mostly white outlying areas. “It’s almost unprecedented,” he said. “This is a ‘fuck you’ to Baltimore.”

As it happened, an unusual court challenge to Hogan’s decision, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, was being contemplated by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which was now being led by Sherrilyn Ifill — the law professor who had watched the mothers waiting at the bus stops in West Baltimore two decades ago.

Ifill saw the issue through an historical lens. In midcentury, she said, Maryland taxpayers — including Baltimore’s blacks — had paid for highways that were used primarily by whites who’d moved out of the city. Even today, state money went to public infrastructure like the new outer beltway for suburban Washington that opened in 2011 32 or upgrades for the highway that took affluent families to hotels and beachfront properties on the Eastern Shore. “Do you think women from West Baltimore are going to Assateague to lay on the beach?” Ifill said. “We’re a state. Being a state means there is a give and take — sometimes you give, sometimes you take.”

Poor public transportation had long exacerbated segregation — the Red Line would have been a step forward.

As Ifill had seen years ago, when she arrived in Edmondson Village, the poor public transportation system had long exacerbated segregation and the concentration of poverty in Baltimore, and building the Red Line would have been a step toward alleviating that — not just by making it easier to get to jobs but by opening up neighborhoods to people on both sides of the color line. What’s more, the Supreme Court had, in 2015, reaffirmed “disparate impact” — the theory that actions can be judged discriminatory if they adversely affect a particular group — as a legal measure of discrimination, and killing the Red Line was a prime example. “Transportation is not sexy,” Ifill said. “I understand why people don’t pay attention to this. But these are decisions about what we as a community will look like twenty or thirty years from now.”

Four days before Christmas, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Title VI complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, alleging that the killing of the Red Line was “only the latest in the state’s long historical pattern of deprioritizing the needs of Baltimore’s primarily African-American population.” The complaint used the state’s own economic estimates to show how racially disparate the impact of the funding shift would be — a “naked transfer of resources” from blacks to whites.

On one level, the complaint sought to secure more funds for Baltimore transit, even if it was too late to save the Red Line. But on a deeper level, it was a demand for reckoning. “After the Red Line was cancelled, there were no protests in the street, there was very little media attention … and there was very little effort to connect the decision of the governor with what we had seen several months earlier [in the riot],” said Ifill, in announcing the lawsuit. “As much attention as we give to the trials of the officers who are charged with killing Freddie Gray, we should give to a decision that implicates 10,000 construction jobs and billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in Baltimore that were eliminated in a single day by a single decision made by a single person.” 33

The Amazon fulfillment center opened on the site of a former GM plant. Where people once made around $27 per hour making minivans, they now start at $13 per hour filling shoppers’ orders.[Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

The Shuttle

In early 2015, Amazon opened a fulfillment center off Broening Highway on the former site of a General Motors plant on the southeastern edge of town. Sprawling over one million square feet, surrounded by an immense, 1,900-space parking lot, the boxy building with blank walls resembles a gigantic minimum-security prison. For decades thousands of men and women earned good wages — $27 per hour, give or take — assembling Chevy Astros and GMC Safaris at the automobile factory. Now, they started at $13, sorting and packing an infinitude of consumer goods made in countries where labor costs were even cheaper.

The warehouse had about 3,000 employees by the time of the official grand opening in September. Local leaders, who had provided Amazon $40 million in tax incentives to locate the warehouse in Baltimore, rose to talk about how much Amazon had improved their lives. “I don’t have to take off my sweats to get deodorant anymore,” said Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, from Baltimore County. “You’re very trustworthy for making sure my moisturizer gets to me on time,” said Mayor Rawlings-Blake.

