(thanks for the title suggestion Sharon!)
A few months back, I wrote about a short trip to Baltimore, Maryland that fundamentally rocked my core. I’ve always wanted to visit Baltimore as I’m one of the many fans of the amazing show The Wire, but discovered quickly that Baltimore is SO much more than The Wire.
Baltimore is also known as Charm City, but before I even knew that I commented to my hosts, “Wow, this city is so charming.” It really is. It’s filled with gorgeous brick buildings and lovely row houses with marble stoops where people sit and enjoy the company of their neighbors. It’s also a harbor, so there’s lots of waterfront activity: paths and restaurants and museums.
But there is a major disparity that is highlighted in The Wire – especially in Season 3 & 4 – and highlighted in the map to the right by Chris Whong. The red pins on the Baltimore City map represent all of the vacant homes in Baltimore (est. 40,000+). They are often seen in great numbers for entire blocks, making it feel like you have entered an abandoned town, but a few blocks away you wouldn’t know it.
Every city in North America has a disparity between the rich and poor, but these “unburied corpses” make it incredibly visible in Baltimore. And like a cancer, these vacancies spread. People leave their homes, their neighborhoods and the cancer keeps creeping.
There are many reasons for this, but much of it is very much like the reason Detroit went from a booming (1.85M) to abandoned (706,000) in a few decades (thanks to Damian Rintelmann for pointing out this great video on the boom to bust). And though the migration wasn’t near as devastating (Baltimore peaked in 1960 at just under 1M and is down to 635,000 today), it shows in the vacancies.
Baltimore, much like Detroit, is a manufacturing city. I learnt that Baltimore used to be home to everything under the sun manufacturing: from garments to ships to umbrellas to flour to hats and you name it. It was a perfect port for raw materials to come into, get built, then get shipped across America. But with manufacturing being done overseas, the jobs left and so did the people. But Baltimore is still incredibly well-located, has great universities and so many great residents who love their city. I was tempted to never leave!
As someone charmed by the city, I felt compelled on my first trip to contribute in some way. I didn’t want to just feel sad about this and forget it. It felt as if I needed to be part of changing this. The city is just too amazing.
I used to do all sorts of civic action-type BarCamps and the like, including TransitCampBayArea, where I’d reach out to a whole bunch of stakeholders -citizens, politicians, public service providers, hackers, etc- and create a space for them to discuss how we can all collaborate to make things better. It was a hit for events like TCBA and EqualityCamp - where ‘rival’ organizations got together and actually decided to cooperate for the public good. Why couldn’t it work in Baltimore?
So I called up Jason Hardebeck (gb.tc) and we started conspiring. The results are explained in the video above as well as a few blog posts, but I do want to highlight a couple of amazing bits from the event:
- The talks from the first day will be going up online in the near future, but were incredible and inspiring. From education to job creation to public art to great stuff we can do with public data was presented. The quality blew my mind.
- The second day where we collaborated was the tougher part, but ended up working out great. There were four amazing projects that emerged: HirED (from Wired to Hired Baltimore), The Lean, Mean Art Machine (a community-driven public art project), A Barclay Centre for Adult Education/Training, and a LinkedIN group + searchable map to pull together the various non-profit and service organizations in Baltimore – you can see the video from the final presentations here. And here are the notes from the sessions.
- At the tail end of the event, Dave Troy walked up and showed me something he had hacked together during the day that showed tweets in Baltimore and demonstrated that people from many of the neighborhoods we were talking about were tweeting frequently. What this could mean is that we no longer have to wonder what is on the minds of the residents of these neighborhoods. This is awesome data. Dave and Chris Whong collaborated on making this more visually friendly and it is BRILLIANT.
- And as a bonus at the end of the day, as the group retired to have pizza and beer, we sat down at a table beside Clarke Peters, who plays Lester Freamon on The Wire (one of my favorite characters). I didn’t want to disturb his dinner with the family, but did tell him briefly how fitting it was that we picked a restaurant and table next to him after working all weekend on making Baltimore LESS like The Wire. He seemed amused. ;)
I encourage anyone who hasn’t been to Baltimore to check it out. It’s hip like Brooklyn/Portland but without the attitude. Baltimorians are very Canadian in that they are quite self-deprecating (I can identify). It’s beautiful and fresh and healthy. There is an abundance of good seafood. The houses are lovely (and real estate is affordable!). And if you want to be part of a community that is completely engaged, this is the place to be.