The Obama White House was already attempting to do just that. It had convened Cabinet secretaries, top advisers and Maryland leaders to work on repairing the deep wounds in one of America’s oldest majority-black cities and remedy decades of racial disparities.
“We were trying to find a way to give a shot to Baltimore to try to begin — at least — to resolve the problems,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) recalled earlier this summer. “How do we take this moment, put the spotlight on Baltimore, and try to make things right as fast as we could?”
Four years later, in the midst of a reelection campaign, President Trump has made Baltimore his latest foil, blaming Cummings and other Democrats for its high crime and entrenched poverty.
Maryland leaders and urban experts dismiss those attacks as racist and misguided.
At the same time, those involved in the once-in-a-generation effort to deliver systemic social change acknowledge it has largely fizzled, undermined by a deep distrust of institutions, unstable political leadership and the intractable barriers erected by generations of poverty, segregation and disinvestment.
An organization launched with fanfare to drive the change shut its doors after less than two years. A new, nationally lauded after-school program also folded.
Many other initiatives work as envisioned but have barely dented the disparities. A state effort to demolish blighted buildings, for example, can’t keep pace with the decay. Violence has spun out of control, and the police department has continued to struggle, leaving Baltimore leaders to grasp at unorthodox solutions.
“What was promised was way too low to meet the challenges we have,” said Lawrence T. Brown, a Morgan State University professor who wrote a book about Baltimore’s racial inequity. “We have not learned what needs to happen.”
Listen on Post Reports: Reporter Erin Cox on why President Trump’s attacks on Baltimore so deeply affected a city still trying to heal.
It didn’t matter that state and local government, private corporations and philanthropic groups had also joined the heightened rush to help, contributing millions of dollars for a wide array of programs.
“If the underlying issues are structural racism and poverty and distrust of policing, there’s no magic elixir to fix that,” said Matthew D. Gallagher, president and CEO of the Baltimore-focused Goldseker Foundation.
Del. Nick J. Mosby, a Democratic state lawmaker and former city councilman who represents Gray’s West Baltimore neighborhood, recalled the heady days and weeks following the unrest as a time of opportunity, “a chance for us to really go after urban poverty in a different way.”
“Nothing has really changed,” Mosby said earlier this summer. “There’s still this sense of hopelessness.”
'Too much scar tissue'
Ten days after the riot, three days after the National Guard left town, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stood with Cummings in front of a burned and looted CVS to announce the creation of One Baltimore. The organization, headed by local business consultant Michael Cryor, would act as a long-term clearinghouse to channel private and public resources toward healing the city.
Cryor had a reputation for solving complex problems and a track record that lent credibility to the mission. For a while, he also had the weight of the federal government behind him.
Amid the unrest, then-Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) had placed what she later called “a 911 call” to the White House. Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett responded immediately, Mikulski said, launching a task force on Baltimore that the administration hoped would be a blueprint for other cities in crisis.
Nate Loewentheil, a task force leader who attended the inaugural meeting with Jarrett, Mikulski, Cummings and others, said the mission was clear: “When Baltimore leaders asked for something from the federal government, and it was within our power to deliver it, we were to do that.”
Millions of dollars poured in — to enhance bus routes to employment centers, provide job training and create summer work opportunities for teens.
The obstacles piled up, too.
Cryor tapped his business contacts to identify $1.8 billion in federal contracts and subcontracts that could create jobs for poor residents with high school diplomas. Then he learned that of the city’s roughly 480,000 adults, more than 80,000 don’t have diplomas.
After the General Services Administration donated $2 million in used laptops, One Baltimore rented trucks, recruited volunteers and distributed the equipment to youth organizations — only to discover that most had no Internet.
Again and again, Cryor was demoralized by the magnitude of the differences between Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods and whiter, more affluent ones a few miles away. Life expectancies a decade shorter. One-fourth as much public, private and philanthropic investment. The cumulative effect of disadvantages in these communities was so large that a landmark 2015 Harvard study found that a black boy growing up in a poor part of Baltimore had a lower chance of climbing the economic ladder than if he was born just about anywhere else in the country.
“I said, ‘My God, what have I got myself into,’ ” Cryor recalled recently. “I don’t think any of us fully appreciated the depth of the disparity, the generations of it.”
One Baltimore found a city of silos: 602 mentoring groups, 49 workforce training organizations, more than 400 registered neighborhood associations for 278 neighborhoods. Established players did what they could on their own. Johns Hopkins University, for example, organized major employers to hire and purchase more locally. Services for the poor were provided by a patchwork of foundations, nonprofits and grass-roots organizations — many deeply suspicious of government and civic institutions they felt had failed them for decades.
“There’s just too much scar tissue,” said Quincey Gamble, Cryor’s deputy. “There’s not just two Baltimores. There’s more like 10 Baltimores, and no one is really pulling the same direction.”
In the fall of 2015, the Labor Department used Baltimore as the backdrop to announce “TechHire” grants, $100 million nationwide to train underemployed people for jobs.
But grants were competitively won, and One Baltimore submitted a losing application.
