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  December 31, 2017

The Real Baltimore: How Bigotry Shaped a City

On this episode of The Real Baltimore, author and journalist Antero Pietila discusses how racist policies embraced by Baltimore a century ago continue to haunt the city today
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JAISAL NOOR: 2017 was the year Baltimore set its highest per capita homicide rate in history. Earlier this year, we sat down with famed author and journalist Antero Pietila, author of 'Not in my Neighborhood,' to discuss how Baltimore's history continues to define the city that harbors great divides in wealth and opportunity, crime and poverty, often drawn along racial lines. We started off by discussing the removal of several Confederate statues in Baltimore after the deadly attacks by white supremacists in Charlottesville.

ANTERO PIETILA: Well, they are reminders of a period when Baltimore was one of the most segregated cities in the United States, often more segregated than Richmond, for instance. Department stores were segregated here. As to the racial climate here, as to the KKK, I came to the city in 1969. I remember going to cover KKK rallies in Patterson Park and in Riverside Park in Federal Hill. I know that the peak of KKK activity in Baltimore was in the 1920's when the organization here was headed by the city's chief highway engineer and a dentist. There was a Klan home on Madison Street near Mount Royal Avenue. I mean, there is lots of history. That history is not understood and those statutes, they were reminders of one version of the history.

JAISAL NOOR: One of these statues, The Spirit of the Confederacy, which was built in 1903 on Mount Royal Avenue, that was an area that was at the heart of the fight over segregation, which led to the first law mandating segregation in the entire country. So, I recently spoke to students at Renaissance Academy, located at 1301 McCullough Street, about how segregation continues to impact their lives today.

Raise your hand if you know someone that has been badly hurt or killed in the last couple of years because of violence in Baltimore. Almost everyone here.

Youth 1: For people getting hurt in the streets, it makes parents more scared and prepared for when their kid or anybody go out in the street to do anything, because they don't know what is going to happen. They don't know if their kids are going to be able to make it home safe.

Youth 2: I kiss my mother and hug my mother every morning and tell her I love her, because whose to say someone won't stop me in the middle of the street and just go ahead and end my life today. I really feel that I'm going to be killed walking down the streets. As you know, they got law and [inaudible 00:03:17] and everything. Here, we don't got none of that. I was like, at county school in 7th grade, I learned about algebra. So, when I came here, they were still learning pre-algebra, and that's in 9th grade. I was in middle school when I took algebra.

JAISAL NOOR: So, you just heard those students at Renaissance Academy. Three of their classmates have been killed in the last year and a half. Can you reflect on the voices of the young people today, growing up really in the shadow of the history of polices that were created more than 100 years ago?

ANTERO PIETILA: Well, I mean, it's kind of interesting that they are going to a school that 100 years ago was the Western High School for young women, white women. When that area started, the racial segregation pushed in Baltimore when W. Ashbie Hawkins bought 1834 McCullough Street, that school then was moved. It was moved to Mondawmin Mall, to a building that is today's Frederick Douglas. Then, when that area became black, then the school moved again to Falls Road and Cold Spring Lane. So the school system reflects your racial conditions, and for these young people, clearly race is part of living in Baltimore.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates' book, one of the most striking things for me was to understand that walking through neighborhoods from your school every day, it presented for these kids a challenge. You had to know where to go, with whom to go, in order to escape harm.

JAISAL NOOR: Talk a little bit more about McCullough Street, and that specific area, and how that became sort of the ground zero for the fight of segregation nationwide.

ANTERO PIETILA: Every neighborhood keeps changing. Some neighborhoods change more than others, but every neighborhood through the years changes in terms of population, ethnicity, wealth, religion. What happened on McCullough Street leading to 1910 was that it was seen as a changing area that produced lots of white vacancies that nobody wanted to take. At the same time, blacks were prevented from living there and then comes W. Ashbie Hawkins, one of the founders of NAACP, he buys a property at 1834 and suddenly, blacks are coming in. So a mini panic of sorts began, and more and more whites start moving out.

JAISAL NOOR: In response, the city passed a law which prevented African Americans from moving into a block that was majority white, and vice versa. This was replicated across the country.


JAISAL NOOR: At The Real News, we'll talk more about that and the impact it has today. At The Real News, we cover national and international news, as well as events in Baltimore and working on something new, going hyper local. Starting with the 14th District, which ranges from Johns Hopkins University to Lake Montebello, to a diverse area that represents much of the city ... the affluence, the entrenched poverty, the working class spirit of the city, as you detail in 'Not in my Neighborhood,' bigotry shaped Baltimore in ways that are still felt and seen today.

This is an excerpt of the Mid Atlantic Regional Moving Image Archives, WJZ 13 Collection, about block busting, something which your book details, in the Montebello area during the late 1970s. Here's that clip.

CHRISTOPHER GAUL: This is a look at one Baltimore neighborhood, part of the Montebello section. It is no longer really a changing neighborhood, it is a changed neighborhood. But, like so many other Baltimore communities, the change has not been natural. It has been forced. Forced from white to black, and gradual deterioration by the federal government, the city and the state's long neglect of open housing.

It has been forced by the neglect of the established financial institutions, which saw black people as poor risks. And ultimately, it has been forced by real estate speculators who saw a quick profit in the structure of human fear and ignorance.

