Sunday, June 10, 2018

Baltimore - two worlds, two narratives

“Our Nation Is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal” (Kerner Report 1968)

In April 1968, one month after the release of the Kerner report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes the personal story told from another perspective has the power to cut through the clutter by striking at heart and mind at the same time. This happened to many when Dr Sharon Sutton, FAIA addressed a packed house in the plenary keynote of the national Association for Community Design (ACD) at its annual conference which was organized this year  by the Baltimore Neighborhood Design Center on occasion of its 50th anniversary under the title Reverberations.
Destiny Watford explaining Curtis Bay 

Sutton (77) went over the familiar territory of the civil rights movement, the 1968 racial uprisings, Whitney Young's speech in front of the 1968 AIA convention in which he famously spoke about the "thunderous silence" of the design profession in the civil rights struggle but she did it from her own life's story as only the 12th African American woman to be licensed in Architecture and the first to be promoted to be a full professor. Her story is powerful without a raised voice, without anger and without hate.

The creation of community design non-profits all across America,  most coming out of local chapters of AIA, including NDC in Baltimore  followed Whitney Young's speech (84 organizations in three years) is part of an often recounted lore, described as the design profession finally waking up.

But Sutton painted this differently. AIA saw a market in the American ghettos, she said and had the quotes to prove that a good part of the community design movement was "self serving" as she put it. Under the title "Racism and Resistance in American Cities" she spoke as an eye witness and a scholar, as a black woman and a teacher to a mostly young audience of community designers from all over the country. The gathering was more diverse than any other design oriented event usually still is. Sutton dissected the actions, inactions and history of the design profession in a calm and professional manner, yet with the passion of someone who has lived through the indignities that come with being a woman of color in the US.

As someone who became a community activist and advocate in the same period when community design began to flourish in the US, I had taken the spirit of emancipation and liberation that fueled many western countries during that time as universal, not racial. In other countries the fight for a better and more just society was seen mostly as a class struggle.Yet Sutton and a discussion panel that followed her told the audience that this didn't mean the "white saviors" would not to be complicit in systemic racism which reaches deep into the "liberal" camp. That "black people's history of building, designing and planning this country has been erased, a crime that persists today" that "for every injustice in the world, there is an architecture designed to facilitate and perpetuate it" are insights that are still hard to digest for many in the design profession. But Sutton's presentation and the following discussion of five young designers, four women, one man, four people of color, made them abundantly clear. Of course, the arch of history is currently not bending in the right direction. Sutton didn't mince words:
As the nation careens toward moral and emotional bankruptcy, toward a loss of integrity, I implore you to be courageous in reimagining community planning and design for these heartbroken but hopeful times.” 
Sharon Sutton (FAIA): Keynote presenter
(Photo: Parsons School of Design)
It has become common to talk about equity or to speak about the two Baltimores or the two Americas in which our divided city resides like a nested Russian doll. But using these terms and understanding what they mean are two very different things, especially in a highly segregated nation in which, in spite of all the resolutions to the contrary, societal silos become more fortified instead of being ripped apart.

What is often not considered is that the isolated two Baltimores or two Americas have each have developed their own history, their own narrative and their own truth. No longer can the gap be bridged or the wall be torn down by simply pointing to the “real facts” because one and the same thing can look very different, if it is seen through two entirely different lenses.

The Reverberations conference proved helpful in negotiating this divide, beginning with an on-the-ground demonstration of these dual worlds and their narratives: The community of Curtis Bay served as the perfect place to investigate a reality with two faces. For most in Baltimore Curtis Bay is as much out of mind as it is out of sight. The place, where the other stuff happens. Where medical waste is getting incinerated, where coal is dumped out of freight cars rolling from Appalachia to be reloaded into water vessels, where the petroleum and chemical tank farms are that fuel our modern life and where the imported cars which fuel our negative trade balance get staged after they have been unloaded in the Port of Baltimore. The prevailing narrative is that any city has an "armpit" like that, a place where the stuff goes that even in the postindustrial age is not compatible with residential use. In the case of Curtis Bay, this goes a long time back when sick immigrants where quarantined after they came into the Port of Baltimore. And yet: Curtis Bay is also a community where people from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds have found a home and have lived for many decades, regardless that Curtis Bay is Maryland's most polluted community.
tank-farms and tanker trucks dominate Curtis Bay

