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Native son

I'm from the part of Baltimore that was knocked down.

I grew up with a clear line of sight to the giant white letters spelling "Johns Hopkins" on the hospital's Monument Street campus. It was like my neighborhood's version of the Hollywood sign: tall, prestigious and distant, despite being just blocks away. This was the '80s, years before large sections of Baltimore's Middle East were seized under eminent domain and leveled after being scouted as the setting for a biotechnology park. We lived in the 'hood. I didn't know anyone who practiced medicine, but I imagine the emergency room stitched up at least a few of the older boys who stashed small bags not far from our front door. My friends and I played a much more innocent version of hide and seek, but I don't know that the police in the helicopter that frequently circled overhead could tell the difference.

We weren't safe. My family was robbed more than once. My mom was mugged. So we spent a lot of time close to our stoop or in church, where we were part of a community. Some people look at the Bible like it's a sprawling, supernatural double feature. But the view from my living room window made me think the Book of Revelation might turn out to be a documentary. Tribulation? Check. Unbearable heat? That went without saying. Lost souls? I knew a few.

Just as fantastical was the idea that a kid from a neighborhood like mine could earn a scholarship to Hopkins, get funding to attend graduate school abroad, study urban planning, learn how to think through what he saw growing up, then come back home. But that's been my life in a sentence.

Today I introduce myself as The Sun's newest columnist, blessed with a prime piece of newspaper real estate and a charge to make sense of everything that appears on the other pages and everything that doesn't. Most journalists chase facts, but columnists inevitably reveal a great deal about themselves as they seek to guide the reader to something much more elusive: the truth. My day job is at Johns Hopkins University, but the thoughts expressed here are and always will be my own.

So here's my truth: Baltimore has molded and scarred me. I don't have much of a relationship with my biological father, but I can point to a dozen local men who treated me like a son. Friends from four continents know where I'm from. I talk about the city proudly, but my time here has given me a chronic case of the jitters. It doesn't matter where I am or what time of day it is. I've readied a punch for many well meaning joggers because I can't stand the sudden sound of footsteps behind me.

I write to prove I am unique but not an anomaly — young, black, male, conversant in German, with as much time abroad as some of my peers have had behind bars. I need to make it all add up. I write because a childhood spent fearing for your safety makes you wonder if the world forgot to save space for you. Every word carves out a bit more room. I write at times like a hostage sending back proof of life. I keep writing because I know I'm not alone.

I hope this column can be part of a conversation. The topic: Who are we, exactly? What kind of place creates such divergent experiences just blocks apart, and how do we narrow those divides?

Can we end mass incarceration?

Ours is a relatively poor city within a wealthy region. How do we connect people to jobs?

What haven't we thought of? What can we learn from creative people elsewhere, and how are some of our own quiet, unassuming neighbors developing solutions here at home?

There are so many things that you can do with a city. Let's use this space to discuss the possibilities. We can shrink or expand it, preserve or rehab it. And if enough of us feel we are — each of us — an integral part of it, things may never get so bad again that we think there are no good alternatives to knocking a big chunk of it down.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears on Fridays. His email is Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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