BALTIMORE — At the Lexington Market, a gastronomic landmark in the congressional district of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Willie Cox greeted friends and familiar faces the other day as he picked up an order of fried chicken.
The 237-year-old market is a staple of Cox’s life, a place where he revels in the diversity and hustle of his Baltimore, one that he says does not resemble President Trump’s dystopian rendition — a filthy “hell” where “No human being would want to live.”
“That’s not my Baltimore,” said Cox, 75, a retired sanitation worker who has lived in the city his entire life. “They got rats in the White House. Before you talk about Baltimore, go clean up your own damn house.”
Trump disparaged the city while belittling Cummings as an ineffectual leader of the 7th District, which includes impoverished neighborhoods that were the focus of national attention during 2015 rioting that erupted after Freddie Gray suffered fatal injuries in police custody.
Yet the district — 700,000 residents spread across nearly 300 square miles of city and suburbs — also includes tourist attractions such as the Inner Harbor, elegant neighborhoods such as Mount Vernon and institutions such as the world-renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore.
Beyond the city, Cummings (D-Md.) represents portions of Baltimore and Howard counties and communities such as Ellicott City, which began as a 19th-century mill town and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
While nearly 55 percent of Cummings’s constituents are black, more than 35 percent are white, according to census figures. Cummings, who first won his seat in 1996, has typically been reelected with more than 75 percent of the vote.
“Trump’s portrayal of Cummings’s district is a caricature,” said Matthew Crenson, a retired Johns Hopkins University political science professor. “It’s diverse in race and income and geography. And Cummings remains popular among all sectors.”
Lexington Market, at the southern end of the district, is a prominent stage for that diversity. Every day, a rich blend of city residents and suburbanites line up for crab cakes and oysters at Faidley’s Seafood, in business since 1886.
“We get all kinds of people — the president of the bank and the guy operating the street cleaner,” said the owner, Nancy Faidley Devine, 83, wearing a crab necklace as she greeted patrons. “They stand communally at our tables and talk — black, white — all kinds of people. It’s beautiful what happens here.”
A Republican, Devine and her husband, Bill, live in Howard County and are among Cummings’s constituents. She declined to assess the details of Trump’s portrait of her district or her congressman, except to say that trash remains an enduring problem and that there are some “lovely neighborhoods” that “need to be reconditioned.”
A year ago, Devine recalled, a rat got loose in the market and found its way into a bakery display case, a moment captured in a patron’s cellphone video that went viral on social media, causing a spasm of negative headlines.
Bill Devine, 88, said he hoped that Trump’s criticism would spur change: “Maybe the damn citizens will get a broom and clean up the ’hood.”
A couple of miles away, near the epicenter of the 2015 unrest, Daisy Bush sat outside her convenience store, a broom in her hand.
“I gotta sweep up out here three times a day,” she said, as clusters of men and women congregated nearby, some openly selling drugs. “It’s always dirty up in here. They dump trash everywhere — black, white, every race. It’s disgusting.”
Referring to Trump, she said, “He’s telling the truth.”
Her husband, Durwood, who was behind the counter, nodded.
“I wasn’t offended about what he said about the trash,” he said. “But I was offended by what he said about Elijah.”
“He’s a good man, Elijah,” Daisy Bush said, after moving inside to make a patron a slushy. “A good Christian man. Trump shouldn’t have talked bad about Elijah.”
Cummings, 68, is a pillar of Baltimore, where he grew up after his parents, South Carolina sharecroppers, migrated to the city. A graduate of the University of Maryland’s law school, he served in the Maryland House of Delegates before winning the congressional seat vacated by Kweisi Mfume when Mfume became president of the NAACP.
He is now in his 12th term in Congress, and chairs the House Oversight Reform Committee, a perch from which he frequently interrogates the Trump administration.
The congressman has described himself as a resident of the “inner inner city.” He spoke at Gray’s funeral and, after rioting began, used a bullhorn at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues to implore crowds to abide by a curfew and return home.
“I’d die for my people,” he told reporters at the time.
The shells of vacant homes dominate a block two streets over from where Cummings lives. But his street is well-kept, lined with elegant rowhouses from the early 20th century, one of which was bought this year by Troy and Cindy Wallace, a white couple from Howard County, who paid $350,000.
Sitting on their stoop this week, they said they were initially drawn to the area after the rioting, volunteering with local organizations because they wanted to help people in need. “A year and a half into it, we decided that for us to be a part of it, we had to be here,” said Cindy Wallace, 59, who volunteers at the Eutaw Marshburn Elementary School. “So we started house hunting.”
Her husband, a construction manager for Veterans Affairs, described their street as “nice,” though surrounded by “crazy” — drug dealing, addiction and prostitution, the evidence of which they sometimes find in their backyard.
“There are parts of this neighborhood that break my heart, and I can’t imagine living there,” Cindy Wallace said. “But I love my neighbors.”
Across the street, Darrine Timpson, 22, who is African American and has lived on the block his entire life, said the area’s challenges are common to struggling neighborhoods in many cities.
A few years ago, he said, the street was besieged by a “rodent problem,” after which the city distributed new trash cans. Other concerns persisted, including people using the corner playground to smoke crack, shoot heroin and have sex. Timpson’s answer was to take a saw and dismantle the wooden play equipment, hoping to eliminate some of the places to hide. He said he completed his work a few days ago.
“We call it ‘High Park,’ and you can see people are still using it,” he said, pointing to small crack vials on the ground. “Nothing is really going to change around here. The block isn’t going to change. The neighborhoods won’t change.”
He said he plans on moving away as soon as he can, maybe to Denver, where he hopes to get involved in the “cannabis cultivation industry.”
“I don’t want to die here,” he said.
Jerry Cothran, a retired policy analyst, has no plans to leave. More than a decade ago, he and his wife paid $275,000 for a one-bedroom apartment in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, a block from Baltimore’s version of the Washington Monument and around the corner from the Walters Art Museum.
At the time, they were living in Alexandria but spent weekends and vacations at their place in Baltimore. A few years ago, they moved to the city full time.
Cothran said he was astonished to learn recently that his congressman’s district also covers the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where Gray lived. Cothran said he learned from his brother that news reports were showing disturbing video of vacant housing and blight in the area.
“I had heard people talk about the rats and the trash, but, my God, I didn’t know it was that bad. I’ve never been through there,” he said.
His corner of Cummings’s district, he said, “is fine, except for the occasional litter.”
“I feel safe here. I like it, and they keep it beautiful,” he said while walking Jacko, his wire-haired dachshund.
Jacqueline Ross, 56, decided four years ago to move from East Baltimore to Baltimore County, to a townhouse complex in the 7th District known as the Pleasantview Apartments. The development is among thousands of units that the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, owns in the Baltimore area.
Standing in her doorway, Ross said she prefers the quiet of the suburbs to the chaos of the city. But she said she wished Cummings had fought back more aggressively after Trump disparaged the city in which she lived for most of her life.
The president’s words are “insulting to everyone,” she said. “Different parts of Baltimore need work, but so do a lot of things. You just keep working at it.”