Field Tripping: Heading West

The sun is finally shining and I've had a couple of days in the last few weeks without meetings or teaching, and that means my very favorite kinds of field trips—the ones that start on my bike with no specific destination in mind. I hopped on my bike this past Monday with no plans other than to ride west instead of east, because usually I head east—it's easier to go that way by bike. What I got was hours of trying to get to West Baltimore, reminding myself, again, how much the infrastructure of this city divides us. That division is raced and classed in deep ways, as we all should know by now (even if some of us have the privilege to forget that part), and an hour or two riding around the city helps me understand how those divisions are etched into the built environment that we tend to take for granted.

I started out from Charles Village heading west, through Remington, even though I know there's no way through to the other side from here. This neighborhood is "up and coming," if you haven't heard. It's got coffee shops and a butcher, a fancy new apartment building going up across from the 7-Eleven, a "movement studio" in its near future, and skyrocketing housing prices. I bought a house in January, and one thing I can't stop doing is looking at houses on the internet, even though, goddess willing, I won't have to buy another one for at least the next decade. And maybe in the next decade I'll be able to afford one in Remington, once it has up-and-came. Houses are going for over $200,000 when a few years ago they went for almost half that. That's a lot of dough for tree-less streets, I-83 off-ramp traffic, and a 7-Eleven, but hey, that's development.


I rode west until I hit the fence that keeps folks from tumbling onto the CSX tracks snaking under Remington's skin, and then turned south and west and south and west again, one dead end after another. I know this—that you can't get west of here from here—but riding it reminds me of that fact, reminds me that this largely white neighborhood is structurally isolated from the largely black neighborhoods just on the other side of Jones Falls/I-83/Druid Hill Park dividing line. I wondered to myself what role the isolation from those other parts of the city might play in Remington's rising home values as I headed back east to go west again.

I found my throughway with a right on Oliver Street, a left on Mount Royal Avenue, and another left on Lafayette Avenue, making my way through the MICA campus and through Bolton Hill. It's all leafy brick and turrets and dead ends, again, but these are at pretty parks. Same difference, though—another structural block against heading west.

Lafayette's a through street, though, so I took that through Bolton Hill and then through Marble Hill, and here's the part where West Baltimore's cut-off from the rest of the city get's really obvious. I can see it in the quick change from MICA's privatized public environs to the rows of vacant homes, some of which have their backs and sides torn off, exposing the now-empty spaces that leave me wondering, where have all the people gone?

They're still here, though. It's a dangerous thing, this armchair pontificating about what has happened in neighborhoods that aren't ours. I remember when CNN showed that picture of Baltimore on fire during the Uprising—only it was Venezuela. It was horrifying, and we laughed. We wondered, "How could they not know that's not Baltimore?" The danger, though, is that we think we know what we're seeing when we see it.

What do we see in photographs of West Baltimore? We've been seeing a whole lot of them with elections coming up. We see David Warnock driving that fucking truck through there on his way to build schools and bring jobs. We see Catherine Pugh linking arms with folks and walking through streets, her problem-solving eye trained on what have become the city's dog-whistle images of disinvestment and decay. We see candidates sitting on stoops, standing on street corners—they are on the case.

These images leave out the life that animates these neighborhoods. I didn't just see the etchings of racist disinvestment on my bike ride. I also saw people sitting on their stoops without a single politician using them as background. I saw people laughing on corners, getting in their cars to head to or from work, riding their bikes, too. I had a red-light-long conversation at Payson Street and Fulton Avenue with a man pushing himself across the street in his wheelchair. We talked about bike brands we love and hate, why we both love riding, his plans to get back on a bike once he gets out of that chair. I shared how-you-doins with plenty of people—because there were plenty of people out doing just what I was doing—enjoying the sunshine.

I zigzagged around for awhile, zipping through Upton, Harlem Park, and Midtown Edmondson and back east through Hollins Park before suddenly being back downtown. Riding a bike around reminds me real quick what a small city we're really talking about, even as it feels often like it is just so big, riven in two by the natural and built infrastructures that make it physically difficult to make our way east and west, unless we already know how to do it.

Add to that the persistent ideological arguments that unless you live "over there," you shouldn't go over there because DANGER DANGER DANGER, and you've got a situation where we'll stay two Baltimores, because we'll remain irremediably other to each other, as if we aren't all in this together. The parts of Baltimore where Warnock lives, for example, look like they do because the part of Baltimore he drives through look like they do. If we stay on one side or the other, or only drive through to see problems or bring "solutions" that communities know better for themselves, then we're just not getting it. This field trip reminded me, again, that the infrastructure itself is working against me, so I've got to look harder for the way through to the other side.