Charm City Grit: Change in Baltimore Starts with the Community

Baltimore is a city of contradictions. Within its boundaries, one can find self-avowed social justice warriors who are determined to undo centuries of injustice in the city. One can also find people who have never left the sanctuary of whiteness of the Inner Harbor. I could not help but laugh cynically when I saw a bumper sticker that read “Baltimore: Actually, I like It” plastered on a Toyota Prius as the driver whizzed around the fare-free city circulator bus. For the three months I lived in Baltimore, the social tension was palpable from day one. However, the city is as unapologetically gritty as the people who live there. With recognizing its grittiness comes an awareness of just how much this city has overcome and how far it still has to go. Luckily, Baltimore is home to a pulsating community of unapologetic radicals and free-thinkers who, from the bottom up, are attempting to shift the tides in the favor of the disadvantaged groups in the city by providing safe spaces, inclusive services, and good old-fashioned community organizing. Whether this is enough to undo the historic segregation and disenfranchisement of the Black and impoverished communities is yet unclear.

Red Emma’s Coffee Shop and Bookstore. Source: New York Times

One prime example of a community of radical thinkers that I had the privilege of interacting with in the city is Red Emma’s Coffee Shop and Bookstore: a worker-owned cooperative governed by consensus. Red Emma’s makes its space, wi-fi, bathrooms, and extensive anarchist book collection available to all in the community, regardless of ability to pay. The shop regularly hosts speakers to discuss issues of gender, sexuality, and/or race and encourages all to participate. The shop is also home to the Baltimore Free School: a community-funded learning center whose mission is empowerment of people of all ages and backgrounds. The location of the shop in the Station North neighborhood is integral to its mission of providing a safe space for the community. The neighborhood is marred by frequent homicides and substance abuse. It is also home to many trans sex workers. The shop is typically a tranquil haven where people of all types meet, mingle, and converse. However, earlier this year a man was shot inside Red Emma’s in a non-politically motivated dispute, calling to mind the all-too frequent injection of violence into these vocally pacifist spaces. In response, Red Emma’s joined the legions of other Baltimorean organizations vehemently advocating for policy and programming to address the record levels of violence in the city. The incident reinvigorated the community as a reminder of exactly what so many Baltimoreans are striving for: peace and justice.

Another organization providing much-needed services to the people of Baltimore is Gather: a volunteer-run service that collects surplus food to redistribute in underserved neighborhoods. Food injustice and inequality is extreme in Baltimore: 1 in 4 people live in a food desert. Additionally, 30% of people do not have access to a vehicle which limits ability to drive to a grocery store or transport groceries. Gather Baltimore is increasing access to healthy foods in food desert communities as well as tackling food waste in the city. The organization relies on a volunteer fleet to collect produce from farms, farmers markets, and grocery stores, and the food is then distributed to local shelters and community organizations. One of my personal favorite programs of Gather’s is their Blue Bag program through which  they hand out 30-pound bags of fruits and vegetables from their brick-and-mortar location in Remington for a suggested donation of $7. Whether or not people can pay, they are still able to access this program – assuming they can manage to lift a 30-pound bag of produce (I could not)! Of course, the Blue Bag program has questions of accessibility for people without a car, but the produce for the Blue Bag program is distributed only after all the community sites have been taken care of. While services like these are not necessarily finding a solution to the reason for food deserts, Gather is providing much-needed services in the meantime and raising awareness of hunger and food waste in the city.


Gather Baltimore. Source: Gather Baltimore.

Possibly the most omnipresent groups calling for change in Baltimore are grassroots community coalitions. One of the more recent examples of Baltimore’s community organizing that received national coverage is the Baltimore Ceasefire campaign which challenged Baltimore to a 72-hour period without any murders. While the 72-hour period saw 2 people shot and killed, the campaign brought awareness back to the ubiquity of violence in the city with the rallying call “Don’t Be Numb”. Another grassroots group in the city with a planning and development focus is the Baltimore Housing Roundtable: an organized group advocating for fair and just development in Baltimore. Their “United Not Blighted” campaign has gained significant traction in the city and calls for an end to private real estate development and property speculation. The campaign calls for the creation of permanently affordable housing and deconstruction of vacant houses that have been abandoned and neglected. The campaign has gained the support of many members of City Council as well as organizations across the city. These are just two examples of Baltimore’s propensity for community organizing, but the city has numerous similar groups individually tackling specific issues in the city.

Despite the seemingly large number of community groups and organizations seeking to actively promote change and investment in Baltimore, the city still wades through the messy fallout of segregation and inequitable development. The community groups are starting conversations and making noticeable change, but widespread dismantling of the current unjust social and geographic structure of Baltimore will not come without a public policy and planning agenda. Baltimore’s Planning and Public Health Departments, both of whom I was able to interact with, have a lens of social justice in many of their undertakings. Specifically, the 2017 Sustainability Plan, which is still in the works, focuses specifically on issues of equity in the city; the plan reaches past the traditional tenets of sustainability to include healthcare, poverty, environmental justice, and more. However, the city has also recently had some tone-deaf planning blunders, such as the Governor’s cancellation of the Red Line rail project which would have connected predominantly Black neighborhoods that were lacking transit access. Unfortunately, economic investment has almost entirely benefitted the North-South corridor of Baltimore known as the “White L” but has bypassed poor, Black neighborhoods to the East or West. Even most of the organizations discussed above, such as Red Emma’s and Gather Baltimore, are located in the White L. The spatial disparities in Baltimore continue to be a driving force in the systemic racism and disenfranchisement in the city.

Baltimore will be a city to watch over the next decade. Baltimore is one of the most systematically segregated city in the United States with a documented history of racist and classist housing policies and zoning ordinances. There are a plethora of businesses, nonprofits, and coalitions who are fighting to undo the wrongs of the past. While these organizations have made great strides, Baltimore is still in need of a significant and rigorous public policy and planning agenda that puts social equity first. I contend this is the only permanent and lasting way to address the poverty, crime, and homelessness that has left the city restless and eager for change. Baltimore will continue to address its issues in imaginative ways from the bottom-up.


About the Author: Ally Clonch is a North Carolina native and second year graduate student in City & Regional Planning and the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC. She is interested in researching the effects of the built environment on population health outcomes, especially as they relate to health disparities in low-income and minority populations. Outside of school, Ally spends her time perusing thrift stores, getting coffee with friends, or reliving her glory days by watching 90s television shows.

Featured Image: Baltimore. Credit: Business Insider