Where Do You Even Begin?

As some of you know, I am attending Hopkins on a scholarship. One of the perks of the scholarship is that we, the scholars, get to meet some interesting people from in and around Baltimore. These people range from artists to activists, to politicians and authors. They’re all very interesting people, even if we sometimes get into some topics that are a little dry.

The most recent chat was with one of Baltimore’s former mayors. Rather than give you a play-by-play of our conversation, I want to instead focus on what we talked about, and what got my brain going as I sat there listening to them. The first feeling I had was one of being overwhelmed. It lasted for about fifteen seconds, then came the ideas flowing. So here I am, putting ideas to, uh, paper?

When it comes to “fixing” things in Baltimore, the first question I had was where do you even begin? The city is going through a pretty bad wave of violence, violence that is killing more people per capita than what has been experienced in about a generation. The causes for the violence are many, and there is no one single answer on how to address it. To make matters more difficult, each one of those “answers” requires a starting point that is very elusive.

If the problem is the illegal drug trade, it would seem like a good idea to reform the justice system so that the “war on drugs” turns into more of a Manhattan Project on how to get people off drugs. Yet some people are perfectly okay — i.e. functional — on drugs. So do we decriminalize drugs and just kind of be okay with people on drugs so long as they are productive and do not represent a burned on the rest of us? This is probably an ethical thing to do if the person(s) in question is an adult and knows full well the consequences of their habit.

So let’s say we decriminalize drugs and gangs don’t have a monopoly on them. What are all those (mostly) kids going to do for a living? Because good-paying jobs are very hard to come by in Baltimore. We then would have to shift our focus to jobs. How do you get people and businesses to invest in Baltimore? With almost half of the city gone from the exodus in the 90s, and still leaving, it’s a hard sell to promote the city as a place to live work and thrive.

Alright, so now we have to get people back into Baltimore. What can we do to make it more attractive? A good public transportation system? Shared bikes? Easy driving in and out? Good roads that get repaired quickly after a major snowstorm (or not)? Affordable housing? Nice, safe parks? With a little tweaking here and there, Baltimore has all these things. It’s the tweaking that gets tricky.

When you don’t have as many people living in Baltimore, and there are way too many empty residences and buildings, the tax base to finance the nice things that attract people to the city dries up. It’s kind of a vicious circle in that regard. And it’s very hard to consider where to begin to fix things.

To make it all worse, there are many political and financial interests in Baltimore that make leaders and major stakeholders disagree with one another on where to begin. Developers want to develop, but they don’t want to be burdened with requirements for affordable housing. Business owners want to open shops, but they’re nervous (to put it mildly) of hiring from a pool of young men who have been in jail, even if their convictions are minor things like marijuana possession or underage drinking… Even if they’ve spent 10 or 20 years fulfilling their debts to society. And politicians want to fill their campaign coffers with cash, even if it means forgoing all of their campaign promises.

Frankly, it makes my head hurt to think of where to begin to fix a city like Baltimore. If I had all the time and money and authority to do so, I’d still have a headache. History, socioeconomics, and institutionalized racism would all have to be contended with, but none are readily tangible for anyone (or any group) to contend with them. You can’t push a button and erase the mistrust of the citizens with the institutions meant to serve them. Likewise, you can’t teach a man how to fish when you are in the middle of a desert.

Still, you have to start somewhere… Anywhere.

I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen