A City That’s Hard to Love, Part 2

In part one of this post, we discussed some issues that a young family in our neighborhood is dealing with. But despite being labeled as ‘part one,’ it’s actually the seventh in an ongoing series of related posts which can all be found by counting back chronologically at Prozac nation. The rest of this post sort of assumes the reader has been reading them all, so we encourage you to have a look. This young family we talked about on Sunday aren’t the only ones finding it difficult to get along in a marginal neighborhood. Today we want to let you know what our own experience as a Waverly homeowner has been.

When we bought in the neighborhood we went into it with our eyes open. We knew that dirt bikes, litter, and crime- violent crime, were present in the neighborhood. We chose it anyway. When you’re 29 and single with a small budget, you know that you’re buying a starter house. Our neighborhood has been a decent fit for us precisely because we are single and we have a pretty high tolerance for bullshit. We would not start a family here. We would not recommend starting a family here to anyone else. At the moment there is one family on our block with school aged kids; a black family, for those of you keeping score. That father doesn’t let his kids play outside. We see them come and go but in six years we’ve not seen them play outside. Think about that for a minute.

When we go out to clean the alley and find broken glass and used needles, which happens weekly, when we go out front and see alcoholics drinking on their porches, which happens daily- we don’t blame our neighbor for keeping his kids inside. As we sat down to start writing our last post, about the Waverly Dad from Reddit, we were interrupted after typing two lines because we had to get up and chase off someone who decided to come take a shit in our neighbor’s back yard. And yeah, we called the cops. We hated to do it but guess what? The choices were call the cops, start a fist fight, or just stand there and watch the guy shit all over our neighbor’s yard. We told him not to shit there and to walk away. His answer was Fuck You.

The Waverly Dad in the Reddit post barely glossed over the issue of littering, which is epidemic in marginal neighborhoods. There’s a cheap liquor store and a crappy convenience store on our corner which means there’s a constant fresh supply of liquor bottles, cigarette trash, plastic bags, food wrappers, etc. We could go around our neighborhood full time, eight hours a day picking up trash and it would still be dirty. Our favorite was when we were walking home Christmas Eve and our own neighbors opened up their window and blindly chucked out a paper plate half full of food from an upstairs room. It came about 3 feet from hitting us on the head and landed on the sidewalk with a disgusting flat plop.

Just the other day we saw a young black kid, about 11, walking down York Road balancing a large meal from Popeyes in his hands. As he opened each item, he’d throw its container onto the sidewalk.

We could take the Hillary Clinton It Takes a Village approach and politely inform the young lad about the implications of littering- for his neighborhood, for the Bay, for his own self-esteem, etc. But how do you think that would end? Unfortunately there’s no scenario where a middle class white man trying to correct a poor black child ends well. Probably not anywhere but definitely not in Baltimore City.

We’re not the only one to face this predicament. Dan Rodricks wrote very well about it in the Sun in December, describing a few times he’s called out litterbugs and been met with Fuck You. On the occasion of his December column it was not only he, but several other men also- black and white- who declined to chastise someone for littering. Because the chances of it sparking a confrontation are very high. Some naive white lady from Glen Arm disagrees, because things in Glen Arm work differently than they do in Baltimore City.

Let’s take for another example the time George Peters asked a lady not to litter in his neighborhood. George is the head of Zero Litter, an organization dedicated to curbing trash in the city. He cares a lot about Baltimore, and is very active in his own neighborhood’s affairs. We know George a little. He’s a very nice guy and not typically confrontational at all. But asking an old lady not to dump trash out of her car window in his neighborhood got him a big Fuck You for his trouble. As much as we admire George, we weren’t surprised and would have counseled him to pick his battles more judiciously because that was exactly the expected outcome.

Or how about in September when two teenagers beat up a senior citizen for picking up litter they’d thrown in his vicinity. We’re not sure if those kids were black or white but it doesn’t matter. The point is they are ignorant, classless sons of bitches and drawing their ire in any way was bound to provoke a confrontation of some sort.

And these incidents were in Hampden. Do you think you’d have better or worse results on York Road?