Curtis Bay was dragged from the shadows into the spotlight when some three years ago it became the battleground for a new trash incinerator to replace the aging and polluting Resco incinerator currently operating much closer to downtown and producing about a third of the city's overall air pollution. In the prevailing metro-wide narrative, the new incinerator would be a "greener" solution with less pollutants than the current one, solve the problem where to put the ever larger flood of trash and be a better "waste to energy" co-generation facility in which the heat from the incineration is used to heat Baltimore's schools, offices and major institutions and museums. Mayor Rawlings Blake was a strong supporter until she eventually cancelled the City's energy contracts since the private company didn't seem to be able to produce the plant. In this narrative, the people of Curtis Bay who fought the plant are NIMBYs standing in the way of progress. In 2016 the project finally failed.
Displaced by fire: A resident talks about how the post fire
response is as bad as the fire response itself was

The NDC field trip provided  the other perspective. Young resident and then highschool student Destiny Watford (video) provided it to a busload of conference participants standing on the side of a road surrounded by oil tanks, a surface sewage line, her voice overpowered by the roar of a steady stream of tanker trucks. Watford is now a known environmentalist and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. She proves that environmental concerns and social justice are joint issues. Tim Wheeler, who was the SUN's environmental reporter for 32 years had chronicled the incinerator fight, and who became a victim of the SUN's steady shrinkage stands in the group listening to Watford's story. He now is a writer for the environmental Bay Journal.

For Ms Watford and for the diverse working class community of Curtis Bay the energy deals that the private plant developer had struck, the union support for the $1 billion project, and Governor O'Malley recognizing waste energy as a "green" tier 1 renewable energy, was all part of an overwhelming web of pre-ordained facts that seemed impossible to penetrate. But Destiny and her group Free Your Voice did never give up. Instead they employed creative and unorthodox approaches along with strategic coalitions: They teamed with local activist Greg Sawtell of United Workers (a local labor support group) and eventually with global players such as GAIA, "a worldwide alliance of more than 800 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in over 90 countries whose ultimate vision is a just, toxic-free world without incineration" (mission).  Eventually the incinerator developer Energy Answers tripped over permitting issues which the activists from Curtis Bay had illuminated to Marylands Department of the Environment (MDE)  including by singing the anthem free your voice specifically composed for this purpose.
The fire-house (front) and the coal piers in the back

But even without the new incinerator, Curtis Bay is far from environmental justice. A simple event such as a rowhouse fire can become sinister when it takes the Curtis Bay fire department 23 minutes to respond, even though the fire station is located on the same square as the burning house, as one displaced resident tells the group of visitors. The resident recalls that the firefighters from neighboring Anne Arundel County had arrived first and that all the nearby fire hydrants were shut off "from a test a few days earlier". As a result the fire spread across almost the entire block. The 23 partially or fully burnt houses stood untouched for almost a year until a city crew showed up just a few days before the conference bus would arrive. "Miraculously", the affected resident observed. The Housing Department, meanwhile, told residents that they condemn or take into receivership only homes in areas where there is a potential market. A community spokesperson described this as another form of redlining. The Housing Department planners call it building from strength.

Curtis Bay's doesn't always get the shaft. The narrative isn't entirely binary, a matter of black and white or good and evil. The City of Baltimore is providing the community through the Adopt a Lot program the land for an impressive community garden. Garden volunteer Edith Gerald  showed us the Filbert Street Garden with pride. The garden has chicken, ducks, honey bees, composting bins for food scraps, a hoop house and a lovely picnic area. But she and Greg Sawtell from the United Workers group which supports the community since the incinerator fight don't trust the city because the land is not offered to the community for good. Baltimore's water works cite the possibility that the water tank next door would potentially need expansion one day.
Filbert Street garden volunteer Edith Gerald  

Ms Gerald suspects that the City would want to wait until the land appreciates and then sell the high ground to a developer. Gentrification doesn't seem entirely impossible, even in this remote enclave far from downtown or any prosperous neighborhood, after Under Armour announced plans to move its headquarters to Port Covington and wants to have an entire new town built around it. Curtis Bay is one of the SB7 communities included in a community benefits agreement which Sagamore signed in return for a record $665 million tax increment financing deal. Although the community can determine how to use benefits money, Sawtell doesn't believe that the developer would have the interest of the community at heart.

