My Sunday column — available at baltimoresun.com — is the second one I’ve written since meeting Matthew King, founding president of the Harlem Park Community Development Corp. and one of Baltimore’s most determined citizens. He and his collaborators have taken on a big challenge — redeveloping and repopulating a once-thriving neighborhood that tells the long, sad story of why Baltimore lost one third of its population since the 1950s.

Harlem Park — with what once was one of the largest and most beautiful of the city’s parks (Harlem Square Park) and a second leafy park (Lafayette Square Park), stately rowhouses, Gothic Revival churches, a theater and schools — tells the tale of Baltimore in the 20th Century: White flight to the city’s outer boundaries and then its suburbs. 

By 1930, a neighborhood of thousands of white residents became almost completely a neighborhood of Black residents. There’s hardly a place on the American map where this did not happen — whites historically wanting no part of living with people of color. Whites were generally more affluent and able to move to places that were guaranteed to become and remain white for decades to come.

Of course, segregation was the law in those days. (Under Baltimore’s infamous 1910 city ordinance, Blacks could not move into residential blocks with a white majority and vice-versa. The law was the first of its kind in the United States.)

Still, Harlem Park became a striving, middle class neighborhood. It  attracted some Black doctors, dentists and attorneys, and pastors moved into the stately churches near Lafayette Square. Street car lines took workers to their jobs and shoppers downtown.

So what happened? Why didn’t that hold? From my reading of the history, there were two major reasons for the community’s decline: Banks redlined the area, making mortgages and further investment impossible; and urban renewal destabilized an already fragile neighborhood.

The urban renewal included the demolition of hundreds of homes and businesses and the displacement of thousands of residents. It included the building of what became known as the Highway to Nowhere. It was carried out against the concerns of the NAACP by a white power structure in city government with little input from the people who lived in Harlem Park. The first paragraph of today’s column summarizes what happened 60 years ago in the name of “slum clearance.”

A lot of people — mostly white people, with a view of Baltimore from the outside — ask why, over the last 50 years, with liberal Democrats in power, the city has had so many vacant houses, so much poverty, drug addiction and surges of crime. I am obliged to answer and almost always do, but I must quickly note what the response usually is: Many of my fellow whites, particularly conservatives, don’t want to hear about white flight, racism and poverty. They don’t accept the view that those things are related or still relevant.

I have had numerous conversations and email exchanges with people who want to blame family dysfunction and the absence of Black men in families. That no doubt has contributed to generational poverty over the last half-century, but the roots of that absence can be traced to the great upheaval I’ve described here: The law that perpetuated segregation, white flight and the redlining by banks set the stage for the concentration of poverty, the lack of home ownership, the lack of jobs. The rest is history. (Further reading: “Not In My Neighborhood,” by my former Sun colleague Antero Pietila.)

I reflect on this as I drive or walk around Harlem Park and listen to Matthew King talk about his aspirations for the community. I shake my head at what racism, classism and segregation left us. All modern studies show that neighborhoods of mixed income levels — where the doctor and the doctor’s receptionist both live, where police officers and school teachers own homes a short walk from their children’s school — do better than neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. That’s not some socialist ideal; that’s been proven by demographers and social scientists.

While Harlem Park is an example of this American catastrophe, it could become a symbol of true urban renaissance. It sits a few blocks from a MARC train station, making its remaining houses potentially attractive and affordable to people who commute to Washington for work. (It would have been even more attractive by now had the Red Line been approved, connecting the MARC station with more of the west side and downtown Baltimore. This is another reason why Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to kill the Red Line through West Baltimore deserves all the contempt it has received.) 

Maryland’s senators and representatives in Congress want to see big money spent on reversing the damage done by the Highway to Nowhere, raising the potential of a destination city greenway or restoration of some of the housing lost 60 years ago by the construction of the sunken roadway. 

Harlem Park has a new master plan, the occasion for today’s column, and it needs and deserves the city’s attention. It is owed that attention. Democrats in Congress, and even some Republicans, want to see big spending on infrastructure to catch up with the nation’s needs. One of those needs is a reckoning with the damage done to American cities by the racist policies of the past.

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