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.

Arsenal of Exclusion – Thoughts on Baltimore Inspired by 99%

Our Weekend Adventure with Poop

Thursday – 11:32pm

“Do you smell that?”

“No,” I said with false certainty hoping my confident answer would make the question go away.  The truth was my sense of smell is horrible and Wendy’s is incredible, but I didn’t want to get off the couch. 

“Seriously, it smells like something is burning.  Could you go look in the basement and make sure?”

I could tell she was starting to worry but I was exhausted and didn’t want to muster the energy to get off my butt.  “I don’t smell anything.  I’m sure it is fine.”  As the last word fell from my mouth we both flinched.  A huge crash echoed from the basement.  We both bolted for the basement door.

At the top of the stairs Wendy screamed “Oh no.”  I bounded down the stairs into the fray and started picking things up off the ground.  Unfortunately I was too late.  There was already six inches of standing sewage in the room.  I reached down into it and grabbed our modem and set it on our desk only to cover the desk in the brown goo.  I then grabbed a box of high school memorabilia off a bottom shelf hoping to save it, but the bottom disintegrated and the contents sank into the dark thick liquid.  Hopeless I stood stunned for a moment confused and helpless.  I looked to the left at the toilet in the back corner of the room.  A steady geyser of brown sewage spewed from pot causing the lid to rise three inches off the seat.  Wendy’s tears brought me back to reality.

The smell was awful.  The closed basement door had been holding it back like a dam, but now it flowed freely through the house.  After a quick pow-wow Wendy ran upstairs to pack up the kids and take them to my mom’s to sleep.  I called the city.

“Hello,” the tired man’s voice struggled to get out, “Baltimore city water and waste.”

“Um, hi.”  I was still a little dazed and unsure of what to say.  “I’ve got a serious problem.”

“Yes sir.”  

Was he agreeing with me that I had a problem or was he urging me to continue?  I wasn’t sure.  I pressed on anyway.  “There is a geyser of sewage coming out of my toilet and filling my basement.” 

“We will send a work crew out to look at it ASAP.”  Now usually the letters ASAP are said with energy and vigor, but I was speaking with Eeyore.  “I need to get some information from you…”  For the next five minutes he asked me everything from my birth day to the color of the sewage. 

When the questioning stopped I asked, “How long until someone gets out here?”

“Oh,” there was a long pause and shuffling of papers, “probably some time around 8am.” 

I was standing at the top of the stairs watching the sewage continue to rise.  It was about a foot deep.  I began to snap.  “How is 8am ASAP?” I said frantically. 

“Sorry sir.  That is the best we can do.”  He didnt’ sound sorry.

Hanging up with the city I began calling 24 hour plumbers.  With each call everything would go great until we got to the part of time of arrival. 

“How soon can he be here?” I would ask watching the sewage rise.

“Oh, sometime around 8am at the earliest.  He will call you first thing in the morning to set up the time.”

“No thanks.  I’ll keep looking.” And after some pleasantries I would hang up.

Finally on plumber call number nine I found a company that would come right away.  It was 1:30am when he arrived.  The goo had risen to a foot and a half and then stopped.  Once the toilet had stopped spewing the sump-pump could keep up and it all started rescinding.  By the time the plumber and I were wading into the basement there was no standing goop; only a nasty coating of brown sludge on everything.  The plumber immediately went to work on the toilet.  I sat down on my kid’s train table taking in everything that had been destroyed. 

“I charge $75 an hour to students,” the plumber muttered not looking up from what he was doing.

“What?” I said confused.  “I’m not a student.”  I was completely lost as to why a plumber would have a student discount. 

 Still not looking at me the plumber replied, “Everybody wants to watch.  Everybody wants to observe the plumber work.”  He stopped working and made eye contact with me.  “I hate it when people watch me work.” 

“Oh, sorry man.”  I said in complete surprise.  “I wasn’t meaning to look over your shoulder.  I was just taking in the damage.”

Working again and no longer looking at me he replied, “If you want to go upstairs I can call you when I’m done.”

“Thanks?”  I said and trudged up the stairs to watch T.V.

The plumber finished around 2:45am.  He told me he was confused as to what happened with my toilet.  He had snaked it out and only found a few small roots in it.  Nothing that should have caused it to explode as it did.  I asked if the rain could have had something to do with it.  There had been an enormous amount of rain that night.  I explained that the toilet geyser had stopped around the same time the rain had.  He explained that sewer lines and storm drain lines were two completely separate systems.  The only way the rain could affect the sewage was if there was a break somewhere in the sewer lines.  Then when the storm drains backed up they would flow over into the broken sewage pipes and push everything into everyone’s homes.  I know absolutely nothing about plumbing so this sounded like a good explanation to me.