Some community benefits accrued from a complicated arrangement around the creation of an environmental education center at Masonville Cove, now a facility in a green idyll designed by Harris Kupfer Architects, a firm in downtown Baltimore owned by an African American couple. The observation deck of the nature centers faces the Curtis Bay where a tributary flows into it.  A large cruise ship docks in full view across the water, behind it Baltimore's skyline. The City may not see Curtis Bay, but it can see the city.
Smokestacks remain always in view: Community garden

The nature sanctuary is deceiving, though. In part it sits on encapsulated toxic waste and was only possible after removing derelict vessels from the water and hauling off over 14,000 tons of wood and assorted debris since 2007, the restoration of the cove is an effort that is still ongoing and a partnership between the Port Administration and a community advisory panel, the Army Corps of Engineers, Living Classrooms, the National Aquarium, the US Fish & Wildlife Fund and after the Obama administration declared this to be first urban wildlife refuge in the
Curtis Bay: Housing values far below average

After the conference excursion and after the bus returned to Baltimore's Station North area I headed to a second event that I had booked for the same day, a boat tour of the development along Baltimore's Inner Harbor organized by the local council of the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

On board of the ship the members of the design and development community were mostly white, as usual. There were drinks and networking and a good time were foremost on the minds of those signing up along with getting in the process an update on all the development that recently had gone up around the harbor. Development was explained by the deputy director of the Baltimore Development Corporation, Kimberly Clark.  Once the boat had left the Inner Harbor and was further out near the Key Bridge, Clark pointed to the horizon and mentioned Fairfield in the distance, once an African American Community that was entirely bought out by the City. Fairfield is located right next to Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, and it was where the bigger new incinerator would have been built. The day had come full circle. The two Baltimores couldn't have been made more obvious than with these two back to back events, the community design conference field trip and the ULI harbor tour. As a first generation immigrant I felt like a guest at both events, in spite of the 32 years I spent here.
In 1996 residents of Fairfield and Wagner’s Point formed the Fairfield/Wagner’s Point Neighborhood Coalition and signed a retainer with the University of Maryland School of Law. In the words of Brenda Blom, University of Maryland law professor and member of the legal counsel for residents, the neighborhoods were “engulfed” by industry.[iv] Working with their lawyers, a majority of residents decided that relocation was their best option to achieve some sense of justice. Blom succinctly describes the success of the relocation effort as based in the residents “unwillingness to remain invisible,” which shows that a new way to see urban industrial space is essential to achieving justice.[v] However, Many Fairfield residents, like Jennie Fischer, the President of the Fairfield Improvement Association, did not want to leave.[vi]By the end of 1998, the Neighborhood Coalition finally received a commitment from the city for relocation, and, in early 1999, the deal was struck for Wagner’s Point residents and then Condea Vista and FMC (chemical companies) put together a proposal to match a city offer for relocation in Fairfield. The hard-won relocation package provided residents of the industrial peninsula with the hope of living free of industrial pollution and the fear of a cataclysmic accident. However, the moment was bittersweet because residents had formed a tight sense of community out on the peninsula and it was the only life many people knew.
Some holdouts clung to their territory on the peninsula well into the 21st century. Baltimore City moved out the last two residents in March of 2011, and the last Fairfield home was demolished a month later. Nicole King (Source)
In the still prevailing "white" narrative places like Fairfield are only a sidebar. But the other narrative is getting increasingly louder thanks to groups like Free Your Voice and, maybe, also because of an increasing awareness among the design community of their complicity in the current segregation .
The Fours Seasons condos at the Inner Harbor
as seen from a boat

Cruising the waters of the Patapsco on a warm late spring evening felt like being on vacation as a tourist in your own city. But Curtis Bay, the industrial enclave, reminded me of how I grew up: In an apartment only a few hundred feet from factory halls which emitted noise, odors and fumes at all hours of the day and the night. There was no big body of water but the local river river was colored by the chemicals of a textile plant that had been established there because it needed the river. The dust that coated everything was sometimes black like the coal of the nearby foundry and sometimes white from a cement factory, depending on how the wind blew. It was my place, though and I was proud of it.

In an attempt to clear my lungs my parents sent me every year to North Germany, the farms of my uncles and the sea breeze that wafted over those lands. I liked that, too.

Neither of those two worlds provides the lens to fully understand how race, class and social and environmental justice are intertwined here, but they made the powerful narratives of this particular day in Baltimore resonate with me.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
all photos by author. Use only with permission.

Related on this Blog:
Forgotten in Baltimore

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