Baltimore gets in your bones

I didn’t know Ray Glasgow, but he was everything we want our children to be: a hard-working student, a two-sport star, a devoted son. He was the hope for a new Baltimore — young, visionary and hopeful.

I sit on the board of a non-profit that runs a summer learning program that Ray participated in years ago. Everyone in the program who knew him echoed the words of his City College football coach, “He was the epitome of a good kid.”

Just like that, at 17, on a cloudy May day , Ray was gunned down in front of his old school in a case of mistaken identity. What more could he have done? What did Ray do wrong? Sadly, like hundreds of others, the only thing he did wrong was to stand on the wrong Baltimore street corner at the wrong time.

At times like this, some wonder if they should even bother anymore. Perhaps it would be easier in another city where the problems are less intractable, the politics more respectable, the opportunities more tangible. Perhaps. But problems don’t get solved when the most connected and capable run from them. And solving these problems is the charge for all of us who have ever benefited from all this city has to offer us.

Baltimore gets in your bones. Try as you might, plagued as Baltimore is, many of us just can’t leave it. The San Franciscos and New Yorks are easy to love — whether they ever love you back or not. A love for Baltimore is much harder earned and potentially much more transformational. It is a love that doubtless burns and scars, but it is a love all the same. And once you get it, leaving is not an option.

The forces that took Ray were set in motion in Baltimore centuries before he was born. They deal with certain members of this city from the bottom of the deck — with substandard housing codified into law, property tax-funded schools that provide no heat in winter and no learning in summer, a broken transportation system that shuts the doors of opportunity, and law enforcement policies that use non-violent felony convictions as a means of social control.

Many might protest, not without some justification, that they personally had no hand in creating this unjust system. That may well be — but many of us still benefit from it nonetheless. Though few living bear any guilt for the commission of our city’s multiple historical sins, we all bear the burden of their correction. And, quite simply, our city will not rise again without that correction.

It would be easy to look at Baltimore’s history and respond with disgust. But in that history there is cause for optimism. For example, the legal architect of the city’s housing segregation policies was a prominent white lawyer who lived in West Baltimore at the turn of the 20th century. His great-grandson is a teacher in Baltimore City today and has dedicated himself to the diversity, inclusion and justice that his ancestor tried to make impossible. In that is the seed of hope — hope that despite our past flaws, we can indeed change for the better.

For better or worse, to be part of a city is to be part of a civic marriage. Some years will be happy. Some will be hard. It seems that lately we have had nothing but hard years — with violence, mismanagement and social divisions only seeming to get worse. (Even our Orioles seem to now reflect that hopelessness.) But we can’t give ourselves to despair now.

A prominent African-American attorney, one whose family escaped the clutches of iniquity through its own genius, looked out at East Baltimore this week and explained, “These problems took centuries to create. They won’t be solved in our lifetimes.”

That sounds like a dare we should gladly take. Each of us from Roland Park to Harlem Park has a responsibility to pull together and not apart — to prove that sage lawyer wrong, to honor the memory of Ray Glasgow, and to safeguard the future of all other kids like Ray who hold in them the key to our civic renewal. We really have no other choice. Baltimore is in our bones — and we just can’t quit her now.

William Zerhouni is a partner at Murphy, Falcon & Murphy; his email is willzerhouni@gmail.com.

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