The best books to understand why Baltimore's problems are so hard to fix

Mary Rizzo Author Of Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and the Wire
By Mary Rizzo

Who am I?

As a cultural historian of 20th century America, I’m fascinated by how culture is used to rebel against the status quo and how the status quo fights back. In my first book, Class Acts: Young Men and the Rise of Lifestyle, I looked at greasers, hippies, and white hip hop lovers to understand how they used style and fashion to push back against being white and middle class. In Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire, I went beyond looking at how individuals shape their identity to thinking about how artists and city leaders shape the identity of a place. Can artists counter the efforts of cities to create sanitized images of themselves?


I wrote...

Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and the Wire

By Mary Rizzo,

Book cover of Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and the Wire

What is my book about?

Is Baltimore Charm City or Bodymore? Is it the pastel-colored dream of the musical Hairspray or the grim tragedy of The Wire? Unlike other cities of its size, Baltimore has been the setting for an astonishing number of cultural texts, from John Waters movies to Anne Tyler novels. As a cultural historian, I wondered how these images shaped and reflected Baltimore’s history from the 1950s to today. What I found was that politics and culture are intertwined more than most of us realize. Policymakers and cultural creators battled over defining the meaning of Baltimore. But this isn’t only a story about culture, it’s also about race.

Charm City and Bodymore are not only slogans but also reflect the hyper segregation of the city. As I show, the representations of Charm City define it through white working-class eccentricity, while Bodymore is depicted as a dangerous place where people of color reside, with material effects on the real neighborhoods that can be connected to each idea.

The books I picked & why

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Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City

By Antero Pietila,

Book cover of Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City

Why this book?

A former journalist, Antero Pietila delves into the history of Baltimore’s battles over housing and race since the 1880s. He shows how racism and antisemitism shaped who could live where in Baltimore, eventually consigning working-class Black people to disintegrating neighborhoods in the inner city. Where this book is especially good is on the history of blockbusting in the 1950s and 1960s.

Pietila introduces us to the real estate agents who preyed on Black people desperate to move out of slums and shows us how they panicked white people into selling their houses cheaply to get out before Black people moved in. Pietila draws connections between this history and the more recent example of speculators who lured Baltimore residents into subprime mortgages. Baltimore successfully sued Wells Fargo for discriminatory lending in 2012.

Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City

By Antero Pietila,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Not in My Neighborhood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Baltimore is the setting for (and typifies) one of the most penetrating examinations of bigotry and residential segregation ever published in the United States. Antero Pietila shows how continued discrimination practices toward African Americans and Jews have shaped the cities in which we now live. Eugenics, racial thinking, and white supremacist attitudes influenced even the federal government's actions toward housing in the 20th century, dooming American cities to ghettoization. This all-American tale is told through the prism of Baltimore, from its early suburbanization in the 1880s to the consequences of "white flight" after World War II, and into the first…


The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America

By D. Watkins,

Book cover of The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America

Why this book?

In the space of two years, D. Watkins published two stunning books about Baltimore. The second, The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, is sharp and smart, but if I had to only choose one, it would be The Beast Side. In this slim volume of essays, Watkins invites us to explore the two worlds he lives within and between. He grew up on the tough east side, known locally as the beast side, and sold drugs, but also went to college and now teaches creative writing.

While there are many books by Black authors that use stories of poverty and despair to titillate or move white audiences to pity, Watkins does none of that. He speaks first to Black audiences, especially those who maybe don’t love to read, because literacy, he says, is a step towards liberation. The Beast Side may be the best way to see Baltimore through the eyes of someone who has lived it. My favorite essay is “Too Poor For Popular Culture.”

The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America

By D. Watkins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Beast Side as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Best Seller! Baltimore, one of our country's quintessential urban war zones, is brought powerfully to life by literary talent, D. Watkins

To many, the past 8 years under President Obama were meant to usher in a new post-racial American political era, dissolving the divisions of the past. However, when seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot by a wannabe cop in Florida; and then Ferguson, Missouri, happened; and then South Carolina hit the headlines; and then Baltimore blew up, it was hard to find any evidence of a new post-racial order.

Suddenly the entire country seemed to be…


I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America's Most Corrupt Police Squad

By Baynard Woods, Brandon Soderberg,

Book cover of I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America's Most Corrupt Police Squad

Why this book?

