Sarah Richards is a Canadian freelance writer and radio producer in Baltimore
One of the first times I visited Baltimore was for an article I was writing about teenage girls and their daydreams for Seventeen Magazine. Most of the interviews I conducted were in the Inner Harbour, a quaint, touristy area downtown. I interviewed a young woman who worked at a fast food outlet, as well as several people walking around.
A few years later, I moved to Baltimore with my husband. He got a job at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which I've heard a few people half-jokingly refer to as "the Plantation." The university and hospital that make up Johns Hopkins are in many ways this city's real government – the biggest employer, home to many scientific breakthroughs and the last great connection Baltimore has to its Halcyon days.
The first week I was there, the maintenance man who took care of the apartment my husband and I were renting told me that he used to live in the city until all of the "niggers" moved in.
As the months passed, I did stories that took me to different neighbourhoods in Baltimore. I learned where the poor people lived, where the blacks lived and where the whites lived. I learned how these neighbourhoods did not mix. I saw streets in which every single home had fallen victim to abandonment and blight, with boarded up windows, crumbling bricks… save for a single hold-out, perched in the middle of the street or almost seeming to hang on at the end of it. In the poorest neighbourhoods, people thought I was an undercover police officer, not a journalist.
I also learned where the wealthy people lived – many live several miles outside of the city, in hidden-away areas.
Our apartment looked on to one of the oldest parks in America. We would watch the prostitutes walk the street, and once saw a man repeatedly smash a woman's head on his car dashboard over a cigarette.
Still, we wanted to believe – after all, that was long the city's motto, "believe" – so we bought a house a few years later. There, we watched from our deck as a drug addict washed his syringe out in a muddy pool in our laneway. Later, down the street, I saw the Korean corner store owner chase two kids out of his store with his hand on a pistol tucked in his waistband. On two separate occasions, I caught the same man twice breaking in to my neighbour's residence. The house next door was home to several young women working for Teach for America. On the second burglary attempt, I confronted the man in the laneway. He was holding a shoulder-bag of my neighbour's goodies in one hand and a flat screen TV in the other.
By then, we owned a 90-pound German shepherd, and I'd leashed him and brought him with me. I told the man that if he did not put my neighbours' possessions down, I'd let my dog on him.
"I'll slice your dog," he said.
Fortunately, he dropped the TV and the police were able to apprehend him a few blocks away. Thomas Rivera went to jail for more than a year. Even more fortunate: I was eligible for a witness safety program that alerted my parents in Alberta when Rivera would be getting out of jail. Better still: I had moved by the time he was released.
I call it my seven year tour of duty. My husband and I moved out to the county, in one of those hidden neighbourhoods that nobody in Baltimore City – at least nobody in its most devastated areas – probably even knows exist. I always wonder what those people would do if they knew of the beautiful neighbourhoods and university-like private schools that are only a 15-minute car ride from their Third World existence. Perhaps we're getting a very small taste of that this week.
Last year, Baltimore lost, yet again, more residents. It's basically been losing residents for six decades. They leave because they're tired of the crime, because there are more jobs elsewhere, because there are better public schools elsewhere. And they leave because they can.
I left because I hated what it was doing to my mind. I hated the desperation and depression in front of me. I hated having to be aware of my surroundings while walking on the street. I hated seeing children who knew they had no future. And I hated watching our neighbour chase barefoot after her boyfriend, who had recently gotten out of jail and walked out of the house one day with her baby girl. She was screaming and hitting him in the middle of the street, trying to rip the baby out of his arms.
I could tell you about the wonderful people giving their lives to make that city work. The two old nuns who ran an after-school program across from our house that quite literally saved lives. Some I did stories on, like the refugee from Rwanda who on a shoe-string budget was helping other refugees settle in Baltimore. Or the woman who had opened up a shelter for battered Muslim women in her own home.
There are many of them in Baltimore, but are there enough? I'm ashamed to say I wasn't one of them.