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A new Baltimorean, mindful of the old

Professor D. Watkins' story hit a chord ("Native author D. Watkins: 'I don't know this new Baltimore,'" March 25). "Why must every black resident be displaced as soon as opportunity rides the gentrification train into town?" He opines for "Old Baltimore" and shuns this "New Baltimore" he does not recognize.

When I arrived in Washington, D.C. in 2007, it was 11 months after open heart surgery. As you can imagine, certain aspects of my life were put into a very new and sober perspective.

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During my recovery, I penned a goals sheet:

1. Get into a top-10 graduate school;

2. Work on Capitol Hill;

3. Work a presidential campaign;

4. Work in a presidential administration; and for kicks

5. Meet a nice young lady.

Today I'm a proud husband and father of a 13-month-old son. I've worked for Congressman Bobby Rush from Chicago, the 2008 campaign for President Barack Obama, as well as served in his administration.

My list was complete. But with a family, comes a new list:

1. Provide a roof over our heads;

2. Provide a safe environment for us to grow;

3. Ensure our son gets a high-quality education;

4. Live where both my wife and I can thrive professionally; and

5. Earn enough income to make sure numbers 1-4 are possible.

In spite of our education and our chosen professions, we found the second list more challenging than the first. We could not conquer the D.C. housing market. Regardless of income, we could not afford the house that we wanted and build personal wealth at the same time. Baltimore affords us the opportunities D.C. never could.

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I've lived in three major cities: Chicago, Atlanta and Washington D.C.

Different cities, same story.

The poor, regardless of race, were "planned out" of the neighborhoods they were confined to through decades of discriminatory housing and transportation policies, often suffering from some of the greatest health, criminal, environmental atrocities known to first world countries.

I'm reminded of my grandmother's prized possession, a three-bedroom house for her seven children on the west side of Chicago. For our family, her house was our North Star, the meeting place for special occasions. When she passed away the house stayed in the family for a while, but then came upside-down mortgages, and the house was sold. To an outsider. Our North Star was gone.

Fast-forward to today, my wife's cousin owns a home in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C. One day when she was tending to her yard, a young couple sporting matching horn-rimmed glasses asked her how much she wanted for the house. There was no "for sale" sign, no indication that the house was on the market, just two prospectors who thought it was appropriate to put a price on something that to our cousin was priceless.

I imagine many of our citizens have similar stories.

I have thought long and hard about how I reconcile being a gentrified African-American family. While Professor Watkins and I may share the same struggles as black men and probably have more similar backgrounds than not, I am the alien to his native land.

If Baltimore is to be my family's home we must be part of the solution. That solution begins with responsible community development.

There are those who feel Baltimore is a "tale of two cities." It's actually a tale of four: the haves; the have-nots; the want-nots; and the can't gets. New Baltimore should make sure we are being conscious of Old Baltimore, who like my family in Chicago and D.C., work hard, love their neighborhoods and want to continue to hold on to their North Star.

We must ensure citizens every opportunity to stay in place and build their version of the American Dream. We also have to provide those ready to relocate fair prices for their homes. For those who capitalize on crime, blight and despair, we must take them off our streets and punish them to the fullest extent of the law, all while ensuring we serve those in search of a hand up, not a hand out.

Professor Watkins' missive is a clarion call to both old and new Baltimore. As New Baltimore, it is imperative that I remember that a mortgage entitles me to my property alone. It does not give me a free pass to appropriate the city's culture or history. It gives my family an opportunity to weave our story into the city's rich tapestry, with a respectful eye and appreciation of the city's past.

Curtis Johnson

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