In The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Streets, David Simon, also an author of nonfiction books about Baltimore, depicted Baltimore cops as Sisyphean figures trying to fight an endless wave of crime and failing. Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg tell a much less positive story about the police. They examine an elite unit called the Gun Trace Task Force which became, under its leader Wayne Jenkins, a criminal syndicate. Using their badges as weapons, these police officers robbed drug dealers of tens of thousands of dollars, planted weapons and evidence, and terrorized Black Baltimore residents.

As media pundits were wringing their hands about whether Baltimore’s people had gone out of control when they rioted after Freddie Gray’s death, we learn that these cops were literally robbing prescription drugs to sell them on the street. Even if you’re suspicious about the role of police in inner-city communities, this book will still shock you by revealing how contemptuous Baltimore police officers were of the people they were supposed to serve and the oath they had sworn to uphold justice.

I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America's Most Corrupt Police Squad

By Baynard Woods, Brandon Soderberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I Got a Monster as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The explosive true story of America's most corrupt police unit, the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), which terrorized the city of Baltimore for half a decade.

When Baltimore police sergeant Wayne Jenkins said he had a monster, he meant he had found a big-time drug dealer―one that he wanted to rob. This is the story of Jenkins and the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), a super group of dirty detectives who exploited some of America’s greatest problems: guns, drugs, toxic masculinity, and hypersegregation.

In the upside-down world of the GTTF, cops were robbers and drug dealers were the perfect victims,…


Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City

By P. Nicole King (editor), Kate Drabinski (editor), Joshua Clark Davis (editor)

Book cover of Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City

Why this book?

The history that matters most to me is the history that can help explain the world we live in now. The editors of Baltimore Revisited, a collection of brilliant essays about the city, takes that to heart. Fascinating chapters trace the War on Drugs back to the 1910s, when the city outlawed cocaine, examine how Johns Hopkins University’s growth has displaced Black residents for decades, and surprise us with the fact that Maryland was home to the longest-running movie censorship board in the country (which only closed shop in 1981). More than curiosities, though, these authors reveal how race, gender, sexuality, and class have affected Baltimore.

Most importantly, the book focuses on how everyday people fought back against discrimination through acts as varied as pickets against segregation to dancing in gay bars. The book is good history, yes, but also a call to action. 

Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City

By P. Nicole King (editor), Kate Drabinski (editor), Joshua Clark Davis (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Baltimore Revisited as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nicknamed both "Mobtown" and "Charm City" and located on the border of the North and South, Baltimore is a city of contradictions. From media depictions in The Wire to the real-life trial of police officers for the murder of Freddie Gray, Baltimore has become a quintessential example of a struggling American city. Yet the truth about Baltimore is far more complicated-and more fascinating.

To help untangle these apparent paradoxes, the editors of Baltimore Revisited have assembled a collection of over thirty experts from inside and outside academia. Together, they reveal that Baltimore has been ground zero for a slew of…


The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America

By Lawrence T. Brown,

Book cover of The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America

Why this book?

When Lawrence Brown looks at the map of Baltimore, he sees two images: a white L and a Black butterfly. When the federal government drew red lines around neighborhoods where mainly Black people lived in the 1930s it created a chain reaction of disinvestment that continues to this day. On either side of the gentrified and tourist-focused downtown and inner harbor, beat the wings of a butterfly, or impoverished Black neighborhoods, including Sandtown-Winchester where Freddie Gray was from, that suffer the impacts of hypersegregation.

Brown, an expert in public health, not only shows how race shaped access to healthcare, money, and quality education, he offers a plan for what Baltimore and other cities like it need to do to right these wrongs in the future. His vision of a Racial Equity Social Impact to fund investment in these neighborhoods is bold—and necessary.

The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America

By Lawrence T. Brown,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Black Butterfly as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The best-selling look at how American cities can promote racial equity, end redlining, and reverse the damaging health- and wealth-related effects of segregation.

The world gasped in April 2015 as Baltimore erupted and Black Lives Matter activists, incensed by Freddie Gray's brutal death in police custody, shut down highways and marched on city streets. In The Black Butterfly-a reference to the fact that Baltimore's majority-Black population spreads out like a butterfly's wings on both sides of the coveted strip of real estate running down the center of the city-Lawrence T. Brown reveals that ongoing historical trauma caused by a combination…


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