As Baltimore builds itself up, the poor sink lower down

September 02, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

LUNCHTIME two days ago at the Lexington Market, the crowd's a little sparse. A veteran security guard named Anthony Dungee, 56, a professional observer of human behavior patterns, sums it up easily: end of the month, and the beginning of school. Money's too tight to blow it on lunch. In the city of Baltimore, the observation's not exactly a bulletin, but the market's a human picture of the latest dismal arithmetic.

The morning paper says nearly one in every four city residents lives in poverty. The government calls it the sixth-highest rate in the nation. The median household income in Baltimore is $34,000. That's about two-thirds of Baltimore County's, about half of Anne Arundel County's, about 40 percent of Howard County's. The city's population is 65 percent African-American. The racial figures and the poverty are not disconnected.

But, half a century into a heightened national sensitivity to racial disparities, questions linger: Why do such wide white-black economic differences continue? And, in a city where so many middle-class people are moving in, and buying so many expensive homes, what does it tell us when overall poverty figures remain so high?

"Just look at the faces," Dungee says, glancing around Lexington Market. A lot of them are black, as is Dungee. He's trying to put some historical context into this.

"This is one of those times of the year," he says, "when you can see the anxiety. It's like Christmas and Easter. First week of school, they worry about buying school clothes for their kids. It's like putting presents under the tree. They want to provide, they don't want their kids to feel left out.

"But who's got money? When I was coming up, I put together a couple of those big fish boxes to make a wagon. Went over to the junkyard and got some wheels off a baby buggy somebody threw out. Took that wagon over to the food market on Gay Street, and helped the old ladies carry their groceries home. Might make 50 cents from a good customer. Learned some work habits, too.

"Today, parents don't feel the streets are safe enough to let their kids do that, and the old women don't trust the kids anyway. It's a different type of world. When I came out of high school, you knew there were jobs at Sparrows Point, at Maryland Drydock. They paid good money. Everybody knew it. Now the factory jobs are gone and you got this tourist economy, and the kids come out of high school looking at all these service jobs that don't pay any money. And that's where everything comes undone."

Yet, in many ways, these are giddy times in the city. Most new housing costs $200,000 or more. Middle-class people - some of them young, who grew up in suburbia but discovered the delights of the city's nightlife, and some of them empty-nesters wanting a return to a more energetic, cosmopolitan atmosphere - are driving the housing resurgence, along with denizens of the D.C. suburbs fleeing impossible prices down there.

In Baltimore's waterfront neighborhoods, the sound of rehabbing fills the air. Downtown construction - including residential units - is booming. With so much money coming in, it points out ever more starkly the dismal overall poverty figures. It says poor people are losing ground.

It also points out the changes, in the last several decades, in the exodus to suburbia. Middle-class blacks joined fleeing whites, leaving behind an economic underclass that now wonders: With city housing prices rising so sharply, where will poor people find a place to live?

At Lexington Market, Felicia Woodland, 57, and Lonnie Woodland, 53, sister and brother, finish lunch outside the Mary Mervis sandwich counter. They grew up in an East Baltimore in transition, where black newcomers were still mixing with the last remaining white families.

"We learned from each other," Felicia Woodland says. "Around Broadway and Biddle and Preston. Everybody came out and scrubbed their front steps on Saturday mornings. Used to be, you didn't misbehave on the street because everybody was like your mother. Now, you say, `Little boy, don't break that window.' Next thing you know, he's brought his mother over, and she's telling you, `Don't be talking to my child like that.'"

"Children raising children," says Lonnie Woodland. "I'm in the supermarket the other day, and a young lady's carrying a baby. The baby was a few days old. I said, `My, you sure got your figure back in a hurry.' She said, `This isn't my child, it's my grandchild.'

"I said, `How old are you?' She said, 31. I said, `Thirty-one?' She said, yeah, her daughter was 13 when she had her baby. She said, `The last thing I wanted my daughter to do was make the same mistake I did.'"

The new government reports tell the continuing mathematical story of poverty. But such stories illustrate the ongoing human distress behind the numbers.

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