The Open Veins of West Baltimore

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by R.L. Stephens II
Orchestrated Pulse
August 14, 2015

On Tuesday, April 28th, I visited West Baltimore for the first time. Pockets of riots had broken out in Baltimore the night before. By the following morning, the government had declared a state of emergency, and everything was shut down, including schools. 84 percent of the city’s school children received free or subsidized lunch; they were bound to go hungry without those meals. When a local church called for volunteers to help provide lunches to Baltimore’s youth, I didn’t hesitate to answer.

Volunteering in the neighborhood allowed me the opportunity to survey the damage for myself. What I saw, over the dozens of blocks I traveled, shocked the conscience. Boarded-up properties littered every block as pieces of dilapidated roofs and walls lay crumbled on the sidewalks and alleys. This wanton blight didn’t square with narratives about shameful riot damage destroying the city. Hardly anything resembled the now iconic burned out CVS Pharmacy so heavily covered in U.S. media.

Once inside the church, I joined a group of mostly local volunteers, many of whom were teachers making sure their students ate. As we prepared the meals, Ms. Pauline, an older woman and long-time West Baltimore resident, told me she didn’t want to feed any of the “rowdy kids” who had rioted. “The only thing they did was destroy our own neighborhood. We have to live here,” she said. The scene outside told a different story: the whole landscape had long since been made unfit for habitation.

Though our conversation began with Ms. Pauline expressing outrage toward the rioters, it became clear that long-term neglect and decay had taken a far greater toll on her than recent events. As she recounted her frustrations with absentee owners, abandoned properties, and a lack of basic services like trash removal and tree-trimming, her tone lowered and her face became weary.

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