Inside the cavernous main hall, squat orange robots buzzed around with tall stacks of bins from which workers assembled shoppers’ orders. Weight-loss supplements, basketballs, Listerine, power drills, Spinning Poppers, a Steam Spray Mop, bakeware sets, SmarterRest foam pillows, raw unfiltered honey, rodent repellent, Baby Bjorns. Once wrapped and stamped, the packages were zipped along a conveyor belt until they reached the truck headed their way, at which point a small weight would slide across the belt and punch the package off. One hundred per minute, 6,000 per hour.

Far less efficient was the scene outside the building at shift change. The Red Line — the routes of which had been planned before Amazon announced its plans in 2014 — would have brought workers to under two miles from the warehouse. This was hardly ideal — and indeed, the original 1968 vision for the line would have brought employees all the way to the site — but it was close enough to run constant shuttles and to contemplate an eventual extension. But of course there would be no Red Line, and the only compensation that Hogan finally offered was a sketchy plan to create a dozen high-frequency city bus lines by late 2017, with little detail about how the new routes would navigate through an already clogged downtown.

Transit advocates like Brooke Lierman and Richard Chambers pointed out the plan’s inadequacy as a substitute, but by now the travails of Baltimore transit were not registering outside the city — not in the county, not in the state. 34 Hogan was enjoying high approval ratings, and in January he even managed to give the impression of rebuilding some good will in the city when he announced $70 million to speed demolitions of thousands of vacant homes. There would be no money for constructing a rail line through West Baltimore, but there’d be money for tearing down many of its blocks.

Meanwhile, Amazon was struggling to get people to work on time. It didn’t matter that these employees were working at one of the most cutting-edge companies in the world — they were still slogging through the same long commutes that the city’s working class had faced forever. Those workers with cars encountered horrific traffic jams snaking to the lone warehouse entrance. The MTA added a new bus line to the area, the No. 26, but it quickly became overloaded. So Amazon started running shuttle buses along the five-mile route to downtown. With the public realm having failed to provide this basic function of governance, the private sector was filling the void — while still seeking public subsidy. In December it emerged that Amazon, with a market capitalization of more than $300 billion, had received a “forgivable” $100,000 loan from the Baltimore Development Corporation to help cover the cost of the shuttle.

But as it’s turned out, even that stopgap isn’t working. On one recent Friday evening, there was total chaos in the huge parking lot. The line of cars arriving for the night shift was backed way up. Cars trying to leave were jammed up just as badly in the lot. “This is all bullshit!” one angry worker shouted through his car window.

With no public transit to the Amazon warehouse except for a single city bus line, the company started running shuttles to downtown — and asked the city to kick in $100,000 toward the cost. [Chiaki Kawajiri for Places Journal]

The backup meant that the shuttles were running behind, as was the 26 bus. Among those waiting in the dark chill was a worker in his 40s, a military veteran who’d been glad to get the $13 per hour job but was more and more worn down by the amount of time spent commuting to and from his home in West Baltimore. For a while he’d been taking the Amazon shuttles but had gotten fed up with how the drivers treated the workers, pulling up at unpredictable spots, making them chase after them. “They shouldn’t be playing games,” he said. “Especially with all the hours of work, people’s feet are hurting.” So he’d switched to the city bus instead, even if it meant an excruciating stop-and-go ride through southeast Baltimore. The night before, he had not gotten home until 8:30 — two and a half hours after the end of his shift. But he had dinner leftovers ready from the night before. And it still beat being jerked around by the company shuttle.

The Amazon worker was fed up with how the shuttle drivers treated the riders, pulling up at unpredictable spots, making them chase after them.

On this Friday night, he waited thirty minutes before the 26 bus finally pulled up. “Thank God it wasn’t cold — real, real cold,” he said, and climbed on board. The bus swayed past the half-demolished hulk of the Sun Products detergent factory, past the strip joints where the GM workers used to congregate, around Greektown, past the bus facility where Rev. McCall’s mother used to report to work. One passenger pulled out a forty of malt liquor and poured some out for his friend in a plastic cup. The bus creaked through the newly Hispanic area north of Canton and Fells Point, past a small shopping strip in the no-man’s land just south of Hopkins hospital (“Liquor,” “Nails”). In the distance, the new towers around the harbor loomed into view — the Legg Mason headquarters, the Marriott, the Four Seasons.