“What do I do about that?” I asked.

The plumber smiled and gave me a I-don’t-envy-you look.  “You have to call the city.  They are the only ones that can fix crap in the street.  Until they get on the ball you should expect crap in your basement every time the storm drains are overwhelmed.”     

“Great.  Thanks.” I said exhausted.  After the plumber left I couldn’t bear to go back downstairs.  I simply turned off the lights, climbed into my car, and left for my mom’s defeated, sensing that the real work would begin in the morning.

To be continued…

Our Weekend Adventure with Poop

An Addition to Yesterday’s Post – Reflections on an Editorial in the Baltimore Sun

So Wendy read my post yesterday (which was a response to a Baltimore Sun editorial) and she didn’t agree. 

She said that while, yes, the church is the only group that can combat the culture of disrespect destroying our city; she disagreed that the church should be held responsible for the culture of disrespect’s current dominance.

Actually what she said was that I was being a reactionary jerk, that I had missed a great opportunity to speak to the church, and that because I chose with the post to “condemn instead of inspire” my message was lost.

She’s right. 

Which is more often than not the case because, lets face it, she’s much smarter than I am.

So let me explain my knee jerk condemnation of the church as the one that should be held responsible for the Culture of Disrespect.   

About a month ago I got a call from a 19 year old kid that was a part of a youth group I led in downtown Baltimore.  He had been arrested for drug possession with the intent to distribute.  He wanted me to get him a lawyer that might be able to get him off. 

“Did you do it?” I asked.

“Common Jeff.  Of course I did it.”  he said.

“What in the world is wrong with you?  Your dealing drugs now?”

“Well you know Jeff,” he said sheepishly.  “Once the group (meaning the youth group) was over I was out here alone bro.”

“Don’t put your crap back on the group.  Man up and take responsiblity for what you did,”  I replied in anger.

Laughing, “So no lawyer then huh?”

Now the teen’s answer infuriated me and was completely unfair.  It was not the group’s fault that he started dealing.  He always knew that at some point he would age out of it.  And we prepared him for it.  It didn’t come as a shock. 

But his comment still stung.  I couldn’t help but reflecting on it for a weeks after 

You see, I spent a lot of time with this kid.  A lot of time.  He was in the group for almost three years.  And the group was fantastic.  We had incredible leaders, amazing kids, and great times together.  And I did a lot with this kid one on one.  It is hard not to see his fall as a personal failure.

Where did my discipleship go wrong with him?

Back then for me living the Jesus life consisted of:

  • daily, well equiped engagement in the Word  (The group would mock my southern accent by chanting “Read your bible five minutes a night and it will change your life.”)
  • love God and people with all you have (which I realize now I modeled through activity but never defined)
  • and stay in community because growth and life only happens in the context of community.

If I could go back and do it again I would disciple differently.  My discipleship would be based not on Jesus centered activity, but rather on modeling the character of Christ. Every time I was with those kids I would look them in the eye and say, “The world tells you to live like… but the Kingdom life is defined by humility, surrender, forgiveness, sacrificial service, and love.  Is your life defined by love?”

I didn’t equip the kids with Acts 2 Christianity.  I didn’t empower them to take the Jesus virus whereever they went and spread it through the content of their character.  Instead I led them in a faith that centered on activity.  When the group disappeared the activity was near impossible to continue.

There is a good chance that this particular kid would still be in jail today because he didn’t follow the discipleship we did give him…I have no logical reason to believe he would have followed the new; but he wouldn’t have been to say to me “the group disappeared” because I would have equiped him to, with the power of the Spirit, live counter culturally Jesus’ love.

So you see.  My condemnation yesterday was not of someone else or some other church.  It was of me.

If we are to turn our dying cities around, we must rediscover the counter cultural discipleship of Jesus.  We have to once again learn how to be viral.  Our discipleship needs to equip one another to share the Jesus life, the Kingdom life, regardless of where we are and who is with us.  It needs to set us a part as “the ones that passionately love” not “as the ones that attend stuff.”

My city needs the love of  Jesus.  Not delivered through a program or a worship service; but delivered through the hands and feet of thousands of Jesus imitators loving wildly, bringing light to every dark corner.

An Addition to Yesterday’s Post – Reflections on an Editorial in the Baltimore Sun