Baltimore public spaces shouldn't be out of bounds based on race or class

Forget what the calendar says. It’s summer in the city. And I suggest we all approach this season like Christopher Columbus did in his global adventures: hellbent to discover, or rediscover, what has been here all along.

That bears saying because I’m sensing from some quarters an insistence that those parts of the city most attractive to tourists need to be specially guarded against invasion at the gates of commerce by barbarians who happen to be black and brown young people expressing their youth.

A few Saturdays ago, when a hundred or so of these young Baltimoreans descended upon the Inner Harbor, panic ensued among those who always think that when more than a couple of black youth are in “their” space, there can only be trouble. Later I saw in discussions on social media some folks describing the gathering as a riot. Police did make a half dozen arrests for fighting and disorderly conduct. Hardly a riot. The reaction, however, recalled something the comedian D. L. Hughley says: “The most dangerous place for black people to live is in white people’s imaginations.”

More than 100 years ago, city leaders came up with a plan to assign people in Baltimore to sectors based on race. Our very own apartheid system. The legacy of that scheme is still with us in lending and investment policies that have determined which neighborhoods thrive and which are struggling. While the fight to undo a racist past endures on a macro level, we can work on ourselves to assure that our approach to summer eschews the apartheid mentality.

No public spaces should be out of bounds to anyone because of race or class. Black people in spaces frequented mainly by others — and white people in so-called black spaces — should not automatically raise hackles and set off alarm bells. The city’s attractions should not be like the precious living room furniture that some of our older relatives had: off limits to us and under protective covering, available only for the enjoyment of visitors we called “company.” As I moved around the city recently, showing it off to friends visiting for my birthday, I observed the sometimes not-so-subtle changes in attitude and posture when black kids showed up. As Maya Angelou might remind us, their passages have been paid.

I’m constantly exploring the city and observing how others are doing so, too. At a free poetry slam at the Lyric a couple of weeks ago, it was pretty much a blacks-only affair. At Everyman Theatre the other night, a one-woman play that tells the coming-of-age story of a black girl whose striving and activist family lived in Queens, New York, and in Nigeria, was mostly a whites-only affair. I have no explanation for either, but it seems that people aren’t taking even minimal risks to venture into subjects or spaces that they’ve prejudged as unwelcoming to their kind. More of us should throw caution to the wind and conjure the spirit of ancient mariners.

About six months ago, I “discovered” the Y that has been a gem for 100 years at its location on Druid Hill Avenue in West Baltimore. I also recently “discovered” the rowhouses on South Dallas Street in Fells Point that were built by Frederick Douglass in the 1890s. My to-do list expands each time I come across something else in a different part of the city.

Of course, I’m not unmindful that Baltimore has real problems. As much as we want homicide to take a vacation, that won’t happen without a bit of work on our parts to offer an abundance of alternatives to young people who are most often the perpetrators and the victims. Crime is real, but it is not all pervasive and its possibility should not frame anyone’s approach to living in the city.

Safeguarding our joie-de-vivre takes work. That struck me Sunday evening at a performance of “The Play That Goes Wrong” at the Hippodrome. I realized that with the weight of the world and of history upon me, laughter did not come easily. The play is a whimsical madcap comedy full of pratfalls and sight gags. Despite the fiercest resistance to letting go that people like me might feel, most find themselves guffawing, hollering, holding their sides. By intermission, I, too, was laughing.

Let’s get to know our city. Let’s work on the problems. But let’s work at laughing, too.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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