And every ten minutes, an automated recording would come on the intercom, telling riders about the governor’s exciting new bus plan. “The MTA recently announced a comprehensive plan to transform the Baltimore transit system. When fully implemented in the summer of 2017, it will create the comprehensive transit system that Baltimore citizens expect and deserve…”

The bus finally arrived at its downtown destination at 7:30, an hour and a half after the workers had gotten out of the warehouse. It had taken fifty minutes to cover five miles. The veteran hustled off to catch the next leg, with five more miles to go.

About the Series: The Inequality Chronicles

This is the third article in an ongoing series, “The Inequality Chronicles,” supported by The Kresge Foundation. To date, the series includes articles on Memphis, Houston, and Chicago, in addition to Baltimore.

  1. See also Richard Paul Fuke, “Race and Public Policy in Post-Emancipation Baltimore,” in Jessica Elfenbein, John R. Breihan, and Thomas L. Hollowak, editors, From Mobtown to Charm City: New Perspectives on Baltimore’s Past (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2002).
  2. This article initially stated that racial covenants were attached to deeds for sale in Roland Park itself; and in fact, Roland Park Company general manager Edward Bouton wanted to include racial covenants in his deeds when developing the neighborhood in the early 1890s, but was dissuaded by his lawyers. The ban on African-American buyers was instead enforced administratively. In 1911, after Roland Park itself was mostly built out, the Roland Park Company did add explicit racial covenants to the deeds for its next developments: Guilford, Homeland, and Original Northwood.
  3. See Garrett Power, “Apartheid Baltimore Style: the Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910–1913,” Maryland Law Review, Vol. 42, Issue 2, 1983. Some historical accounts describe George McMechen as the purchaser of the house, as this article initially did. But in researching his 2010 book Not in My Neighborhood, Antero Pietila discovered that the house was purchased by McMechen’s African-American law partner, W. Ashbie Hawkins, who in turn rented it to McMechen.
  4. See John R. Breihan, “Wings of Democracy?: African Americans in Baltimore’s World War II Aviation Industry,” in From Mobtown to Charm City.
  5. W. Edward Orser, Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village Story (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), 1. See also David Simon, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (New York: Broadway Book, 1998).
  6. See the films of Barry Levinson, especially Liberty Heights and Avalon, which brilliantly capture this slice of Baltimore, pre-flight.
  7. Interview with author, August 24, 2015.
  8. For more on the desegregation of Baltimore schools and the ensuing white flight, see Edward Berkowitz, “Baltimore’s Public Schools in a Time of Transition,” in From Mobtown to Charm City.
  9. For more on this episode, see Antero Pietila Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2010), the definitive history of Baltimore segregation, blockbusting, and white flight.
  10. For more on the early tensions between Baltimore and Annapolis, see the forthcoming political history of Maryland by Johns Hopkins political scientist Matthew Crenson.
  11. In Baltimore heroin — not crack cocaine — has long been the main street drug, more than in other major American cities.
  12. There was another alternative available in black Baltimore: an elaborate gypsy cab system that was allowed to flourish in the days when many regular cabbies steered clear of the ghetto. This system, complete with a dispatch number, was how many African-Americans made it to far-flung destinations like Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point. In present day, it has been replaced by a more informal culture of “hacks” — the widespread practice of simply dangling a couple fingers at the curb and waiting for someone to provide a lift for a few bucks.
  13. Interview with author, August 19, 2015.
  14. The school has since been renamed Stevenson University.
  15. This sentence was corrected after publication to note that Sherrilyn Ifill lived near rather than in Edmondson Village. She lived in the adjacent neighborhood of Hunting Ridge.
  16. For more on this North Baltimore realm, see the novels of Anne Tyler.