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But we haven’t just got the problem of litter. We also face a plague of bulk trash as well. Have a look at this pile of garbage in our neighbor’s yard. We snapped this photo before going on vacation. By the time we returned there were at least four cubic meters of garbage piled up. And this is not a random anomaly. In the last six months each of the three yards in this photo has had a similar pile of garbage built up and left there. It takes a lot of time time to go through the bureaucratic process of calling 311, getting an inspector out, having them issue a citation, waiting through the time allowed by the citation, etc. If When your neighbors leave a giant heap of trash in their back yard it can sit there for months.

In the case of this neighbor, we had to call the city on him. We hated to do it, but we know our neighbor. We know what his circumstances are and we know that asking him to hire someone to haul it away would probably be received well enough, but it would never get done. He probably figures it was us who had the city cite him and he’s been pretty tepid to us lately, but fuck it. We’d rather live with his disapproval than his garbage.

In the case of the trash pile that appeared 3 doors down last September, part of the pile was a full can of lighter fluid. Along come some kids about 10 years old who don’t live on the block and decide to light the pile on fire using lighter fluid. As you can imagine it went up pretty quickly. The wooden fence caught and in two more minutes balconies would have started going up. The Chop holds a coast guard endorsement in advanced firefighting, and we know that a fire with plenty of fuel will double in size every minute. It’s not a stretch to say that the only reason houses weren’t burning was because we happened to be out back at that very moment and happened to own a working extinguisher and know how to use it.

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Lest you think this was just bad luck and an isolated incident, another (white) neighbor recently succeeded in burning her house entirely. It was the sort of thing that is often described as an accident, but it wasn’t a fucking accident. She left three space heaters plugged into the same outlet all night long while she was at the casino gambling, despite the fact that she’s on a fixed income. That’s negligence. That’s sheer and utter stupidity. This woman is over sixty years old and she doesn’t know that you can’t plug multiple space heaters into one source and can’t leave them on unattended. Space heaters are not new technology. Their dangers are known. They came with warning labels. All three of them. There’s just no excuse for that level of stupidity. We don’t even know if she’s got insurance- which is a major concern because it’s very likely her house was paid for and that she was dumb enough to let her homeowners’ policy lapse. When you move into a marginal neighborhood, these are the sort of neighbors you’re likely to get. The neighbor next to her, a good neighbor, suffered extensive smoke damage. More on that later.

Casino Queen was a bad neighbor before the fire, and now she’s not even off the block. She’s staying with Mister Trash Pile and actually lives closer. She has a scrawny looking underfed pitbull who spends 12-14 hours a day in the back yard with the trash pile barking annoyingly at the other pitbull on the block, whose owner is a heroin addict. Now listen: We know there are those among you- inside the White L- whose eyes are popping out of your heads right now at the mere mention of pitbulls. We know there is nothing wrong with the breed. Bad owners make bad dogs, etc. But that argument presupposes that bad owners exist in the world. We’re here to tell you that they do. In Waverly. We see the dog sitting on the deck chewing cushions all day. We see it being fed from carryout containers. We see it not being walked. We see its ribs featured prominently.

This isn’t Fell’s Point or Hampden where dog park culture is strong and vets and pet supply stores are popping up all the time and people buy their pets Christmas presents and celebrate their birthdays. If we’re wary of a dog getting out and biting someone (or us) at some point that’s a healthy and rational fear.

Honestly, this woman probably shouldn’t be owning a pet and it’s a very lucky thing that dog survived the fire. The right thing to do would be to call animal control and have the situation checked out by a professional. But we don’t want to see it euthanized and anyway we’re not going to take a woman’s pet away after she’s just burned her house. Not even the Chop is that low. But this is yet another situation where you have three choices, and all of them are bad. So you do nothing because it’s the least bad choice- you hope.

We’ve had problem neighbors here. Actually we’re lucky- the worst of them are gone now. Our problem neighbors were never so bad as the ones from the Reddit post. Although the kid next door (20, by the way, not an actual kid) used to make great sport of getting high with his friends about 5 feet from our window and had a habit of tossing jewel bags and cigar wrappers into our back yard. This would happen while his mom was home, you understand. ‘Just have a talk with the adult in the house’ is not an option in Waverly the same way it is in the verdant and pastoral valleys of Glen Arm, MD USA. We think this is what so many Reddit commenters and snarky Tweeters, especially those in the White L, fail to understand: nobody cares if you’re smoking a little weed or drinking, it’s the lack of discretion and respect that kills quality of life. When people in neighborhoods like ours complain about these things, we don’t mean Joe Six Pack unwinding after work or anyone having joint on the weekend: We’re complaining about people with substance abuse issues who go around high and drunk every single day. When half the time you step outside your house there’s a giant circus of people self-medicating and leaving bottles and garbage everywhere including your own yard it fucking gets to you after a while.

