Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Charm City

Flag of the City of Baltimore
As a kid, I used to sit on the living room floor when my grandfather and grandmother would come over Sunday evenings after they'd had their dinner at the restaurant down the street.

Poppy would tell stories about growing up in East Baltimore, about the "way things used to be" in the city. Baba would nod her head in agreement, recalling a time gone by when things were simpler, pristine and gentile. My parents, who grew up in that neighborhood and were teenagers when the 1968 riots convinced their families to move to the county, would also chime in.

I'd listen to those tales about the neighborhood that used to be called "Little Bohemia" because of it's heavy concentration of Czech families with names like Cvach and Dolivka and Bocek and Kotesovec and Pinkas.

Street names would be thrown about. Places like Ashland, Madison and Monument. My mother grew up on North Montford Avenue, next door to my great-grandparents and great aunt. My father grew up a few blocks away on North Kenwood Avenue, just a couple blocks south of the railroad tracks.

St. Wenceslaus Church, Baltimore
And you'd hear about the trials and tribulations of being an altar boy at St. Wenceslaus. The beautiful old church was built, partly, by members of my family on both sides, too.

And my grandfather, grandmother, great aunt, mother, father, aunts and uncles all went to grade school at St. Wenceslaus. The youth would go to the school's Lyceum on weekends, where they'd play basketball, bowl or dance on the rooftop dance floor.

And all was so great and so grand and so wonderful back then.

Then I asked what happened to change it. Why wasn't I going to St. Wenceslaus for church and school? Why wasn't I living blocks away from where my parents grew up?

The riots, they'd tell me.

"The neighborhood changed," they'd say. "It wasn't safe there anymore."

Ten-year-old me accepted this.

Now, I'm 36. I've read up on the sociological history of America and Baltimore, in particular. First off, I know that things in those years gone by weren't so pristine and wonderful. And I also know that, despite the tone behind what they had to say, it's more than just "riots" and "change" and "safety" that was at play back then.

Maryland state flag
Those factors definitely were a part, but so was the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs in America's industrial towns, like Baltimore.

There are other factors that would take an entire doctoral thesis to even begin scratching the surface of.

Exhibit A: Addiction.

In short, it's more complicated than just "riots" and "race" and "safety" and even "jobs" and "addiction."

Charm City, despite its recent attempts at believing in itself, is still struggling with hopelessness. It's sort of like Pagliacci: Smiling on the outside with its Inner Harbor and historic sites and great eateries, but crying on the inside with its drugs and poverty and despair.

The investigation into the death of Freddie Gray, and the resulting public protests and riots are the manifestation of that.

Lord knows the prozac the city and region needs to settle its manic depression won't take effect overnight. It doesn't seem like anyone can even find the prescription pad.

But I know it won't come by marginalizing people, or by destroying property.

I've not lived in the state, let alone the metro area, for more than 15 years, but I still consider Baltimore my home.

And I hope the "way things used to be" does, in fact, become real life one day for the city I love.

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