White flight decimated Baltimore businesses long before rioters showed up

A youth stands in front of a police line as protests of the death of Freddie Gray continue, in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 27, 2015.
A youth stands in front of a police line as protests of the death of Freddie Gray continue, in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 27, 2015.
Image: EPA/Michael Reynolds
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On Monday, April 27, the city of Baltimore, Maryland, found itself in the grips of civil unrest. Tension between police and the city’s African American community had been steadily building since the death of Freddie Gray on April 19.

Gray, a black man, succumbed to spinal injuries suffered whilst in police custody. Meanwhile the reasons for his arrest, as well as what exactly transpired afterwards remain frustratingly unclear.

The tension boiled over in the hours after Gray’s funeral on Monday. Around 3:30pm, groups of protesters confronted police monitoring the proceedings. Some began throwing bottles, bricks, and other projectiles at officers and journalists, according to CNN. By late afternoon, reports filtered in that a CVS pharmacy in West Baltimore was broken into, looted, and set aflame.

This particular image—a ravaged, burnt out CVS—struck a nerve. Those watching events ensue from afar seemed at a loss. Why would protesters vent their frustrations on a local drug store; one of the few sources of food, medicine, and everyday necessities in an otherwise dispossessed neighborhood?

As BuzzFeed’s Tracy Clayton points out, these are not the questions that need asking:

folk asking how black ppl can burn down the cvs when its the only place they can get food. ask why there are no grocery stores!

— Tracy Clayton (@brokeymcpoverty) April 28, 2015

As similar events in Ferguson, Missouri, demonstrated, these protests do not spring up in a vacuum, or in reaction to any singular event. In Baltimore, unrest was clearly incited by the suspicious death of Freddie Gray; but the response outgrew the incident. These riots, protests, unrest—whatever you want to call them—are, in some ways, an indictment of Baltimore’s broader, economic problems, stretching back more than half a century.

“I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today’s riots began,” The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects in an essay published April 27. “My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution.”

A looted CVS at Pennsylvania and North Avenues, Baltimore, Maryland.
A looted CVS at Pennsylvania and North Avenues, Baltimore, Maryland.
Image: EPA/Michael Reynolds

Coates writes about a pattern of disproportionate police scrutiny and unbridled brutality committed against Baltimore’s African American community—a pattern that, once again, did not develop in a vacuum. As in so many other American cities, crime is high in Baltimore’s black neighborhoods. So is unemployment. As Rob Wile notes in a piece for Fusion, just 42% of the residents in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood have jobs.

On the flip side, property values and median income are low. High school graduation too, college matriculation even lower. Quality of life mirrors a city falling apart.

This is why outside concern for the physical state of Baltimore rings hollow. Why now? Why the sudden distress on behalf of Baltimore businesses? We, as a country, had no problem watching the city deteriorate over the last half-century.

In a 2004 report, the Service Employees’ International Union relays a brief economic history of modern Baltimore, beginning with the arrival of Bethlehem Steel. Bethlehem came to Baltimore in 1916. The plant was a magnet for European-immigrant and African American jobseekers, many of whom settled in the company town of Sparrow Point, Maryland, and nearby Baltimore neighborhoods. Rent was cheap, pay was adequate by the standards of the day, most had easy access to credit, and although schools were segregated, they were generally of quality.

By 1941, Bethlehem steelworkers had unionized, further bettering the Baltimore working life with health benefits, sick leave, and a slew of worker protections.

After the World War II, American manufacturing slipped into a slow demise. Baltimore’s steel industry was not immune. Capital-conscious business leaders began importing more affordable steel from other parts of the country, even abroad, and by the late 1980s, Bethlehem’s workforce had shrunk from a peak of 35,000 workers to a mere 8,000. Wages and benefits shrank with it. Steel was no longer an industry that could support a middle-class lifestyle in Baltimore.

Bethlehem Steel, Baltimore, Maryland
Bethlehem Steel, Baltimore, Maryland
Image: CC Dave Hosford

The city lost more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs in the latter half of the 20th century—depleting its industrial workforce by 75%. There could not have been a worse time for an influx of newcomers.

Nevertheless, they came.

Between 1950 and 1970, Baltimore’s African American population nearly doubled. Historically based in the northeast and northwest of the city, black communities began overlapping with historically white neighborhoods. Middle- and upper-class whites, already in flight as a result of industrial job-loss, sped for the suburbs.

“This exodus dramatically affected commerce,” Michael Yockle recalls in a 2007 story for Baltimore magazine, “particularly along the city’s traditional Howard and Lexington streets shopping nexus, where a quartet of department stores—Stewart’s, Hecht Co., Hutzler’s, and Hochschild-Kohn—had thrived for decades, catering primarily to white ladies in white gloves.Slowly, these behemoths withered and expired, their customer base severely undermined by a tsunami of suburban malls that opened in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Back in the city, redlining and blockbusting were commonplace. Middle-class blacks bought houses marked up as much as 70% from predatory developers, then found themselves unable to sell at anything resembling a profit. Any small amount of affluence built during the steel-town boom days disintegrated.

For the first part of the 20th century, Baltimore built itself into a beacon of American industriousness and progress. But white Baltimore showed that it would rather tear the city apart than allow upwardly mobile African Americans to partake.

The death of Freddie Gray was a terrible thing. The incident must be thoroughly investigated, and any parties determined to have acted outside the law must be punished to the furthest extent of it, regardless of whether they carry a badge. But we must also recognize police brutality and racial profiling as fruits of a larger (rotten) tree.

Because when we watch these events unfold on television screens or Twitter feeds, and ask ourselves, “Christ, how did it get this bad?” we should already know the answer.