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Our worst issues were never with the neighbors exactly but with they people they bring around to the block. If your neighbors’ friends are making so much noise in the evening in a neighborhood like ours and you ask them to quiet down- even nicely- you have no idea who you’re fucking with. They might be decent and rational people. But they might not. They might have a gun on them. That’s a real concern. This is a city where working men get shot for asking their neighbors to turn the music down. We have friends who have been victims of violent crimes. That dominant White L attitude of ‘Oh, if you’re not dealing you’re probably safe. If you just use street smarts you’ve got nothing to worry about.’ is bullshit. Maybe that flies in Charles Village but it does not fly in Waverly where they beat and threaten to kill pregnant women.

It doesn’t fly when you aren’t even on the street, but are in your own home. To be from Baltimore, to be of Baltimore, and to be of home owning age is to have lived through the tragedy of the Dawson Family Murder. You would have to go back more than a generation to find an event that can so perfectly sort Insiders from Outsiders. The Colts leaving had nothing on this. Martin O’Malley called it our Alamo.

The murder of the Dawson Family was nothing short of an act of terrorism. As an act of terrorism, it worked. Sure, there are still people fighting the good fight in Oliver, but for a lot of Baltimoreans black and white those murders took a huge toll on the psyche. Personally, we can’t spend very long thinking about it without tearing up. Even today. It’s happening right now. In a way, it made our two Baltimores understand each other a little better. We can only speak from the white side, but we’re sure it’s the first time a lot of white people got it through their thick heads that Holy shit! Black people are just as scared as we are! Maybe more! And they have damned good reason to be! Perhaps if the Internet were as advanced then as it is now there might have been much more useful public discourse between white Baltimore and black Baltimore- but 2002 was still a few years before the concepts of ‘Social Media,’ ‘The Blogosphere,’ and ‘the Smart Phone’ existed.

No one ever wrote a book about the Dawson Family. Someone should.

When you add to that the giant national embarrassment that was ‘Stop Snitching’ in 2004 and dozens, maybe hundreds of news items about witness intimidation and contract murders that have appeared since then you start to get some idea of why when you live in a marginal neighborhood the best course of action is usually doing nothing, and a mere Fuck You is getting off light.

We want to take a minute here to touch on a somewhat related point. If you’re of the school of thought summed up by “I’ve been here 10 years and I intend to stay for the foreseeable future. Why am I still made to feel like an outsider? The answer is because you did not live through the things that make Baltimoreans us. If you’re a New Yorker you lived through 9/11. A true New Orleanian lived through Katrina. If you’re a Baltimorean you lived through the Dawsons and Stop Snitching and the filming of the Wire when it was visionary and not canon. You remember Cal Ripken as an active player and John Waters when he actually shot and premiered movies. When you saw the Big L, once a point of pride, leveled, it wasn’t just a news item, it was the livelihood of someone you knew being imploded. When the city’s next new slogan is introduced you recognize it as the grim, black humor that it is. It cuts you.

The point is that when we see people like Sean Wen say to the national press that Baltimore ‘isn’t getting enough love’ and he wants to move from Goldman Sachs to Canton to give it some love our answer is a big Fuck You. Because we still think of the Dawsons. Angela and Carnell Dawson loved Baltimore too. They loved it better than you ever will, Sean. They fought harder than you ever will. They fought harder than I ever will.

When you’re from the Baltimore that isn’t rich, every situation presents you with so many bad choices. You make the one that you think is least bad and you live with the consequences. When you can love a city like that, come talk to me. When you’ve learned to love a Baltimore where the answer to every plea is Fuck You, come talk to me.

It’s hard to do as a renter. As an owner your whole financial life is at stake. In the next part of this post we’ll address what it really means for your bottom line to own a home in that other Baltimore.