A pattern of housing segregation stretching back to the 1800s has left Baltimore's white residents more likely than the city's blacks to live cheek-by-jowl with stockpiles of dangerous chemicals, according to the preliminary results of a new study.
The finding up-ends the conventional wisdom, which holds that industries which can cause hazardous pollution are more likely to be located in poor, minority neighborhoods than in white, working-class or well-to-do ones.
In Baltimore, the reverse appears to be true, says Ohio University geographer Christopher G. Boone.
Although the majority of the city's population is black, about 22 percent of Baltimore's black residents live in an area where large amounts of hazardous chemicals are used, stored or released into the air or water, Boone says. By contrast, 34 percent of whites live close to a hazardous chemical site.
"My jaw dropped" when he first saw his study's results, Boone says. "It was completely contrary to everything I've ever seen before."
Consider it a legacy of Baltimore's long history of segregation, official and unofficial, says Boone, and local historians agree.
"Baltimore probably is different in this regard, and it's not because Baltimore has been so nice to blacks," says Neil Hertz, a Johns Hopkins University humanities professor who teaches a course about the city. "In fact, just the opposite."
A century ago the city's waterfront canneries, steel mills and lumberyards hired mostly white workers, often importing them from Europe and providing them with homes close to their jobs.
And in 1910, at the urging of Councilman Samuel L. West, Baltimore became one of the first cities in the country to pass an ordinance that forced blacks to live in segregated neighborhoods - known at the time as "colored blocks," located in West and East Baltimore, away from the bustling waterfront and its jobs.
By 1917 these ghettos were so crowded and neglected that the city's health commissioner estimated that black residents were dying at the rate of 28 to 30 per 1,000, compared to a death rate of 16 or 17 per 1,000 for whites.
"The high death rate from communicable diseases jeopardizes not only the lives of the colored people, but also the lives of the white people with whom they are brought into close daily contact," bemoaned Mayor James Harry Preston, according to reports in The Sun in 1917.
That same year, the Supreme Court ruled that ordinances like Baltimore's were illegal. But until the early 1960s, restrictive covenants banned the sale of homes to blacks in many neighborhoods.
During and after World War II, the waterfront became the hub of a vast chemical complex - oil refineries and tank farms, plastics plants, pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers. Descendants of the original residents now find themselves sharing their neighborhoods with those factories.
"If you look at Southeast Baltimore and Locust Point, you'll see that they remained white for a long time because the jobs stayed here for a long time. People got hired by an informal network, so whites got most of the jobs," said Charles Duff, a historian and urban planner. "People wanted to be as close to the factory as possible."
Today few people want to live near a chemical plant. And since 1987, when the United Church of Christ published a study showing such plants tended to cluster in poor, minority neighborhoods, grass-roots groups have campaigned against the "environmental racism" they suspect lies behind such clusters.
Boone undertook his research as part of a scientific study of Baltimore's environment. Since 1980, environmental scientists have been studying the inner workings of the natural world in 18 locations across the country. From the Arctic tundra to the alpine meadows of the Colorado Rockies, most of these environmental research sites were chosen to be as far from human influence as possible.
In 1997 two urban sites were added - Baltimore and Phoenix. Scientists hope to find how people's lives are shaped by the landscape in which they live, and how they in turn shape the landscape over a span of centuries.
Led by the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Milbank, N.Y., scientists are combining techniques of environmental science with history and sociology. Concentrating on the Gwynns Falls area, they are poring over Colonial-era land grants to figure out how the earliest settlements have shaped modern development and interviewing inner-city teens about their perceptions of their neighborhood's worst environmental problems.
To carry out his study of "environmental equity" in Baltimore, Boone matched up an Environmental Protection Agency database of voluntary reports filed by companies that use, store or emit certain hazardous chemicals with census data showing the ethnic make-up of city neighborhoods.