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Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

On Squeegee Street, smiles both ways can break through barriers

People who refer to Baltimore as “a third-world city” — I have heard from a few of them in the past few days, with regard to squeegee kids — apparently did not get the memo about the elimination of “third-world” as a description of developing countries or cities. People who use the term also strike me as oblivious to its connotation.

A man from Anne Arundel County used it in an email to me after my weekend column. He said kids offering to wash car windshields at busy intersections “is the sort of thing that goes on in third-world countries.” Another man compared visiting Baltimore to “landing in a third-world country.” A man from Harford County wrote to say that he found leaving the interstate highway to enter Baltimore was “like going into a third-world country.”

I get emails from people who see Baltimore as a city overwhelmed with social problems or in a perpetually regressive cycle, and there is often racism in the language they use. There is a mixture of some or all of that in the mind of people who use “third-world” as a descriptor. Some use the term because they believe Baltimore can be a better city, others use it as an expression of contempt.

I mention this because, in many of the responses to the squeegee column, what people seem to be expressing is dismay, even anger, toward what they see as they drive into the city.

One reader asked: “Can you imagine the image this presents to corporate executives visiting for the first time and being harassed by squeegee kids while driving through downtown?”

I’ve frequently read or heard comments that boiled down to scorn for the poor, or at least for their appearance in the bright, busy corners of downtown Baltimore. People express a yearning for the good old days when squeegee kids and panhandlers were fewer in number, or when homeless people did not set up tents on median strips, or when drug addicts were not as visible. America is not supposed to look like that.

I assume from email comments that many people in Maryland, one of the wealthiest states in the country, still fail to appreciate the high concentration of poverty in Baltimore. The median household income here, according to the most recent census, is $44,262. Howard County’s median is $113,800. A lot of people just hate that such disparity still exists; they cannot seem to grasp the reasons for it.

To some, for sure, the squeegee kids represent lawlessness and incivility; to others, they represent the reality of generational poverty — still there, after all these years of supposed social progress.

I mention all this not as argument but as instruction: Baltimore’s struggle is the region’s struggle. The Republican governor of Maryland once said something like that.

We suffer from a lot of division in this country, but the one most immediate and detrimental, economically and socially, to Marylanders is the growing division between Baltimore and its suburbs. We might believe the orbits are all separate, but, eventually, they intersect. That’s why I’ve said the mayor should ask the counties and state for more help with the crime problem; that’s why people with vision advocate a more regional approach to housing, job development and public transportation. We create too many barriers, particularly when it comes to race. I understand from email that some motorists, urban and suburban, feel harassed by squeegee kids, who are predominantly black and male. But I wonder if things would go better with a less suspicious or fearful approach.

A few years ago, Wendy LaGrant decided to roll down her car window and speak with a young man who was a frequent presence along President Street, one of the main Squeegee Streets. LaGrant is a real estate agent. She understands sales and selling. She thought the young man, a teenager she called Jack, was having a tough time accepting rejection — motorists who refused his squeegee — so she offered Jack some pointers, and he came to her office for some advice.

“I shared with him how a smile always goes a long way,” LaGrant says. “And how he should say thank you even if he didn’t get the job of cleaning a windshield.”

Jack applied what LaGrant suggested, and, she says, he smiled a lot more after that. The connection meant a lot to both the white woman and the young black man.

LaGrant passed this tale along, she says, because, if a squeegee kid looks hostile and the driver he approaches looks hostile, nothing good will come. “We humans can make a difference in someone’s day,” LaGrant says. “Try something that really makes you uncomfortable, be kind to a teenaged boy who is trying to make a buck in an area where jobs are not plentiful or easily accessible. Try it. When you get that smile back, your life is transformed.”

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