The organization’s fundraising was anemic, and its political capital was waning. Rawlings-Blake, its chief patron in city government, was politically damaged by the unrest and distanced herself from the group before ultimately opting not to seek reelection.
“City Hall was not interested in launching major new initiatives or aggressively tapping into federal resources,” Loewentheil said. “I think there was a sense of resignation, or ‘let the next guys handle it.’ ”
In Washington, President Barack Obama was nearing the end of his term.
And then Trump won the White House.
Cryor quietly closed One Baltimore in March 2017 and went back to private life.
“It was more important for this to just go away, rather than be declared over,” he said recently. “The city didn’t need another statement of failure.”
A short-lived success story
For more than two years, Kids Safe Zone was West Baltimore’s post-unrest success story — a donation-fueled oasis just around the corner from the burned-out CVS. Flat-screen TVs lined the colorful walls of what had been a vacant laundromat. Suburban soccer moms dropped off supplies by the minivan load. For 12 hours a day, seven days a week, kids could come in and play, so long as they read for at least 15 minutes.
Ericka Alston-Buck, the petite and charismatic marketing director for the Penn North Community Resource Center, walked the neighborhood for an hour the day the center opened, approaching parents on stoops and children in the streets. She returned with 45 kids.
“The next day it was 60. The next day it was 85,” she said. “They kept going home and telling someone else.”
The national media came, too, drawn partly by Alston-Buck’s backstory — a recovering addict who made it in the corporate world but returned to West Baltimore to run Kids Safe Zone and manage a drug-treatment facility.
The wealthy wrote checks: Kaiser Permanente, Under Armour and CareFirst, along with singer Alicia Keys and a Texas businessman who sent $120,000 over six months. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) awarded a $50,000 grant to pay rent on a space five times larger.
It was not enough.
As the media attention faded, so did the donations. The bigger space came with an unsustainable, $5,000 monthly price tag and a need for more staff.
Alston-Buck considered seeking large philanthropic grants, but those required proof her program worked, plus compliance paperwork and audited financial statements. She didn’t have the resources to provide that and run both programs at the same time.
With bills piling up, she came to see the grant process as a de facto form of oppression, a process that effectively keeps resources with those who already have access to them.
“Baltimore doesn’t need to be ‘saved’ or have a white savior,” she said. “And that’s what it feels like: ‘Let us tell you what brown kids need to succeed, because we’ve got the money.’ ”
At the same time, other efforts siphoned away some of her regulars. State funding to expand programs at elementary schools and libraries kicked in. A Boys and Girls Club opened around the corner in the Gilmor Homes housing project, where Gray had been arrested — though the club would close a year later, when the city grant funding it expired. In the meantime, some days, only 10 kids showed up at Kids Safe Zone.
Alston-Buck seethed as she saw city leaders approving massive tax breaks for downtown development. She grew resigned when Hogan canceled plans for the Red Line, a $2.9 billion light-rail project that would have connected residents in neighborhoods with high unemployment to places with jobs. The governor said the project, which had won $900 million in federal funding, was not cost-effective.
Still, there was hope on the horizon.
In a reaction to the unrest, city residents had voted to create a dedicated fund for youths — roughly $12 million a year — for grass roots organizations and start-ups that struggle to get traditional funding. Alston-Buck was on the task force to establish the program.
But Kids Safe Zone closed in January 2018, before the funding process began. She left West Baltimore to work in drug treatment elsewhere in the city.
“You do as much as you can do until you are exhausted,” she said. “You can’t help them all. You would need all the access to all the resources, and nobody has that.”
When she returned to the neighborhood recently, a young boy came running, hollering Alston-Buck’s name and flinging himself into her arms. He’d missed school that day, he explained. There was a field trip, and he couldn’t go.
“His mother probably didn’t have the money,” she said after he ran back to the playground. “If I was still here, I could have given him the five bucks.”
A subversive mission
Nneka N’namdi’s anti-blight organization runs largely on what she called “Freddie Gray blood money.”
Her mission is subversive: undermining one of the biggest government programs launched after the 2015 unrest.
Images of Baltimore’s blocks of abandoned homes helped cement its national reputation as a city in deep trouble. Hogan, a suburban real estate developer before becoming governor, made demolishing blight his highest-profile promise.
“Fixing what’s broken in Baltimore starts with the sea of abandoned, dilapidated buildings that infect entire neighborhoods,” he said when he announced the project in the Sandtown neighborhood, Rawlings-Blake at his side. Ramping up the city’s existing demolition program, city officials said, would create “a new canvas for Baltimore.”
So far, the governor’s $75 million Project C.O.R.E. has removed more than 2,600 vacant units, but the overall inventory of about 17,000 empty buildings has not budged. Troubled properties deteriorate into unsalvageable ones as fast as the government can tear down buildings already on the list.
N’namdi approaches the city’s blight in reverse: focus more on salvaging homes, in hopes of preventing the neglect that leads to a new crop of vacants. She and some others have come to see the state-backed demolition effort as little more than an invitation to gentrification, ultimately displacing people Hogan was purporting to help.