  17. This prevented Baltimore from taking the course of cities such as Jacksonville and Indianapolis and broadening its reach to recapture much of the tax base lost in suburban flight. For more on this dilemma, see David Rusk’s Baltimore Unbound (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
  18. To this day, landlords in most of Baltimore’s suburbs, including Baltimore and Anne Arundel County, are allowed to discriminate against applicants with rental vouchers. After multiple defeats in recent years, legislation to forbid “source of income discrimination” is up for consideration again in the 2016 session in Annapolis.
  19. Just last week, after five years of negotiations, Baltimore County and the federal government announced a wide-ranging agreement to reduce housing segregation. The county pledged to spend $30 million to spur the development of 1,000 new affordable housing units in prosperous neighborhoods and also pledged to help 2,000 families with rental vouchers to move from poor, mostly black areas to wealthier, better-integrated ones.
  20. Eventually, advocates succeeded in building a new, larger housing mobility program that has dispersed more than 2,500 Baltimore families to the suburbs, with funding from the settlement of a desegregation lawsuit. For more, see Doug Donovan’s comprehensive 2015 article in the Baltimore Sun. (Disclosure: my wife is an employee of this housing mobility program.)
  21. For more on the politics of resistance in Southeast Baltimore, see Kenneth Durr, “The Not-So-Silent Majority: White Working-Class Community,” in From Mobtown to Charm City.
  22. For more on the downtown redevelopment of the 1980s and ’90s, see Marc Levine’s “A Third-World City in the First World,” in The Social Sustainability of Cities (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.)
  23. Interview with author, January 25, 2016
  24. The timeline was also moved back by a crucial few months in 2014 to accommodate the request by a powerful bakery magnate and real estate developer that the Harbor East station be moved a block away, further from his property.
  25. Brown got little assistance from O’Malley, who by this point was spending much time in Iowa and New Hampshire laying the groundwork for his long-shot presidential campaign. To hear O’Malley’s side tell it, he would have gladly helped Brown more, but his offers were mostly rebuffed.
  26. Hogan was able to justify some of these cuts by noting that Baltimore qualified for less aid under one state formula because of all the harborside redevelopment — ironic, in light of his prior declarations about the city’s lack of growth. But unfortunately for the city, that new development, while costing it in the state aid formula, wasn’t bringing in new revenue, thanks to all the tax credits.
  27. This sentence was amended shortly after publication to add the word “allegedly.” The knife Gray carried was a spring-assisted folding knife. In the arrest documents, Baltimore police characterized it as an illegal switchblade, but in announcing charges against six officers involved in Gray’s death, state prosecutor Marilyn Mosby said that the knife was legal under Maryland law.
  28. For more on how Baltimore compares with other cities on these rankings, see “Good fortune, dire poverty, and inequality in Baltimore: An American story” and “Beyond Baltimore: Thoughts on place, race, and opportunity,” from the Brookings Institution.
  29. The city’s low ranking was exacerbated to some degree by the fact that, unlike other cities on the list, Baltimore is independent of the suburban county that surrounds it. The study was based on counties, and Baltimore — unlike, say, Chicago — is not part of a larger county. Regardless, the low rankings were telling.
  30. Interview with author, August 14, 2015
  31. Interview with author, September 28, 2015
  32. That $2.4 billion highway, the Inter-County Connector, has fallen far short of usage expectations.
  33. The Department of Transportation opened an investigation into the Red Line decision on January 6, 2016, a sign that it considered the complaint substantive enough to look into. The state’s response is due March 9.
  34. The potency of the anti-urban strain Hogan tapped into was demonstrated again in February 2016 when the school system in Harford County, to the city’s northeast, announced that it was indefinitely banning field trips to the city out of security concerns. It relented after widespread public ridicule.
Alec MacGillis, “The Third Rail,” Places Journal, March 2016. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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