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Dan Rodricks: Baltimore is neither model city nor hellhole. It’s a good place with hard problems. | COMMENTARY

The Model Train Gallery, a new permanent exhibit at the B&O Railroad Museum, will open on December 6, 2021. Jeff Springer, owner of Custom Model Railroads, and 4 employees built the model, which is set in 1997 Baltimore. Amtrak and CSX HO scale model trains circle the exhibit.
The Model Train Gallery, a new permanent exhibit at the B&O Railroad Museum, will open on December 6, 2021. Jeff Springer, owner of Custom Model Railroads, and 4 employees built the model, which is set in 1997 Baltimore. Amtrak and CSX HO scale model trains circle the exhibit. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

The B&O Railroad Museum, particularly the restored 1884 roundhouse, still has the power to astonish, and decked out for the holidays, even more so. If you haven’t been there in a while, I recommend a visit. But a warning: You might see squeegee kids, bag ladies and staggering drug addicts on your way to 901 W. Pratt Street.

Of course, if you listen to talk radio these days or read letters to our editor, you’re familiar with those limited descriptions of Baltimore. In all my years here, I’ve neither heard nor read so many overwrought, hellhole condemnations of Maryland’s largest city. And guess what: The resentment, fear and hostility that comes with it will never solve a single city problem.

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I mention the B&O because the museum has just opened a new exhibit — a model train gallery depicting Baltimore in its glory. It’s something close to astonishing, a large tableau of landmarks, including Oriole Park, created in extravagant detail (and HO scale) for a private home and later donated to the museum.

At the media preview on Wednesday, I was really impressed with the display, but the lack of figurines of color or settings associated with Black Baltimoreans jumped out at me. (The museum’s executive director, Kris Hoellen, says a remedy for that has been in the works and, with the installation of additional figurines, the display will reflect a racially diverse Baltimore by the time the public gets to see it, starting Monday.)

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My other thought was the lack of those things that give certain people a low regard for Baltimore. In this model train layout, you won’t see graffiti or trash; you won’t see panhandling figurines on Charles Street, people sleeping in tents or yellow crime-scene tape.

The B&O museum has no obligation to depict Baltimore that way; model train displays and annual Christmas train gardens provide an escape from all that. They present something idyllic and nostalgic. But, in the moment, it was striking — a model city without the things that give most of us heartache and others heartburn: Panhandlers, hustlers and homeless people, the poorest and most desperate of Baltimoreans.

While many are sympathetic, I also hear from people who seem only to be offended, frightened or perplexed that such people are still on the city streets.

Among recent emails was one from an employee of Johns Hopkins Hospital noting the “half dozen or more” homeless people he sees in the streets during his drive to work. The writer seemed mystified by this. He wrote that “some enforcement is in order.” The homeless scare people, he said, and make some Hopkins patients reluctant to return.

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I’ve had conversations with other people who think more should be done to just get homeless people off the streets — for safety reasons, some say; for the sake of the city’s image, say others.

What does Kevin Lindamood say? He’s president and CEO of Health Care For the Homeless; he and his staff deal with this reality every day. Homelessness, Lindamood said, results from a lot of complex problems — all worsened by the pandemic — that are not immediately visible to those who drive into Baltimore and bemoan the shabby sights they see.

“The country has disinvested in affordable housing as private market housing continues to skyrocket,” he says. “The gap between ridiculously rich and devastatingly poor has widened over half a century. We don’t guarantee access to health care as a right of residency. These are all policy decisions. We can choose differently.”

As for the fellow from Hopkins who finds his drive there fraught with peril, Lindamood says, “He should absolutely be afraid of what’s happening in the world right now, and really about what’s been happening for a long, long time.”

But, Lindamood adds, he should not fear homeless people.

“He should maybe talk to them,” he says. “I know plenty of people who beg for money. They are often scared themselves. They’re human, just like the rest of us. One guy begs at intersections to keep the roof over his head while he undergoes surgeries and treatment at Hopkins to correct a birth anomaly his family could never afford to address. I know a woman who begs for personal care items, another who’s trying to feed her children.

“Of course, I also know people begging to feed addictions to heroin or alcohol. But until they can access treatment and the residential stability they need to be successful in it, I’m not sure that’s the worst thing in the world.”

It’s one thing to drive by and groan, quite another to get motivated to help out in some way. People either don’t care or don’t see a way to get involved. We’ve always lacked political leadership that addresses Baltimore’s problems as the whole region’s problems.

“I ask myself,” Lindamood says, “‘How do I, in the way I behave and live my daily life, uphold the same inequitable systems that lead to people feeling they have no other options but to beg on the street or spray windshields in hopes of a dollar? What must I change? What must I better understand? What have I kept myself from knowing?’

“As a white guy leading a nonprofit primarily serving Black and brown people, these questions are present every moment of every day. Someone who drives through downtown and judges or fears people in situations they can’t possibly understand should ask those questions of themselves, too.”

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