A City That’s Hard to Love, Part 1

We’ve had neighborhood choice on our mind quite a bit lately. Last year we wrote a post about how Baltimoreans have historically chosen neighborhoods, which unsurprisingly has been along racial lines. Recently we tried to illustrate how expensive it’s become to live inside Baltimore’s most desirable neighborhoods, which are also overwhelmingly white. With nearly 100 large scale development projects either recently completed or in the pipeline some of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods are only becoming more expensive, while the rest of the city languishes economically. And most recently we vented a bit of frustration that many of the young, white, well-educated newcomers flocking to the harbor neighborhoods and increasingly to Hampden want to lay claim to some notion of Authenticity which they don’t understand and wouldn’t care much for if they did.

When we chose the neighborhood where we wanted to buy our first house we cast a wide net over the whole city. A combination of factors led us to Waverly. We knew what Waverly was and we didn’t have any expectation of it improving dramatically in the near future. If we had been bound and determined to buy in Hampden we could have done that, despite the fact that houses there were and still are more expensive. We’re single and we have options like sacrificing space or doing some work ourselves. Perhaps we should have. Hampden is certainly not without its problems but as we’ve said everything in Baltimore is a trade-off, and as it is we’d gladly trade Hampden Problems for Waverly Problems.

Today we want to talk a little about the very specific nature of Waverly Problems, which are also Pigtown Problems, Belair Edison Problems, Reservoir Hill problems… the kind endemic to marginal neighborhoods.

We want to start with a particular Reddit Post from late March, in which another Waverly resident describes the problems he’s faced on his block. Granted, the post seems hastily written and takes some bizarre turns in talking about being a teacher and rooting for the Orioles; but it raises several concerns that are common to all working families and which deserve to be taken seriously- not just by Redditors or the City or people in Waverly and neighborhoods like it, but by anyone who claims to love Baltimore.

The very first concern he raises is affordability. As we stated previously, the household income figure for meaningful housing choice in Baltimore is close to $100,000. That’s what it takes to choose among several very good options. The poster states that he and his wife are both in Education. We won’t even try to guess what their incomes and credit scores and monthly obligations and down payment were. It’s not important. What is important is that if he says Waverly is the best he can afford we should believe him. Waverly is not a neighborhood that people choose if they can easily afford a better one. This definitely strikes us as the kind of honest and hardworking family who has a budget and sticks to it. What’s more, space is not a luxury to a family like this one, which may yet increase in size. Something with a pass-through bedroom or a lean-to kitchen is simply not an option. A 3 bedroom Daylight or Porchfront house is right-sized for a young family.

So here they are in Waverly, which should be a good place for them. If neighborhoods like ours, Pigtown and Belair Edison are ever going to improve we need to figure out how they can attract and retain families just like this one.

The thrust of our poster’s problem is that his neighbors are supremely ignorant assholes who pose a threat to his family’s physical safety as well as his property, all the while single-handedly destroying the quality of life on his entire block. He talks quite a bit about dirt bikes, but we’re not going to get too much into dirt bikes today. Maybe we will in another post. Then again, maybe we won’t waste our time with it because it’s a polarizing issue and something people rarely read about with an open mind. As is evident in the 300+ posts in the original thread, when reading about things like dirt bikes people view things through their own lens and bring their own politics and prejudices to bear without stopping to think that maybe, just maybe, they have no fucking idea what they’re talking about.

Anyway, the point is that it’s not about the dirt bikes. It’s about antisocial behavior and how one house can explode the quality of life for an entire block in a marginal neighborhood, as this other Reddit poster is also quickly learning.

Waverly Dad made a few mistakes in handling his situation. They are mistakes that any normal and right-thinking person would be likely to make. His first mistake was trying to politely ask his neighbors to respect his family and their (the neighbors’) own block. In a good neighborhood (and if you have to make bones about what a ‘good neighborhood’ is you can go ahead and quit reading right here if you haven’t already) this would be the best course of action. One neighbor tells another how their behavior is affecting them, the other neighbor sees that point of view, they reach an agreement and become a bit closer because they’ve found a way to move forward that’s in their mutual interest. After all, they both realize that they’ve got a stake in the neighborhood and its quality of life and they realize they’ve got to live together going forward.

That’s not how it works in Baltimore’s marginal neighborhoods. In Waverly, where race and class tensions are high and where social problems like unemployment, addiction, and poverty are abundant your best and only action is to decide exactly how much your neighbors being assholes bothers you and pick your battles. Most things you’ve got to suffer living with. When you can’t abide something any longer your choices are to be ready for a confrontation or call the cops, which can lead to further confrontations down the road.

Of course Waverly Dad’s neighbors reacted to his polite and reasonable request with threats and vandalism. Of course they did. That’s how unemployed shitbirds who spend every day smoking weed, riding dirt bikes and throwing trash around behave. Their reaction was as predictable as the sun rising in the East. There are some of you reading this who will take that racially but it’s not meant that way. And frankly we’re not interested in defending against charges of racism. We have mostly great black neighbors and we’re sure this Reddit poster does too- but these aren’t them.

