His connections used to mean something. Back when George Winfield ran public works, Whitley would meet him at home after work and hang out. "His wife was a sweetheart," Whitley says. "He'd come in and say 'why'd you let this nigger in here?'"
He laughs, remembering Ms. Winfield telling her husband to "give him what he wants." Whitley was big-time in the 1980s. The mayor, William Donald Schaefer, sent him to midtown Baltimore to change the neighborhood, and that is what Whitley did. Ensconced in a house at 1805 Saint Paul St. that he bought from the city for a dollar (and $3,500 in taxes), he rebuilt it with his own strong arms and opened an art gallery to showcase his own photographs and paintings, along with the works of others. "How many black men have their own gallery?" Whitley asks.
And so it goes, Whitley's life story unfurling like a red carpet. Germany, Studio 54 in New York, Washington, D.C., the White House.
Once when he was in Italy, Whitley says, his mouth landed him in jail, so he called a friend in Little Italy, in Baltimore, and was released 20 minutes later.
That's the way life should be. But it hasn't been that way for a while. He got divorced. He went bankrupt. He got cancer—he's over it now, he says. But he lost some time.
Whitley has a goal now, one that he's had for a decade: to fix the roof on his house.
It has been leaking since 2005. The water damage has collapsed the high plaster ceilings in about a third of the house. "It started coming down in 2011," he says. "Maybe 2012. I saved the pieces because it's got to go back."
The once-grand staircase is so dangerous that a guest can't even go to the third floor. Whitley built a narrow, steep staircase near the back of the house to get to the second floor bedroom he's since abandoned. He now lives mainly in an eight-by-ten-foot rear porch addition he built around 2010. It is insulated, but there is no drywall. "I was in a little group JFK created called the Green Berets," he says. "So I create a zone. You get survival skills."
Living on $600 per month from Social Security, his rental apartment long since destroyed by the influx of water, Whitley faces a $320,000 renovation job to rebuild his home and gallery, which is on the National Register of Historic Places as "The Whitley House." He wants the responsible parties to pay for the damage, and he has asked for help from everyone from city housing to President Barack Obama. The roof debacle is the fault of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, he says. It is the fault of Baltimore Housing.
And it is the fault of those people who live in the city-owned subsidized apartments next door to him.
He's had dealings with a next-door neighbor. He claims her sons have broken into his house. He says another neighbor—since departed—threatened to sue any contractor that walked on her roof. He gave right-of-way over his roof to the city, he says, so Baltimore Housing could repair and maintain its roofs. But the city wouldn't reciprocate—or, anyway, when it did, it would not rein in this tenant.
Whitley says four contractors heard the tenant threaten a lawsuit, and four contractors backed out of their contracts. He says he was unable to get Baltimore Housing to do anything, so he called HUD, and his congressman. Eventually he sent an affidavit to the White House on card stock. It details his troubles (there is a whole side story involving Baltimore Gas and Electric and the proposed moving of a telephone pole) as well as his credentials: "President George W. Bush—Presidential Award United States of America. Governor William D. Schaefer—State of Maryland Award. Served as a photographer with the U.S. Air Force for the 459th Congressional Wing—Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Served as a photographer for the Pentagon and the White House, Washington, D.C."
Congressman Elijah Cummings sent him a letter back. Dated March, 2014, it mentions a pending foreclosure. It says the neighboring roofs "are not under our domain." And as for the drug activity? "This is strictly a police matter…."
A letter from HUD, dated February 3, 2016, references "Barack Obama and the White House," going on to say that "the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has taken the necessary actions to address your concerns…".
One neighbor, who asked her name not be used because she doesn't want trouble, says she mostly agrees with Whitley's assessment of their fellow neighbors. "I'm not used to that lifestyle," she says. "I just have empathy for the poor man. He's really concerned with the upkeep of this neighborhood. It's a shame that he'll live under those conditions. He would help anyone. But there are some people you can't help."
But it's not as if the city hasn't tried.
Baltimore Housing has sent people around. Whitley shares a three-page assessment of the house by a city inspector, which says the house is ready to collapse on him and estimates a $320,000 renovation.
"They said 'oh, you need a loan'," Whitley says. "Why do I need a loan? I didn't create the problem!"
Land records indicate that Whitley owes about $143,000 on the house, from a mortgage he took out years ago. The mortgage is in foreclosure; there is an "affidavit of auctioneer," according to the online court record. But the status of the case is not clear.
A throwback to the Schaefer era of city governance, when money and favors appeared as a matter of right for those who had standing within the political in-crowd, Whitley is a generation late sending his card-stock CV to the White House.
He also epitomizes the challenge of getting older in an economy and society whose safety net is fraying, at best. Like most men in their early to mid 60s, Whitley is far from ready for the nursing home. He has no family who can help, he says, and he doesn't want to become some kind of ward of the city or state. He wants to do it his way—though it is not apparent he has the ability to pull it off, with or without any government programs that might help him do that.
These days Whitley is working his angles. He's pressuring the city, making calls to the media, sending letters, and building new stuff. His back yard was recently fenced. Whitley says he sunk the posts himself. "It's easy," he says.
Whitley says he's going to rebuild the place again by next fall.
"I know this house. I know it well," he says. "I'm going to get it better than I had before."
In the basement, the ceiling is gone. It's low enough here to feel the big joists that hold up the rest of the house. They are soft, with a velvet texture and a musty smell. They all have to go.
"You know how to replace those," Whitley asks. He goes on to explain a complicated technique that begins with a car jack and the removal of some bricks from the wall around each rotten joist. It ends with two more 2 x 12s where the rotten joist is. "It falls out like candy," he says, pledging to get it done, in part as an example to his shiftless neighbors. Then he advises the reporter.