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Baltimore City

For West Baltimore neighborhoods, water contamination is yet another crisis that compounds intractable inequities

A drinking water crisis could hardly hit a neighborhood harder than West Baltimore. In the blocks surrounding three sites where samples showed E. coli contamination over Labor Day weekend, a four-day boil-water order compounded so many long-standing crises.

The lack of a single grocery store, and a dearth of transportation options to get to one. Low rates of home internet and cable subscriptions, through which residents might have learned of the problem quicker. Water bills that are unaffordable to most, even when it’s safe to drink from the tap.

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“Everyone is inconvenienced,” said Louis Wilson, senior pastor of New Song Community Church in Sandtown-Winchester. “But we’re inconvenienced in ways we can’t necessarily remedy just because of where we’re located.”

It remains unclear what caused the bacterial contamination, which initially turned up at three sites across Harlem Park and Sandtown-Winchester. But its effect is undeniable: It is yet one more thing pulling on a frayed social and economic fabric, further underscoring the need for sustainable solutions.

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“This just exposes it that much more,” said Donna Brown, program manager for the Citizens Policing Project, a West Baltimore-based group focused on criminal justice and equity.

Gwen Brunson, 67, pushes cases of bottled water for herself and her neighbor home from a Baltimore Department of Pubic Works distribution location at Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School.

The frustration was palpable as residents descended upon a city water pickup site at Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School, many returning several days in a row. They lined up in cars around the block, and carried cases of bottles on their shoulders, in carts and even on walkers.

“I’d rather not be out here pulling the cart. It’s annoying,” 67-year-old Gwen Brunson said before making her way uphill the half mile to her home. As if speaking directly to city leaders, she asked, “Why can’t you get it together?”

Others were more blunt.

“I’m ready to move the f--- out of here,” said neighbor CJ Johnson. “Baltimore City is doo-doo. They’re trash.”

The 58-year-old grew up in Gilmor Homes, a public housing complex that was partially demolished five years after Freddie Gray’s deadly encounter with police there. Johnson said he has grown weary of the violence in the area. Now, the risk of E. coli infection on top of that, as someone with diabetes, is a lot to bear, he said.

“This is another crisis,” he said.

Statistics support residents’ grievances. For example, the Sandtown-Winchester, Harlem Park and Midtown-Edmondson neighborhoods — all of which are predominantly Black — together account for more than 10% of Baltimore’s 15,000 vacant homes, and less than 2% of its population, according to city and U.S. Census data.

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Together, the three neighborhoods have averaged almost a dozen 311 reports of rat infestations a day since 2021.

The Baltimore Police Department’s Western District, with its station one of the locations where water samples tested positive for E. coli, accounted for about 18% of the city’s more than 300 homicides last year. In Midtown-Edmondson, the homicide rate is more than five times the citywide rate, at one homicide for every 183 residents annually.

And with the cancellation of the planned Red Line transit system in 2015, as well as the so-called Highway to Nowhere, a road project abandoned in 1981, the area is largely isolated but for the Maryland Transit Administration bus network.

Demographic data Wilson said his church received from Mission Insite, a technology platform that offers such information to congregations, showed that nearly two-thirds of Sandtown households lack a vehicle.

Andre Marshall, 58, balances a case of bottled water on his shoulder for a mile-long walk to his home near North Avenue from a Baltimore Department of Public Works distribution location at Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School.

And while it’s not clear whether the condition of the city’s water pipes is to blame for the bacterial contamination, the fact that much of the system is a century old or more, plus the high costs of maintaining and upgrading it, weigh heavily on residents, especially those in low-income areas like West Baltimore.

A recent report on water affordability by the Maryland Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that rising infrastructure costs, combined with declining federal investment, have led to a 500% increase in Baltimore water rates over the past two decades, a period during which the median income in Baltimore rose just 60%. And in Sandtown and Harlem Park, the median household income of less than $27,000 is just more than half of the citywide figure.

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The report found that more than half of city residents could not afford their water bills in 2019, contributing to epidemics of water shut-offs and tax sales of homes for unpaid bills, especially in neighborhoods like West Baltimore’s. That year, City Council passed legislation providing discounts based on customers’ income, giving residents more recourse to dispute erroneous bills and allowing renters to manage their water accounts.

”We can’t keep putting the burden of upgrading the system on people that are already struggling to make ends meet,” said Rianna Eckel, a Baltimore organizer with Food and Water Watch and the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition.

Many stepped in to help in response to the E. coli contamination.

Through Campaign Zero and Organizing Black, two social justice organizations, Kelly Davis said she helped distribute more than 2,500 cases of water bottles to senior centers and senior apartment buildings.

Davis, who has rallied for criminal justice reform as her husband, Keith Davis Jr., faces a fifth trial next year on the same murder charges, said the water crisis has emphasized the lack of investment in West Baltimore.

“These are communities that are just under-resourced,” she said. “When something this huge occurs, it’s felt a little bit stronger here because it’s a community that’s already not getting what it needs.”

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Though city officials lifted the boil-water advisory Friday, hesitancy to use water from the tap remains. Rod Hudson, a pastor serving Ames Memorial United Methodist Church in Sandtown-Winchester and Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Harlem Park, said he plans to continue handing out bottled water to residents, partially because some people in the community still don’t trust the safety of their water supply.

He said the water crisis has “resurfaced” the community’s other dire needs, Hudson said, including adequate transportation infrastructure.

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”We need an injection of hope,” he said.

Some see the area’s prospects brightening, including Glenn Smith, a Harlem Park resident who serves on the board for the West North Avenue Development Authority and Coppin Heights Development Authority.

Projects to redevelop a portion of West North Avenue, which runs on the north side of Sandtown-Winchester, and to re-imagine the area disrupted by the Highway to Nowhere, could be precursors to a better future for the area, Smith said. So could a potential restart for the Red Line light rail project, should Democrat Wes Moore defeat Republican Dan Cox in November’s gubernatorial election.

”I’m an optimist. And I see change coming to the community,” said Smith, who is also vice president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition.

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While Harlem Park resident Ianthia Darden said the water situation was frustrating, she had to believe city leaders are doing the best they can. And she remembered that the situation could be worse, comparing Baltimore’s latest crisis with a citywide boil-water order that’s lasted for six weeks in Jackson, Mississippi, and with extreme heat that’s stressing the electrical grid in the western United States.

“I thank God we’re not in Mississippi and I thank God we’re not in California,” she said. “This is enough to deal with.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Christine Condon and Steve Earley contributed to this article.


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