Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

You don't live in Washington, DC, for as long as I have and not have an opinion on Baltimore. While it's only about 40 miles north of DC, Baltimore and the federal city are worlds apart, at least in perception. Though I've been a resident of the urea for almost 14 years, my impression of Baltimore was formed many years prior.


Like many cities in America, as a youth, I had no real perspective on them. In fact, before I got to college, I'd only ever met two people from Baltimore, had never been there and the first and only time Baltimore truly crossed my radar was when I started receiving college information. Morgan State University sent me quite a bit of literature and was talking scholarships so they had my attention. But I had no idea it was in Baltimore. OR even really where that was. Sure maps can tell you all types of information, but Baltimore may as well have been Philadelphia or DC or Pittsburgh for that matter. They were all just cities far away. It mattered not, I ended up in my familiar homestead of Atlanta, Georgia, at Morehouse College anyway. And all was right with the world. God created the Earth and on the seventh day he rested…right after creating Morehouse.

The thing about Morehouse, and similarly Spelman, Howard, North Carolina A&T, and say Florida A&M are that they draw students from all over. Morehouse and Spelman had a tremendous number of DC natives. And one thing DC natives feel strong about is Baltimore. Seeing as most of my crew were from DC, I heard so much about how terrible Baltimore was that I had a full fledged opinion on Baltimore two years before ever getting close enough to see a high way sign making reference to "Charm City".

Upon moving to DC, I officially made my way to Baltimore a few times and I hate to say that while my opinions were ill informed and ignorant, I didn't feel like I was off base. Baltimore, as a city, felt like all of the worst parts Atlanta that I'd managed to call home. The whole city felt like a crime waiting to happen. I blame this on the layout of the city and the character of the rowhouses. They looked like one big ass facade that stretched for entire blocks and doors and windows were cut into them. Boarded up windows and dirty ass streets. Baltimore felt like a city that the nation forgot existed. Well everywhere outside of the Baltimore Harbor and Camden Yards area. Baltimore put me on edge. Always.

I even ended up dating a girl from Baltimore who had me drive her back to her grandmother's house one evening from DC. Her grandmother lived in McCulloh Homes, which anybody from Baltimore can tell you was the on-site location of the low-rise houses from The Wire. She did not inform me where I was taking her and I felt disrespected. You don't just have a dude drive into the projects in a city he isn't from DROP YOU OFF for all the dudes who never got a shot at you THEN let him roll out without giving him the "safe name" in case you get surrounded. We never spoke again.  Not because she wasn't pleasant - she was - but because I didn't trust her to NOT get me murdered.

While I was in grad school at the University of Maryland, I focused on housing, education policy, and did a few segments for one class on social services in underpriveleged communities. I chose Baltimore as my city. Through this, I spent more time in Baltimore than I ever intended, THEN my Spelman sister ended up moving to Baltimore for grad school. Over the years I began spending more and more time in Baltimore. My opinion never really changed but I was at least getting more empirical evidence to support my thesis that Baltimore was trash.

During this time, DC was going through a strong gentrification push that has continued today. The neighborhood I lived in immediately after finishing grad school went from being considered a DO NOT GO EVER NEIGHBORHOOD to desired housing, with homes going for upwards of a million dollars (row houses mind you) during the height of the housing bubble. Even after the bubble burst, that neighborhood still called for prices in the upper $500s to lower $600s. But an interesting thing started to happen. DC, a city that had such a strong and rich Black culture, started to lose it. Actually, I think its gone. DC used to be distinct, now its a city full of transplants that has become as sanitized as any planned-community in Suburbsville, USA. The amazing ethnic enclaves that dot other major cities don't really exist here anymore. Chinatown? Right. Little Ethiopia? Right. This is a city full of upward mobile white and Black people and transitioning young professionals who couldn't afford to live here anyway.


As I've started to pay more attention to those nuances that make a city great and interesting, I started paying more attention to Baltimore. For all of its faults, one thing Baltimore has in spades is character. Like ACTUAL character. Different neighborhoods exist with different defining characteristics. I don't live there so I can't even tell you the names of them but on the many times I've visited in recent years I've felt a certain something there. Like, hey, you might die tonight, but you might die in an area that has some history and flash to it. I love DC, but you don't live in DC because you're trying to find authentic, regular, working class neighborhoods and people.

It's started to feel like a real city with real people who are trying to make it. Which is how we've gotten to where we are now. When you have a city with as many issues as Baltimore, combined with the current flashpoint of police killings (it seems that the media keeps forgetting that the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore police was the catalyst for all of this) and lack of accountability MIXED with the same non-sensical language from media and politicians alike who seem to refuse to acknowledge that how you get somewhere is just as important as being there, you get nights of peaceful protests AND TRULY angry people who stopped giving a fuck before they were even born. You don't hold a city down and expect people to give a fuck about the things they don't own and the people who don't care they exist in the first place.


I took my first Amtrak to New York City in 2010. Anybody who has ever taken Amtrak from DC to NYC and looked out the window has been met with a RUDE awakening. The train goes through the WORST parts of Baltimore and Philadelphia. I couldn't believe what I was seeing when I hit Baltimore. The city looked like it had been destroyed and what was left was a shell of a community. I'd never seen so many boarded up houses and homes that looked completely impossible to live in. Even the air above Baltimore had a gray overcastness that screamed of despair. That's exactly what the parts of the city the train goes through looked like, despair. Just a few short miles from Baltimore's Inner Harbor are neighborhoods that truly remind me of videos I'd seen of wartorn third-world countries.

Seeing that, and being disturbed by it firsthand, lends some perspective on the anger that many residents might display. I'm not saying its okay to start fires, loot, and throw shit at the police. None of those things are okay.


But I understand.

I've lived in some less than stellar circumstances before. I've also never lived in anything that looked like what I saw on that Amtrak riding through Baltimore. I like the Inner Harbor and many of the culturally rich neighborhoods I've been to in the city. I'm also in complete amazement that there are American cities that have areas that looked THAT bad that are actually inhabited. If I lived there I might throw shit at the police. Or take shit. Or who knows. I'm not saying everybody in Baltimore is without hope. But when more of the same is the order of the day, or would be if not for the increased scrutiny of police departments, I might be inclined to act a fool too.


While I have no desire to move to Baltimore I do have an appreciation for it that I didn't have when I was younger. Once I gave the city a chance I started to see the beauty in the proverbial rose that grew from the concrete. Baltimore is a great American city with a lot to offer. And most of us wouldn't know because the perception is so entrenched. It's the same with cities like Detroit and Cleveland and Newark.

I'm hoping that Baltimore comes out of this in smelling like roses. But that's not likely. So my realistic hope is that Baltimore gets its chance on the huge stage that its on to show the rest of us what they're made of.


I might even mispronounce Tuesday in a show of solidarity.

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.



Great read. One of the best from you PJ. I could feel the train ride.

On another note….That mother beating her son on TV is not a hero. While the love and concern is real the whole scene was sad and symbolic of a lot that is wrong in our communities and the development of black boys.