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Op-ed

Fears of Black teens cloud debates over squeegee boys and obscure Baltimore’s bigger problems | GUEST COMMENTARY

Thugs, extortionists, predators, panhandlers, vandals, muggers and worse — debates about squeegee boys often cast them as a danger to Baltimore drivers.

But after 24 years of driving on Baltimore streets, this has not been my experience. Squeegee boys have had hundreds of opportunities to rob me, hit me and kick my car.

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So far, so good. Sometimes a squeegee boy will ignore my attempts to wave him off, and he’ll clean my windshield anyway. That’s been the worst of it. Occasionally, I give a dollar, usually not.

But many affluent or working professionals would just as soon avoid getting too close to Black kids who need help.

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In her new book “The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth,” Georgetown Law professor Kristin Henning writes: “We live in a society that is uniquely afraid of Black children. Americans become anxious — if not outright terrified — at the sight of a Black child ringing the doorbell, riding in a car with white women … walking too close in a convenience store.”

Or standing in an intersection holding a squeegee.

But people who resent the presence of squeegee boys, should also resent the conditions that drove these kids out of their neighborhoods and into the traffic of Baltimore’s busiest thoroughfares.

Squeegee boys emerge from neighborhoods like Harlem Park, where my school is located. Although less than 2 miles from downtown, Harlem Park is worlds away. Here, disinvestment lays like a long, hard drought on the neighborhood. It’s a place where residents have been starved of resources both public and private for generations. Outside my classroom window and for many blocks in every direction, vacant row homes outnumber occupied ones. There are no grocery stores, no produce markets, no coffee shops, no hardware stores, no florists, no dry cleaners, no banks, no walk-in clinics.

Across the street the Gilmore Carry Out is hit or miss. It opens some days, others not — a quirk reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s surreal comedy “After Hours.”

There are no job opportunities here and iffy public transportation.

Entrepreneurs trying to secure loans for rehabbing homes or for small businesses will likely be denied.

Economically isolated, this community has also been municipally neglected: The city let blight set in long ago, and there appears to be no plan to deal with the gutted vacants, the boarded-up storefronts, the crumbling sidewalks, the overgrown lots, the spent streetlights or the occasional stray dog or cat scavenging for food.

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Instead, for a very long time, the police were turned loose here to pursue the policies of mass incarceration.

At night, local TV news outlets use this neighborhood and others like it to entice viewers with lurid crime coverage — rarely taking the time to actually humanize and contextualize the people affected by violent crime.

And there are many families in this community and homes full of love and patchworks of matriarchs and patriarchs holding it together in the face of these entrenched inequities and children trying to navigate the problems outside.

Imagine, too, a child’s shock when the city’s brutal contrasts reveal themselves and she realizes for the first time that, while her neighborhood struggles, other, whiter Baltimore neighborhoods thrive — the beneficiaries of robust economic investment. In Canton and Federal Hill, the Inner Harbor and Port Covington capital flows and prosperity blooms.

But in Harlem Park, the problems of poverty — violent crime, unemployment, food insecurity, addiction, housing evictions — persist, endangering kids and testing their belief in their own possibilities.

A few years ago, a student told me how he’d spent the last weeks before September “on the squeege.” Dodging traffic, dealing with hostile drivers, he said the work felt unsafe, but he liked that the police didn’t bother him. He had a DIY, entrepreneurial flair, and I saw he was proud of earning the money to purchase back-to-school clothes for himself and his younger brother.

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Although squeegee boys can be pushy, they aren’t scary. They are a reflection of Baltimore’s much larger and more exigent problems — none of which will be improved by demonizing kids who spritz Windex on windshields. And when so many children are growing up in neighborhoods unraveling around them, shouldn’t that outrage us?

Adam Schwartz’s debut collection of stories, “The Rest of the World,” won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House 2020 prize for fiction (adamschwartzwriter.org). His nonfiction has appeared in Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Forward, New York Daily News, Bethesda Magazine, Sewanee Review, Washington Independent Review of Books and other publications. For 24 years, he has taught high school in Baltimore.


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