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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Antero Pietila

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.


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The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America

By D. Watkins

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.”


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

By Baynard Woods, Brandon Soderberg

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.


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

By P. Nicole King, Kate Drabinski, Joshua Clark Davis

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. 


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

By Lawrence T. Brown

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.


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