Baltimore integration success story

Urban Chronicle

Population: The Glen neighborhood stands out for having maintained a stable racial mix.

May 13, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

WHEN IRIS Smith moved into the Glen section of Northwest Baltimore, one of her neighbors was Jose Brito.

That was 29 years ago. Today, Smith, an African-American medical social worker who grew up in Atlantic City, and Brito, a Jewish engineer who came to Baltimore from Brazil, are still in their houses a few blocks north of Pimlico Race Course.

Smith, who heads the Glen Neighborhood Improvement Association, likes being able to take the subway to her job downtown and return to her shaded street. "I call this country in the city," she said.

Brito, who has a Hebrew sign on his front door that translates into "Welcome All," likes the proximity of his house to the synagogues on Park Heights Avenue. "What color my neighbor is doesn't motivate me to move or stay," he said.

Such sentiments are one reason Glen began and ended the last decade as one of the city's few substantially integrated neighborhoods.

Monday's 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision has provided an opportunity to examine race -- not just in schools, but in society at large.

A recent Urban Institute report, for example, examined changes during the 1990s in the black-white makeup of neighborhoods in the country's large metropolitan areas. Its conclusion: "Achieving and sustaining widespread racial integration remains an unmet challenge."

The report, by urban scholars Lynette Rawlings, Laura Harris and Margery Austin Turner, noted that three out of five whites live in neighborhoods that are 95 percent or more white, and that mostly black neighborhoods were considerably more likely to gain blacks than whites.

Still, the report, "Race and Residence: Prospects for Stable Neighborhood Integration," said there are "grounds for cautious optimism."

"Many racially integrated neighborhoods appear reasonably stable," according to the report. "The evidence that once a neighborhood becomes racially mixed it will inevitably `tip,' becoming more and more predominantly black, is not supported by the evidence of the 1990s."

In Glen, a sprawling neighborhood that straddles Park Heights Avenue from Northern Parkway to Clarks Lane, 52 percent of the 8,662 residents are black and 44 percent are white, according to Census 2000 data gathered by the city's planning department. Those figures are only slightly changed from the 1990s, when the black-white racial split was roughly 50-50.

A few other city neighborhoods had similar racial compositions, but their makeups were more the result of broad changes in the last decade than stable integration. In Carrollton Ridge in Southwest, for example, blacks made up 49 percent of the neighborhood and whites 45 percent, but that's because the white population dropped by more than half in the 1990s while the black population tripled.

Citywide, nearly two-thirds of residents are black, up from 59 percent in 1990.

But the degree of integration in Glen may be more complex than the numbers suggest.

Arthur Weissman is one who believes integration is more noticeable on paper than in reality.

Weissman, who is white and Jewish, said that Glen is attractive to Orthodox Jews because of the number of shuls and the sense of community that comes from their growing numbers and the presence of Jewish institutions. Blacks, he said, like the area because of low crime rates. But he said the two groups have little contact.

"There are blocks that are all black and blocks that are white," said Weissman, who is vice president of the community association. "There's a certain amount of tolerance that goes on between the groups, but in terms of integration, there's not that much going on."

Indeed, a draft plan for Glen and four other upper Northwest communities acknowledges the need to improve "cross-cultural relations," and includes suggestions such as promoting exchanges between students at area Jewish schools and the nearly all-black public schools.

"As people interact," Iris Smith predicted, "you're going to see a lot of changes."

She disappears for a moment and returns with a framed photograph clearly meant to symbolize the possibilities. It is a wedding picture of her elder son, Jason, and his wife, Karen, whom he met at York College and who happens to be white.

"People meet, they have shared values, they marry," she said. "Peel back your skin, you have the same blood, the same heart."

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