ROSE MASON: Well, I happened to be sitting on the steps with a friend of mine, and the man that had gotten the house from the woman next door, he came up to me and said to me, "Would you like to sell?" I said, "No," I couldn't afford to sell because I can't afford to go anywhere else. He said, "You won't sell?" I said, "No." He says, well -- pardon me, Angie, these are not my words -- he said, "What are you going to do when these niggers move in here, and they get out on the porch in the summer and they drink beer?" I said, "Hell, I'm going to join them." And, I do. Right?


ROSE MASON: You're darn right. Because we're very friendly.

CHRISTOPHER GAUL: What happens to you if you're late on your payments at all? If you don't make your weekly payments right on time?

ANGIE WASHINGTON: Well, get a court order.

CHRISTOPHER GAUL: How long does that take to get a court order-

ANGIE WASHINGTON: Well, we have, our payments are due on Saturday if they're not there by Monday, then by Tuesday around 12 or one we get a court notice.

CHRISTOPHER GAUL: Then, what do you have to do with that?

ANGIE WASHINGTON: Well, we usually always go and pay them, but you have to pay $2.00 for the court order.

CHRISTOPHER GAUL: Are you convinced that you really are buying your house?

ANGIE WASHINGTON: No, not really.

CHRISTOPHER GAUL: You were told, though, that you were going to be buying your house.


CHRISTOPHER GAUL: How long do you think it will be before you own the house?

ANGIE WASHINGTON: Well, they said, I think it was a 15-year mortgage, apparently. But, like I said, I haven't seen anything to say that. How much we've paid into it.

JAISAL NOOR: So, reflect on that exchange there. That was an investigation by WJZ into block busting, it described how this neighborhood was changing. A few African Americans were moving in, or getting close, and then these block busters would come and sort of, as we heard in the clip, extol the fears of black people moving into the neighborhood, which caused this flight of white people away from the neighborhood. We heard two residents' perspectives about that. This happened across the city. Give us your thoughts.

ANTERO PIETILA: What you saw was extraordinary. It is a unique piece of television reporting by Christopher Gaul. He got sued for this report, by block busters. The reason was that unlike any other reporter, he named names. Because we saw that he also interviewed people, he put faces on a process that was very, very hectic in that area, the racial change process. Another reporter, The Evening Sun reporter, Tom Edsall, did something very interesting at the same time.

He followed a neighborhood overnight and came to the conclusion that every night some of the busybodies in the neighborhood gathered together to talk about race and how blacks were coming in and what fights they had. When Tom Edsall then checked the hospitals and police reports, nothing reflected that this area was any fights, it was just a psychosis that was being created.

JAISAL NOOR: There are still streets today in Baltimore that separate affluent white neighborhoods from low-income African American neighborhoods. There's one in particular that's important to me, because I traveled through there every day for a year. It's on Greenmount and 33rd Street. It separates Waverley and another neighborhood that was created by the Roland Park company, which was an exclusively white neighborhood, the neighborhood of Guilford, which still exists today. It was predominantly white. Talk a little bit about the history of that area, because for me, and what I've seen in this city, it represents some of the greatest contrasts you can see between wealth and poverty and opportunity that exists in this city.

ANTERO PIETILA: Well, the history of that area is that it all was estate lands, big estates. Guilford, on the other side of Greenmount Avenue, belonged to A.S. Abell, the founder of the Baltimore Suns. Other nearby big estates, including Johns Hopkins, Clifton, the Garretts, Montebello, 1500 acres from that area all the way to Lauraville. So, then comes a time when they are all split up for development. Roland Park Company gets Guilford, which becomes arguably the most prestigious of city neighborhoods. Lots of [inaudible 00:13:01], and park-like atmosphere. Then, there is a Greenmount Avenue, dividing line on the other side is a neighborhood kind of corridor, and that was occupied by whites in older houses, poor whites, and then next to it on the other side was Original Northwood.

So, in fact, what you had were two neighborhoods: Guilford and Original Northwood that on the redlining maps in the 1930s were categorized as the best neighborhoods in Baltimore. Then, there is this sliver in the center. Before we got into second World War, that sliver was earmarked for an ambitious renewal project and the focus was to encourage or compel the existing homeowners to update their houses so that the topmost Roland Park properties, Guilford and Original Northwood, would be secure so that there would be no inferior people living in the middle there. Well, nothing ever happened on that, and of course now that sliver is African American bordering Guilford, which is mostly white, and Original Northwood, which is also mostly white.

JAISAL NOOR: If you look at indicators in those areas, health indicators: lead poisoning, incarceration rates, even life expectancy, there is stark differences between those two areas. Talk about what accounts for that? How are these two areas treated differently by people with resources and by government officials.

ANTERO PIETILA: Well, in terms of lead paint, it is really one of the most destructive things in the city of Baltimore today in that almost all houses built before a certain cut-off period-

JAISAL NOOR: 1970, I believe.

ANTERO PIETILA: 1970, have lead paint. What makes this problem so terribly difficult to resolve is that some of the early remediation efforts have belatedly been determined to be lacking, meaning that if you have a lead painted house, it is never, it seems, certain that a remediation is going to protect you. It is kind of interesting, also, that the lead paint problem underscores another thing that these different in Baltimore from Washington, D.C., for instance.

Number one, Washington, D.C. has no vacant houses. It has lots of lead painted houses, but lead paint contamination is no problem in Washington, because there is market demand for real estate. In Baltimore, there is no market demand for much of this tainted real estate, so then it becomes a problem because if you can sue a landlord and get an award for somebody having been harmed by lead paint, then you are collecting money.

In fact, what we have in the city, in the past we used to have ambulance chasers. Today, we have lawyers that specialize in lead paint cases, trying to find landlords with wealth that can be collected, if you win the case.


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