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Reconciling the two Baltimores

I was born and raised in West Baltimore, in Edmondson Village. I was there when Hutzler's Department store was in the space where the Westside Skill Center is today. I remember the A.D. Anderson Oldsmobile car lot, the Hi-Gear store, Pantry Pride, Chicken George and the movie theater where I saw my first movie, "Cheech and Chong: Up in Smoke." Edmondson Village was our microcosm of the world. But the illuminated Domino Sugar sign, which we could see from the baseball field of Edmondson High School, made me wonder what else was out there, beyond our community. While I saw it from a distance I never knew that it was a place that we could get to. It was not until I became a commissioner for the Port Authority of Baltimore in 2012 that I actually stood on the grounds of the Domino Sugar plant.

Recently, I attended a meeting about Under Armour's development plans for Port Covington. It was held at the 530-acre Sagamore Farm. When I looked around from a lofty hill and saw all of the grassy and wooded splendor, I couldn't help but reflect on my childhood and how it would have affected my aspirations to see something like this, something beyond the alleys and asphalt in my neighborhood. In that meeting I heard Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, who owns the farm, make a passionate plea to help make a difference in the neighborhoods of Baltimore. He isn't satisfied with making charitable contributions in lieu of community empowerment. He wants a quantifiable difference in the lives of disenfranchised people in the inner city of Baltimore. He wants to bridge the gap between what he, and many others, call the "two Baltimores."

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It's true, there are two Baltimores, just like there are two sides to any American city — one populated with haves, the other have nots. I have walked in each, and there is a significant chasm of thinking between them. One is constructive and the other is destructive. Years of entrenched poverty, police brutality and industrialized and institutionalizing prison systems have perpetuated a cultural mindset of cynicism, distrust and apathy in the city's poorer neighborhoods, which have become dilapidated and drug infiltrated. While we all know that there is something happening in our inner city communities that is unhealthy and should never be normalized, the question becomes how do we transform a city through the agencies, authorities and companies that many in those communities see as the enemy?

Reconciling the divide between the haves and the have nots is particularly difficult because of the mindsets of the subcultures within the inner city communities, conditioned to be cynical by political, economic and racial divisiveness. The only way to reconstruction is through deconstruction of this subculture of isolation and apprehension. The opportunities in Baltimore now are abounding. With Johns Hopkins' East Baltimore Development Initiative, the University of Maryland BioPark, the Port Covington Under Armor Development and so many other projects underway, Baltimore is on the brink of a renaissance. And we cannot afford to allow pessimism to settle in and block progress. It is incumbent upon church leaders, community advocates, business and educational leaders, and elected officials to lead our communities back to wholeness.

I know something about the city's potential for rebuilding and reconciling. On April 27th, on the anniversary of last year's rioting, we held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Mary Harvin Senior Housing and Transformation Center; the original was burned down during the unrest.

This is the time for Baltimore to unite and be great. We should unequivocally support innovative and industrious development while simultaneously restoring people and rebuilding properties in our neighborhoods through economic investment, educational improvement, exposure and employment. But we can only realize this kind of vision through integrated, intelligent and intentional leadership. We have to lead the people beside the still waters and make them lie down in green pastures. As an adult, I now know that the physical distance between West Baltimore and that Domino Sugar sign is minor, but the metaphorical gap is still huge.

Donté L. Hickman is pastor of Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore City, Harford and Howard counties. His email is pastorhickman@me.com.

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