Fear of the Streets of Baltimore 

Last summer, I took a walk around Bolton Hill to get to know the neighborhood. I was then living temporarily for a month at the Meyerhoff House, a historic building converted from a former women’s hospital into a college dorm for students of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Bolton Hill’s elegant 19th century row houses set among tree-lined streets and gardens qualified the neighborhood for placement in the National Register of Historic Places. The neighborhood is peppered with blue plaques displayed outside of homes, providing brief information about the illustrious characters that once resided in the houses and what contribution in governance, academia, science, literature, human welfare, or culture the residents made in their life. The neighborhood association’s Architectural Review Committee serves as the guardian of architectural preservation in the neighborhood, ensuring that the area does not lose its link to its historic past.

On my way back to the Meyerhoff House, I took a right on West Lafayette Street and crossed Eutaw. Thinking that the Meyerhoff’s address is 1400 instead of 140, I went in the wrong direction. I immediately sensed a change in the character of the neighborhood.  I knew I was no longer walking in Bolton Hill. Just one very short block off Eutaw, I started to notice broken glass bottles and litter on the pedestrian walk. Gone were the trees that line the streets and the flowerbeds that decorate the houses.  The neighborhood suddenly felt exposed without the greenery. The built-up environment was blinding to my eyes as the softly landscaped neighborhood turned into unforgiving stone and concrete. Some houses were boarded up. People were hanging out by some of the houses’ front steps. The people were black and didn’t look privileged; and I, as an Asian foreigner who has barely been in Baltimore for two weeks, felt fear. The fear was compounded by my awareness that I was lost. I was walking back and forth as I took note of the numbers on each street sign at each block, puzzled about the street numbers and how I got to be at this rundown neighborhood.

Photos by Michelle Faulkner & Katti Sta. Ana

Crime statistics show that the incidence of violent crimes in Baltimore is 2.9 times higher than the national average. Despite fewest killings in 20 years, Baltimore's rate is highest among the U.S.’ largest cities. As a Filipino used to taking the public jeepney in my home country, sometimes even in the wee hours of the morning, I am not unfamiliar to being in places that feels unsafe. As a community arts student in Baltimore, however, I witness everyday how people in non-profit organizations work hard to fight poverty, racism and the social malaise that these bring. People are committed to making life better in Baltimore.

I take the bus on Saturdays from Eutaw Place in Bolton Hill and wait for another bus on Pennsylvania and North Avenue. I don’t feel unsafe as I wait for the bus on Eutaw. I had the pleasure of watching autumn leaves fall and converse about their colors, the value of working the land to produce food for people, the intricacy of skills in working in the automotive industry, missing having a car, losing the desire to make art with the loss of a loved one, while sitting on a bench waiting for the bus with a humble African-American artist probably in his fifties. I shared the same bench yesterday with an older African American woman on one side and a retired African American man with a cane on my other side. They talked about how the sun felt good against our skin. I silently agreed while eating my lunch and reading about race and community, feeling so safe and comfortable in their company. I could sense how they were a little uneasy about my presence. I also sense this from the people I sit beside with on the bus. All of them so far, have been African-American. I do my best to make them feel that I don’t feel uneasy sitting beside them. Maybe it’s easier for me because I don’t see how different I look in the bus where everyone is African-American. I have felt that people easily accept me once they see me as a person, beyond my skin color and foreign accent. When I feel that people are able to relate to me, I become more comfortable with my new surroundings.

Artwork by Sarah Edelsburg

On the corner of North and Pennsylvania, the surroundings are completely different. There are no trees to watch for falling leaves. The area is teeming with people. I watch the dynamics of teenagers checking each other out. Most people are minding their own business, just waiting for the bus. Everyone who gets on the bus show his or her bus pass or put money in, no matter how shady they look. That to me is a good sign and it comforts me. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Discard stereotypes.

I realized that familiarity conquers most of my fear of the streets of Baltimore but I still keep myself alert. I avoid isolated places. I don’t go out at night unnecessarily. I clutch a whistle in my hand when I walk home from MICA past midnight. I don’t take the bus at night. I always sit in the first car of the light rail near the driver. I try to appear unaffected, minding my own business, when I walk in unfamiliar neighborhoods. I learned to respond to greetings of “Hello, how are you doing?” from strangers because a lack of response can elicit anger. I watch for cars that drive by slowly, checking out if they are checking me out as I walk. In my mind, I have a prepared plan of walking the opposite direction or crossing the street, taking mental note of where I should run to if the situation calls for it. I don’t wear high heels.

I still live in Bolton Hill. I take the MICA shuttle to shop for groceries on Wednesday nights when I need to. I still live in a campus bubble, protected.

 8 November 2009

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