There are many, too many people out there who want to believe that poor people are just exactly like middle class people but with less money. But they’re not. Many poor people see the world quite differently than those who are living comfortably. Just as hard work is stressful, so too is living in poverty. In 2013 researchers concluded the stress of poverty can account for 13 fewer IQ points and that it’s roughly equivalent to spending each day as if one’s had no sleep. If someone’s tired and hungry and stressed all the time, it’s not a stretch to predict they’ll lash out. Much like Studs Terkel’s 1960’s Steelworker They gotta get it out. But threatening your neighbors and vandalizing their property is not acceptable. Just because we understand the rationale behind antisocial behavior doesn’t mean that behavior is excused. Growing up below the poverty line isn’t a free pass to be an asshole, no matter how traumatizing it is.

And it is traumatizing. A 2013 study from the University of Illinois at Chicago found that growing up poor can manifest itself by physical changes to the brain leaving the victims of generational poverty with and excess of fear and negative emotions and a reduced ability to cope with these issues. From the study’s author:

“Perhaps the most important finding,” Phan said, “was that the amount of chronic stress from childhood through adolescence — such as substandard housing, crowding, noise, and social stressors like family turmoil, violence or family separation — determined the relationship between childhood poverty and prefrontal brain function during emotional regulation.”

Hey, we wish it weren’t so either, you know? We wish we lived in a world where the poor were noble and stoic like so many WPA photographs. We wish we lived in a world where it was the normal thing for the poor to have perfectly healthy brains and study hard and pull themselves up by the old proverbial bootstraps. (To be sure, you can point to several examples but escaping poverty is really fucking hard. If it were easy everyone would do it.) We wish we lived in a world where those who didn’t catch a break were still well cared for and received substantial help for their problems; food security or PTSD or addiction or whatever their problems may be. But we don’t live in that world. We live in the real world and our actions and opinions are based on what we find in the real world, whether we like and agree with what we find or not. So the choices are call the cops or be ready for a confrontation. Most people are not well suited to confrontation, especially when it’s ongoing.

Now, there are those in Baltimore who think they know exactly what Waverly Dad is going through. But most of them don’t know shit. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking: ‘Well, I’ve been renting my house in Charles Village/SoBo/Station North for like 6 years now. How different could owning in Waverly/Pigtown/Barclay be? There’s enough crime and poor people and bullshit here too, you know? But we’re here to tell you that there’s a world of difference.

You don’t really know a thing until you’ve lived through it. You think you have an idea, but you don’t. If you’ve never been in combat, you don’t know war. If you’ve never been imprisoned, you don’t know jail. If you’ve never been married, you don’t know marriage. Some things are learned only by experience and owning a home in a neighborhood like Waverly is one of them.

It’s galling to us to see people make comments on this guy’s post like:

‘All that secondhand weed smoke made you paranoid, bro.’

‘Uh oh! Better call in the SWAT team!’

‘You’re obviously not from here.’

‘911 is only for emergencies!’

‘They’re just kids. Boys will be boys.’

‘You’re an entitled racist.’

‘But aren’t you glad there’s so much diversity and vibrancy?’

‘Just move to the suburbs, asshole.’

‘The city has bigger problems, so what?’

‘The kids smoking weed and riding dirt bikes all day are trying to better themselves.’

‘At least they aren’t dealing.’

‘Dirt bikes are like a parade.’

People who make comments like those to a father in distress have no fucking idea what it means to feel afraid in their own homes. They haven’t got a clue what it means to not let their kids play outside. If your Reddit flair identifies you as living in Lauraville or Bolton Hill or Hampden, then you don’t know what it is to not just visit a marginal neighborhood, but to call one home- to go to sleep there and to wake up there and to live side by side with everyone else and their problems.

The author of that post is part of exactly the kind of family the city is bending over backwards to try to get to stay. Like many others, this father claimed a great love and pride for living in Baltimore too, but he’s learning some very hard lessons about what living here is really like when you don’t have a lot of money and you intend to do it permanently. If he decides to move, (and we wouldn’t blame him if he did) his decision will be greeted with nothing but snark and derision from the Internet peanut gallery which claims to love Baltimore life so much, not realizing they’ll probably face a very hard decision about leaving themselves before too many years have passed.

We’re sorry to say it, but if you don’t own a home your opinion on home ownership just doesn’t mean much to us. If you live inside the White L, your opinion on what goes on outside of it means very little to us. If you’re a part of the professional class, your opinion on poor and working class neighborhoods just doesn’t hold much water.

In the second part of this post we’re going to share with you some of our experience being a Waverly homeowner. It hasn’t been a constant horrowshow of crime and drugs and fear and loathing. The scenes like the one described in the Reddit post don’t happen every single day, of course.

But it’s been a different experience than what it is to own in Hampden… or in Canton or in the county or in another city entirely.