BALTIMORE – Life here in Sandtown-Winchester is a study in the juxtaposition of rich history and impoverished reality. It's not so much a neighborhood as the ruins of one, a warren of boarded-up houses and drug markets. Yet teachers remind their students that Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, graduated from a high school in Sandtown, which now leads all of Maryland in the number of residents who are in prison. A nearby statue of the jazz great Billie Holiday, who grew up around here, is etched with a crow to honor the struggle under Jim Crow laws; studies show that Baltimore remains one of the nation's most segregated cities.
Given the grim statistics — people in Sandtown will make less money and die younger than residents anywhere else in Maryland — it didn't sound hyperbolic when a resident gestured toward condemned buildings and yelled, "Every day is Katrina! Every day is a Katrina here!"
Except, locals stress, this disaster is man-made, the legacy of segregation, unemployment and addiction, resulting in living conditions that one might expect to find in a far-flung developing nation rather than an hour's drive from the White House.
Residents say they've seen little of the millions of dollars that have been earmarked for neighborhood improvements, and few seem to buy into the fresh promises of resources that came in response to the protests and riots that erupted after the death last month of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man from Sandtown who sustained a fatal spinal-cord injury while in police custody.
The unprecedented criminal prosecution of six officers in connection with Gray's death has turned Baltimore into the showpiece in a nascent, grass-roots rebellion against police conduct in black communities. The charges also shocked the city into a calmer state, allowing some space for town hall meetings and prayer vigils and a peace march.
This lull, however, feels fragile. Locals predict doomsday scenarios if there are no convictions in the Gray case.
One block changed
Doni Glover, 49, a prominent activist and writer who's one of the last homeowners on his block of Sandtown, grew up as the son of an undertaker who was known for cutting deals for families who couldn't afford funerals.
Glover knows how hard it is to change even one little patch. About 10 years ago, he and three other men banded together to push the dealers away from their doorsteps. The friends managed to clear just one small block of one narrow road, but they did it without involving police or angering the sellers, who only had to move "around the corner."
The West Baltimore that 80-year-old Helena Hicks knew as a girl was a lively enclave of black homeowners forced to live together because of segregation. Even then, Hicks said, the area was so overcrowded and underserved that children went to high school in shifts. Hers was 12:30 to 5 p.m.
At the site of the CVS that was torched and looted during the Freddie Gray riots, she said, there stood a movie theater that blacks in her day had to picket for entrance. Hicks became a local civil rights icon herself when, in 1955, she and six other college students staged an impromptu sit-in at Read's Drug Store, a move that would help pave the way for the official desegregation of Baltimore.
But there was an unforeseen drawback to desegregation. Under the more permissive housing rules of the civil rights era, Hicks said, black families who could afford to leave Sandtown did, en masse. In the years that followed, she recalled, homeowners turned into renters, whites disappeared, businesses closed, the words "food desert" entered the local lexicon, drug kingpins took control of the streets and the cops were outsiders whose response was to treat everyone as a potential security threat.
"It's a humiliating atmosphere," Hicks said of the heavy surveillance and bulletproof barriers of today's Sandtown. "It assumes everyone is a criminal and has to be watched."