Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a University Professor and Director of Cities at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, and a Distinguished Fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.
In truth, Baltimore’s economy has weathered the post-industrial transition better than most.
To get to Sandtown-Winchester, Freddie Gray’s neighborhood and the neighborhood where he was killed, you'll need to exit the highway and travel west on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Soon you will pass the gleaming football and baseball stadiums, million dollar monuments to the Baltimore Ravens and Baltimore Orioles. Off to your right, the Inner Harbor beckons, a beacon of successful economic redevelopment. Around the Harbor, ritzy hotels and expensive condominiums abound. Over the past two decades, downtown Baltimore has been revitalized into a walkable, welcoming, vital place.
Unseen to the west, you’ll quickly travel by Enterprise Community Partners. Enterprise funds programs for young people who have been left behind in the midst of Baltimore’s transition, in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester and Druid Heights next door.
For many commentators, Baltimore’s problems stem from a combination of globalization and deindustrialization, forces that have drained the city of its core economic functions and taken away once good-paying, family-supporting manufacturing jobs.
But the fact of the matter is that Baltimore’s economy has weathered the post-industrial transition better than most. It has more in common with knowledge hubs like San Francisco, the Silicon Valley, Boston, and Washington, D.C., than with Detroit, Cleveland or even Pittsburgh. Both the city and the metro have large and substantial knowledge and tech clusters. Greater Baltimore numbers among the nation’s top 20 knowledge and creative regions, according to a recent study by researchers at Arizona State University.
Baltimore suffers from inequality, though not nearly at the level of cities such as New York or Los Angeles. Baltimore ranks 18th among 51 large metros (those with over one million people) on economic segregation, and just 38th of 51 on income inequality.
But Baltimore is a place where poor blacks and affluent whites live worlds apart. Greater Baltimore ranked 10th on a measure of black-white isolation among the 50 largest U.S. metros with the largest black populations, according to a detailed 2011 study.
The city and region are sharply divided into areas of racially concentrated poverty and of racially concentrated affluence. Over 85 percent of Baltimoreans who live in racially concentrated areas of poverty—census tracts where at least half the residents are non-white and more than 40 percent live below the poverty line—are black, according to 2015 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota. Meanwhile, 93 percent of those who live in the region’s racially concentrated areas of affluence—where the median income is at least four times the poverty level—are white.
Such extreme racial segregation isolates non-white residents and compounds their persistent poverty, limiting access to schools, exposing them to higher rates of crime and violence, and limiting economic opportunity. As numerous studies have shown, racial segregation limits upward economic mobility, reinforces economic inequality, and exacerbates the gap between black and white incomes. And, in doing so, it fuels the anxieties and tensions that boiled over in Baltimore last week.
A Stark Geography of Poverty and Violence
Still heading north, you'll transverse an underpass and turn left, up the hill. Here, you pass through Gilmor Homes, a grim low-rise public housing complex. It was here that Freddie Gray met the police, and eventually died.
As you move up the hill, you enter Sandtown-Winchester. The thing to know about Sandtown-Winchester is that there is little there. Many, if not most of the rowhouses are boarded and sealed. There are no corner stores. Every tree box is barren. Hope lives elsewhere.
Sandtown is on the top of a hill, overlooking downtown Baltimore. The city’s revitalized, Inner Harbor, with all its vibrancy and vitality, appears to be right there.
Indeed, Baltimore reflects the great divides and spikiness of our new urban order, where prosperity and poverty, promise and despair, are just next door. The maps below, from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, show this in sharp relief.
In Sandtown-Winchester, 35 percent of households are below the poverty line, nearly double the Baltimore metro rate.
And then there is violence. In Sandtown-Winchster, 60 out of 100,000 residents die by gun each year, more than five times the national average. The neighborhood sits in a cluster of geographically isolated violence that encompasses the adjacent neighborhoods of Penn North and Greater Mondawmin. In the Inner Harbor down below, just 10 people die from gun violence per 100,000.
Add to this the fact that so many of Sandtown-Winchester’s residents are in prison or on parole or probation. As the map below shows, one in ten adults living in the neighborhood were on parole or probation in 2013—nearly double the rest of the city’s 5.5 percent rate.
Forty percent of all the Maryland citizens who come under the custody of the Maryland Correctional system to serve felony prison sentences of a year or more, will eventually return to Baltimore City. A disproportionate number will return to Sandtown, Druid Heights, and East Baltimore. In some of these neighborhoods there are six women between 18 and 29 for every young man.
As you head north from Baltimore on I-95, you pass through Philadelphia and Camden, Trenton and Newark. A short trip up the Hudson River from the glitter of Manhattan lands you in Newburgh and Poughkeepsie, then Albany, and up to Syracuse and Buffalo. Each of these cities is fighting against unyielding violence and a long legacy of class division, persistent poverty and racial segregation.
Baltimore is a stark reminder of what happens when America’s ongoing urban transformation comes face-to-face with its long legacy of race and poverty. And Baltimore is not alone. There are many U.S. cities with bleaker economic prospects, greater inequality, higher levels of racial segregation, and even more persistent and wrenching poverty.