Baltimore resident: We need a miracle

2015-05-06 06:42
A couple holds hands while walking past a burnt out van next to the Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore. (David Goldman, AP)

A couple holds hands while walking past a burnt out van next to the Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore. (David Goldman, AP)

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Baltimore - Tidying up in the looted and ransacked lobby of the payday loan firm where she works, Brandi Myers looked out at her devastated Baltimore community and pondered what it would take to rebuild.

"A miracle, a blessing. God? Some help? I don't know," said the 28-year-old manager of Ace Cash Express, one of more than 250 shops and businesses that were looted, burned or otherwise harmed in her city's worst rioting in decades.

"If we don't have the resources to fix all this, I feel for Baltimore."

So do many residents of Charm City, where spasms of violence after the death in police custody of an African-American man have highlighted the wealth gap in one of the poorest cities in the United States.

But when the national spotlight fades, Baltimore confronts a piercing question: how do its impoverished, neglected communities recover?


Federal, state and local leaders converged on Baltimore on Tuesday to discuss ways to rehabilitate communities.

But the head of the economic development arm of Maryland's most important urban hub was not among them.

Bill Cole, president of Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) was taking a more pro-active approach, joining the mayor in walking the streets, making sure looted neighbourhood shops had what they needed to reopen and strategising over the future of a city less than an hour's drive from the US capital, Washington.

They met with owners impacted by the unrest, helping them fill out claim applications, explaining grant procedures and offering micro-loans.

"Those small businesses are critical for the vitality and health of the city," Cole told AFP.

While rehabilitating those shops is the short-term priority, "our long-term goal obviously is to look for additional ways to create job opportunities," he said.

And that rehabilitation - including rebuilding a $60m senior centre that was under construction but went up in flames in the heat of violent riots on April 27 - will not come cheap.

"It's billions, with a B," Cole said of the investment dollars needed for Baltimore's poorer neighbourhoods.

Left in limbo

Baltimore is one of several urban centres hit hard by deadly riots in 1968 following the murder of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Larry Washington, 90, lived through it then, and now.

"To me, it doesn't make sense," he said of the latest riots.

"You don't prove yourself by destroying. You've got to prove yourself by building."

While the city has reinvented itself as a technology innovation centre and world-class port, many of its poorer neighbourhoods never recovered from 1968.

They were left in limbo by a system that rewards thriving areas such as Baltimore's Inner Harbour and leaves communities such as Penn North with boarded up row houses, crumbling infrastructure, unsafe schools and few jobs.

"What is glaring for this community is economic development, or the absence thereof," added Jamal Bryant, the African-American pastor of Empowerment Temple.

Government grants

He noted that 62% of residents of West Baltimore, where much of the rioting occurred, live on some level of public assistance.

Bryant said the community is not looking for more handouts; they're seeking a job-training centre, better education in schools, and partnership from city leaders.

"I'm not asking for giving everybody a million dollars. People want to work and don't have the opportunity to work," said Bryant, who is bursting with economic ideas.

"Give me six blocks in that community and do solar panelling," he said only half-jokingly.

BDC's Cole said hope abounds for the city, with investors and developers insisting they were not deterred by the riots.

"They told me 'We're not backing down, we're fully committed, we want to be part of the solution,'" Cole said.

'Investors will come'

He pointed to the Mondawmin Mall, where teens clashed with police last week.

Cole was on hand when the mall reopened Sunday, and said that of the more than a dozen shops hit by looting there, all but two were back in business.

Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, interpreted the riots as "a cry for help" from a community whose deteriorating conditions over the decades has led to "resentment, anger and oppression."

But she insisted that once the city begins healing, "I know the investors will come."

Back at the leaders' roundtable, civic figures and lawmakers brainstormed initiatives to improve police-community ties and kick-start development.

"They don't want us to just layer on what's been happening in the past," said Maryland's US Senator Ben Cardin, who attended the discussion.

"They really want a new approach that involves the community and making decisions on how resources are used."

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