Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Black History Bulldozed for Starbucks? Really?

Black history bulldozed for another Starbucks: Against the new Baltimore 


This is the title of a Salon.com story on Monday written by the young Baltimore writer D. Watkins. I I take issue already with the headline. 
Which Starbucks bulldozed African American history in Baltimore? Better yet, which disinvested African American community in Baltimore wouldn't want a Starbucks but has little hope that one will come any time soon? 

What was bulldozed in Baltimore were the "projects". 
Not sure how many people would wax nostalgic about Lafayette homes, Lexington Terrace, Flag House or Murphy Homes, the Baltimore versions of the Gabrini Homes in Chicago.  Yes, they were demolished and yes, the destruction destroyed social fabric and displaced poor black people. Still, when these high rises were imploded, the community stood and cheered, hardly anyone wanted these monstrosity homes to really stay. The replacements were nicer homes in each case, but gentrified? The new communities that rose in place of the tower buildings are still almost entirely African American (with the exception of Albemarle Square, the last of the conversions and they are still most affordable rentals or subsidized homeownership homes. There is no Starbucks in any of the new communities.

And then there are the communities of Historic West Baltimore (a National Register historic district). Not sure that in Sandtown Winchester,  Druid Heights, or Rosemont there is today any less black culture than 10 years ago. And if so, then because even more black middle class fled in the foot steps of white middle class. The folks who care and are still there want good food, good services and investment.

Then there are the communities of Poppleton and Middle East (now  EBDI) where houses were, indeed, flattened for big development. But in both cases there hasn't been a Starbucks sighted yet, too unsure if developers really can make something work in these areas. I would say that the wholesale demolition and displacement  in both cases was the wrong strategy, too similar to bad stories of urban renewal that preceded them in the seventies when African American communities in Sharp Leadenhall or West Baltimore received almost fatal blows from the interstate projects.

But communities need diversity to thrive. 20 years of life expectancy due to health disparities as found between Rosemont and Roland Park won't get eliminated by nostalgia, identity or "culture" alone. It takes people and people of all races and classes to repopulate these communities. And it takes change beyond the entertainingly stereotypical  classifications of look-alike suits or skin color that Watkins employs to describe a cartoon of a city, that certainly isn't Baltimore. Whatever gentrification is taking place in this town is not taking place in the black communities. And maybe that is the actual problem.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA