UB Faculty Members Joshua Clark Davis, Elizabeth M. Nix Provide Guidance, Insights in New Book,'Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in an American City'
October 21, 2019
Contact: Office of Government and Public Affairs
Baltimore is "a city of contradictions," says a new book of essays about the city, Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in an American City. Starting with its seemingly oppositional nicknames—it’s "Charm City" to some, "Mobtown" to others, and both at once, in a sign of fierce local pride, to most—Baltimore is layered with traditions, myths and complicated truths going back some three centuries. This history, still the subject of lively debate and intense scholarship, much of it contributed over the years by University of Baltimore faculty, is at the heart of Baltimore Revisited. The book, published in August, was co-edited by UB's Joshua Clark Davis, assistant professor in the Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies and director of the B.A. in History program, and includes essays by Elizabeth M. Nix, associate professor and chair of the Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies, and Aiden Faust, associate director of Special Collections in UB's Bogomolny Library.
"Baltimore encapsulates the bundle of contradictions—the inequalities and traumas but also the joys—that characterize life in U.S. cities" in the present day, Davis and his co-editors P. Nicole King and Kate Drabinski assert in their introduction to the book. Noting the collection's mix of 18 essays and nine brief "snapshots," and the involvement of more than 30 experts from inside and outside academia in an exploration of the city's problems and its solutions, the editors describe the work as "an interdisciplinary collaboration based in the humanities rather than a systematic history of the city."
"Baltimore," the editors contend, "like many other cities struggling with shifting and challenging social and economic conditions, inhabits a tense space between renaissance and revolution."
The essays in this collection "take readers on a tour through the city's diverse neighborhoods, from the Lumbee Indian community in East Baltimore to the crusade for environmental justice in South Baltimore. Baltimore Revisited examines the city's past, reflects upon the city's present, and envisions the city's future."
Also at Brilliant Baltimore, Prof. Nix will be part of a panel discussion, "Strong City Baltimore Presents: Investment, Disinvestment and Neighborhood Change in Baltimore," on Nov. 2.
Baltimore Revisited's authors note that all royalties generated by the book will be donated to the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Learn more about the book at http://baltimorerevisited.org.
Following is a Q&A with Profs. Nix and Davis about Baltimore Revisited:
A strong through line of the book is the systemic inequality perpetrated by corporate interests. What does that look like to the average citizen of Baltimore?
Prof. Nix: The chapter of the book that I co-wrote with April Householder and Jodi Kelber-Kaye, both professors at UMBC, examines the way that ordinary Baltimoreans challenged corporate interests in the 1970s. People in the anti-war movement, the labor movement and the feminist movement joined together in Baltimore to create Women: A Journal of Liberation and the Free People's Medical Clinic. These projects were founded on an ethos of cooperation and consensus and depended on herculean volunteer efforts. They are models of the ways that Baltimoreans see a need and create solutions without corporate support.
Prof. Davis: One of the most dramatic disparities in Baltimore is the vast inequality in average lifespan by neighborhood. The fact that people in one neighborhood live 20 years less than people in the next neighborhood—it doesn't get more real than that. Unequal access to health care, hugely varying rates of violent crime, and poverty are some of the biggest drivers of this lifespan inequality. These three drivers of lifespan inequality are grounded in history. Government-backed redlining going back to the 1910s prevented the vast majority of African Americans from buying homes for most of the last century, for instance. That's one of the biggest reasons for racially disparate poverty levels today in our city. Home ownership is one of the most significant builders of generational wealth in our country, but the fact that black Baltimoreans were shut out of the real estate marketplace for decades is a big reason for high poverty rates in predominantly black neighborhoods in the city. And it's worth noting that Baltimore City was the first municipality in the country to mandate racial segregation by law, with the passage of a city ordinance in 1911. Although the Supreme Court would invalidate that law just six years later, it opened the door for racial covenants, which also kept black potential homebuyers out of the real estate market. Less home ownership translates to more poverty which translates to less access to quality education and health care, which are some of the contributors to lower life spans. It's all connected. The history of housing discrimination continues to have very real consequences for the health of black Baltimoreans.
As you point out, the city is no different from its peers across the country when it comes to dealing with economic and social challenges. But what about something that is particular to Baltimore—e.g., an old fight that we keep having with ourselves—that makes it more difficult for us to pick up and move on toward economic equality and social justice? What do we need to let go of?
Prof. Davis: One of the things that makes Baltimore different from many others cities is that we're an "inelastic" city, geographically speaking. The city has rarely if ever succeeded in annexing adjoining areas that could enhance our tax base. So many of the area's major businesses are in the city, but so many more taxpaying homeowners are outside the city. Annexation is how New York City and Philadelphia grew dramatically in the 19th and 20th centuries. Cities like Atlanta are continuing to grow that way. Atlanta just annexed Emory University's land recently. But the line between city and county in Baltimore seems especially firm. Just think what Baltimore might look like if the city and county could get over their differences and consolidate, as places like Nashville and Jacksonville have done.
Prof. Nix: Our underdog mentality drives us to downplay our ample resources. Our waterfront, historic physical fabric, and location on the I-95 corridor are assets that we should recognize and value.
This city has boomed, busted, burned and bled in its long history—it's a pretty dramatic arc. Is it fair to say that, somehow, we expect this "ups-and-downs" thing as a normal part of our lives?
Prof. Nix: Most American cities have gone through booms and busts and experienced fires and unrest. Ups and downs can be normal.
Prof. Davis: Most people forgot that "Mobtown" was a common nickname for Baltimore in the 19th century. It's not a reference to organized crime, but the frequent outbreak of riots and civil disorders. People born in the 1960s or earlier in this town have seen urban rebellions twice in their lifetime. They've also seen a good deal of corporate and political corruption. It's not unique to Baltimore, but it does feel like it recurs here with unusual regularity. The last few years definitely haven't been easy, but at the same time it feels like at least some people in the city are finally getting serious about changing the direction of the city. The big question is whether we can re-energize Baltimore's economy without prioritizing the waterfront areas and the already affluent over the rest of the neighborhoods that are struggling.
As you pieced together Baltimore Revisited, what became your single most frustrating discovery—a missed opportunity; a misguided belief; a bad habit? Do you see various authors reaching the same conclusion but coming from different perspectives? How do you see your favorite "did-you-know" moment coloring where we are today, and where we'd like to go?
Prof. Davis: I wrote my essay in the book on activists who started their own businesses in Baltimore to advance social movements and collective wealth. One of the greatest experiments along these lines was by Isaac Myers in the Reconstruction era right after the Civil War. Myers was a black man born free in Baltimore before the war and a skilled craftsmen in ship caulking and ship building. Working with churches and mutual aid organizations, Myers helped start the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company. It was cooperatively owned by black workers and quickly became one of the largest black-owned companies in the United States. At the same time, Myers arose to be the leader of the Colored National Labor Union, and he worked to develop a working alliance with white labor organizations. Myers had a remarkable vision for how black Baltimoreans could achieve major economic gains after the Civil War. Unfortunately, most whites in the labor movement didn't want to work with him, and the Dry Dock Company collapsed after several years. It's a lot like Reconstruction writ large—Myers and his black colleagues had a vision and plan for black self-sufficiency and economic independence, but too many whites resisted the idea of blacks getting ahead and racial hostility got in the way of what could have been a multiracial coalition of black and white workers.
A lot of local people say they see a similar "survivor story/ghost story" in Detroit. Also, some say they look at Detroit as a cautionary tale for Baltimore. Which resonates more for you? Is it both? Neither? Why?
Prof. Nix: In Baltimore we didn't put all of our eggs in one basket as Detroit did with the auto industry. Baltimore manufactured and exported straw hats, umbrellas, clothing, pianos, sheet music, organs, bricks, canned goods, corks, steel and paper goods. Despite our diversity of industrial pursuits, we saw a similar loss of jobs and of population when one after another of our various industries left town. We have the benefit of seeing how other cities have come back from the brink and we can learn from their mistakes, so Baltimore does not gentrify too fast and keeps the historic buildings that make us unique.
Prof. Davis: Baltimore and Detroit are similar in many regards. I often think that the major differences economically are that Baltimore is close to more federal jobs (especially in and around D.C.) and has more medical jobs. But if it weren't for those two things, Baltimore would be in just as bad as shape as Detroit. Both cities have suffered terribly due to deindustrialization. Detroit still has a significantly higher poverty rate than Baltimore and a significantly lower median household income. But the two cities have a lot to learn from each other. A potential warning sign might be Detroit's so-called "renaissance." It's a partial economic recovery that mostly benefits white citizens and downtown neighborhoods without spreading much wealth to the predominantly black neighborhoods. If Baltimore really wants to heal, it needs to chart a different course than such an unequal recovery.