“I didn’t expect the state of Maryland to come and help poor brown and black folks in Baltimore, because that’s not been the history of the state,” N’namdi said. “I would be foolish if I was sitting around waiting for that.”
A systems engineer by training, she created a nonprofit, Fight Blight Bmore, that is developing an app for residents to create their own inventory of blight and disrepair — not just crumbling buildings, but also the ratio of liquor stores to grocery stores, and the concentration of untended eyesores on each block.
N’namdi sees the decline of her Harlem Park neighborhood as the result of neglect and discriminatory housing polices that first segregated black families, then sucked away the equity in their homes.
As far as she’s concerned, the government should right that wrong first.
She envisions a data trove the community can use to push back against the government’s control over what gets torn down and who ultimately gets to redevelop it.
“Demolition should be the last option,” N’namdi said. “There are properties out here that could be saved if they were more expeditiously put in the hands of the people in the community who want to do this work.”
This summer, she deployed a team of young people with iPads to use her app and help work out the bugs.
She’s paying them with one of the inaugural grants from the voter-created Baltimore Children and Youth Fund — the same fund Kids Safe Zone had hoped to tap into.
“I can look at it like it’s blood money. And it is,” N’namdi said. “It needs to be used to a higher purpose.”
More than anything, the protests over Gray’s death sparked promises of a new era of policing in Baltimore.
The first thing to arrive was an eye-popping murder rate.
The city is on pace for its fifth consecutive year of more than 300 homicides — a per capita rate roughly 10 times higher than the national average for cities. The violence has disproportionately killed young black men, but it has also taken senior citizens and children. Two toddlers were shot in May. A 7-year-old girl was killed last summer, and her 4-year-old sister was injured in a separate shooting four months later.
One criminologist says that in some East and West Baltimore neighborhoods, gun violence will kill one in 10 black men, most before age 35. The escalating violence quickly shifted focus away from efforts to address systemic poverty.
“The conversation de rigueur is on policing,” said Stefanie A. DeLuca, a Johns Hopkins sociologist who has studied Baltimore and youths in poverty for 17 years. “It misses the key point, that most of the young people in our city are not criminals. That is lost over and over again.”
The forces behind the death toll are complex and hotly debated. Most experts cite factors that include emboldened drug gangs, unstable leadership, misguided policing strategies and overworked police wary of zealous prosecution.
After the six officers involved in Gray’s arrest and detention were criminally charged in his death, police across the city pulled back on proactive enforcement. The officers were acquitted, but the police department has not found its footing: An elite gun squad was implicated in a far-reaching gang conspiracy, and the department has been led by five commissioners in as many years.
Former Baltimore police commissioner Kevin Davis said changing crime trends and remaking police culture is slow and laborious, like turning a cruise liner. “People too often think it’s a Jet Ski,” he said.
At the same time, City Hall has endured its own turmoil, with Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) resigning under pressure this spring amid a federal corruption investigation and a self-dealing scandal involving lucrative sales of her self-published children’s book.
In 2016, the U.S. Justice Department released a scathing report that validated what black people in Baltimore had said for decades: Unconstitutional policing and excessive force were commonplace.
The civil rights investigation led to federal oversight of the police department and a court-monitored consent decree designed to avoid future civil rights violations. In its most recent report, released last week, monitors said the department still struggles to investigate community complaints against officers.
The city’s new police recruitment slogan seems to acknowledge its nadir: “Be a part of the greatest comeback story in America.”
In early June, frustrated by the unyielding bloodshed, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) suggested teens resolve their beefs the old-fashioned way: “Put a boxing ring up, let them go and box it out.”
Maryland Hall of Fame boxer Marvin McDowell has been doing for that 20 years.
Above a West Baltimore pawnshop, his gym and tutoring program is a refuge for anyone willing to make themselves vulnerable enough to take a punch. He has welcomed generations of youths, including a teenage Freddie Gray, who filled out an application but never came back.
McDowell’s boxers often grow up in homes with traumas: addiction and mental illness, abuse, incarcerated fathers or absentee mothers, hunger, poverty.
“You’ve just got so much going on in these communities,” McDowell said. “These kids, they wake up mad, they go to sleep mad. They don’t know why they’re mad, but they’re mad. People like me have to put them in a situation where they can trust, where they can believe.”
In 2017, the year Baltimore’s murder rate hit a per capita record, two of McDowell’s promising boxers were killed within two weeks of each other. This May, his niece, 42, was killed as well.
After each loss, McDowell did what he teaches his boxers to do to survive: Treat the violence like an opponent. Absorb its jab and keep moving.
“To be a boxer, a lot of times you have to cut your emotions off,” McDowell said. “Here I’m facing someone trying to inflict his will on me. I’m trying inflict my will on him . . . I can’t think about how they feel when I’m doing what I’m doing. I’ve got to get the job done. It’s either me or him. And a lot of times, I ain’t going to let it be me.”
He never believed the unrest in Baltimore would lead to lasting change. Hope changes people, he said, and that comes from the inside out.
“There have been a lot of fake promises,” McDowell said. “I don’t have much more than anybody else, but I love my people. . . . If everybody had the same attitude that I had, of hope, then that would be a change.”