Arsenal of Exclusion – Thoughts on Baltimore Inspired by 99%

I’ve been listening to a brilliant podcast called 99% Invisible.  It’s about design, and architecture, and all the things around us that we don’t usually pay attention to.  Each episode is about 10 minutes long.  I highly recommend it.

The most recent episode was called “The Arsenal of Exclusion“.  It discussed design elements in urban landscapes that city planners use to increase or restrict people’s access to different spaces.  In the episode the host and a city planner take a tour through a neighborhood in Baltimore to examine the different weapons of exclusion used to keep neighborhood’s segregated.  They cover things like street design and permitted parking.  It is fascinating. I feel like after listening to it I had a whole new understanding of why my city is so segregated.

It brought to mind something I noticed in Baltimore when we were living down town.  We lived in Federal Hill.  It was a nice neighborhood.  Most of the people living in it (not us) made well over three figures.  This was before the bubble burst so housing renovation was crazy.  Everyone was buying old row homes, gutting them, and bringing them into a new glory.  It seemed there weren’t enough row homes to go around so the bubble was slowly expanding west.

Immediately west of Federal Hill, across Hanover Street, is a neighborhood called Sharp Leadenhall.  It is predominately African American and most of the people in the neighborhood lived below the poverty line (I know this because I worked with feeding ministries that there who provided free groceries, ran an after school program at the PAL center there, and I attended many of the neighborhood association meetings).  It was a sharp contrast to Federal Hill, but the developers were working hard to change that.  I walked the streets of  Sharp Leadenhall routinely and it felt like every day another row home had sold and some developer was gutting it to rehab.

The fast pace at which Sharp Leadenhall was being gentrified made people look to the next neighborhood west, a neighborhood known as Pig Town, as a place for potential investment.  Pig Town resembled Sharp Leadenhall in a lot of ways.  Many of my Federal Hill friends who were in the development game were buying houses there hoping after Sharp Leadenhall flipped, Pig Town would become like Federal Hill.  (No one thought the bubble would burst.  It seemed like a golden age of renovation that would never slow.)

I know people who had success in Sharp Leadenhall.  The neighborhood definitely changed.  If the bubble hadn’t burst I imagine Sharp Leadenhall would have been completely consumed by the Federal Hill crowd.  I never met anyone who had success in Pig Town and the neighborhood stayed the same.  In fact I don’t think it would have changed, not like Sharp Leadenhall anyway.

After listening to 99% Invisible’s Arsenal of Exclusion I think I understand why.  There are two weapons of exclusion I observed in my time there.

First there were the stadiums and the Inner Harbor.  Federal Hill (along with Locust Point, Otterbien, and the Riverside Park area) are an island.  On there west flank are the O’s and Raven’s stadiums along with the vast parking lots the facilities require.  North is the Inner Harbor area.   East and south are blocked separated from the rest of the city by a river and by I-95.  The South Baltimore peninsula is isolated.   Sharp Leadenhall fell within that perimeter.  Pig Town was outside of it.

Second (now I must be honest, this is a little over my head) were property taxes.  I remember sitting in a Sharp Leadenhall neighborhood association meeting which featured a city tax agent.  They called him “the tax man.”  He explained to the neighborhood that if they owned their own homes they should sell because their property taxes would increase slowly as the value of homes around them increased.

I’m still looking for more weapons in the arsenal.  It’s a morbid curiosity for me after hearing that podcast.  If you are in Baltimore and you see any let me know.  If I find any new ones I’ll put them up.  I’ve started reading this blog and I’m looking forward to their book in the fall of 2012.

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Arsenal of Exclusion – Thoughts on Baltimore Inspired by 99%