On the corner of Etting and Traction streets, three blocks from where Baltimore erupted in violence and looting, Barbara Young peered out of her tidy, immaculately maintained house.
It was Tuesday afternoon, and people walked up her street, heading back toward the corner where a CVS pharmacy had been torched hours before and turned into a symbol of the city’s unrest.
“I was scared to death, and today I am, too,” she said. She’d been awake until 3 a.m. and was up a couple hours later. “We felt trapped here.”
Young is 71 years old and has lived on Etting for 25 years. But she’s giving up hope on her little slice of the American dream, and the decisions she and her husband are making say a lot about whether neighborhoods such as hers can ever again thrive – and whether the cities around them ever will as well.
The problems that led to Baltimore’s worst riots in decades are both complex and decades in the making. The expressions of rage triggered by the death of a local man in police custody were about that death as well as other deeply entrenched problems that stem, in part, from a central city that’s hollowed out and taken jobs and hopes with it.
“When people are voiceless, they make their voices known,” said the Rev. Carole Douglas, a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, who spent her day Tuesday helping to clean up the epicenter of the riots around W. North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue.
That day, the persistent worries on the street were that Baltimore would erupt again Tuesday night, when police said they would start to enforce a 10 p.m. curfew; while there were some arrests, the city was comparatively calm.
And there were deeper concerns that violence would emerge again Friday, when an investigative report on the death of Freddie Gray was expected to be released. That report did come out Friday morning, labeling Gray’s death a homicide; six police officers were charged.
But even though Gray has been put to rest and the police officers charged in his death, it will do little to change the everyday concerns of the people on Etting and other Penn North neighborhood streets. While the residents are worried and angry about what they see as persistent clashes with the police and their disproportionate impact on young African-American men, they’re also concerned about the lack of nearby jobs, the abandoned houses and what they worry is a bleak future for the whole community.
That CVS store? When it came, it was a sign of hope in the neighborhood, which hasn’t seen the same kind of recovery as other parts of the city.
Its torching had an immediate impact on Cliff Ward, a 17-year-old senior at Coppin Academy High School who worked at the store – and was headed in for a shift Monday when he was turned around and sent home as protests heated up outside.
And it had an immediate impact on Jean Henry, an Etting Street resident who said she’d suffered two strokes in the last year and had her prescriptions filled at CVS. The bottle for her blood pressure medication had run empty by Wednesday.
“What are we going to do?” she asked.
Maryland state Sen. Catherine Pugh, who represents the area around Penn North – and who grabbed a bullhorn and urged people to go home when the curfew went into effect – said she knew the frustration among her constituents. And she knows why it’s difficult to hold on to residents or entice them to come in the first place.
“Can you imagine if you bought a house in those neighborhoods and you paid for it and then something like that happened?” she said. “This is what folks living in those neighborhoods continue to see, day after day after day. And if this doesn’t make you feel good about the neighborhood, it certainly doesn’t make you feel good about what your life is going to be like, because this is where you live, so this is what you see every day.”
Baltimore, she noted, was a city built for 1 million people. Today, it has about 620,000.
Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington, said the problems in cities such as Baltimore had been evident for decades, fueled by a familiar list of post-World War II trends: suburbanization, the loss of manufacturing jobs, the growth of the Sun Belt and the corresponding decline in Northern cities.
A 2012 study he did for the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program found that the number of vacant housing units in the U.S. grew by 4.5 million – 44 percent – from 2000 to 2010.
Of about 300,000 housing units in Baltimore, 16 percent are vacant, his analysis showed. Detroit, the poster child for hollowed-out cites, was 23 percent vacant. Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, St. Louis and Pittsburgh were also in the teens.
There are pockets of cities that do recover, and Baltimore, in fact, has shown some evidence of modest economic rebound in parts of town. But in other areas, it’s hard to turn the corner.
“You drive down a street and see boarded-up houses, you don’t buy there,” Mallach said.
While it’s sad to see, he said, people often buy into a neighborhood and wait in vain for a turnaround. Eventually, they give up.
“They’ll say, ‘It’s enough. We made a commitment to this neighborhood – but it’s enough,’ ” he said. “People have to want to live in a neighborhood for it to remain healthy and vital. In a neighborhood where people don’t want to live, you’ll only get the people who can’t afford to live anywhere else, and if any of them start to make enough to live elsewhere, they move out.”
On Etting Street, Young – the homeowner who moved in 25 years ago – can look up her street and see pristine brick townhomes with tiny but manicured lawns, adorned with flowerbeds. Then she can look down and see a long stretch of plain but still-occupied row houses. Out her back window, however, is a view of boarded-up houses just half a block away.
Along a single block, in fact, there are 25 row houses; 12 of them have boards on their windows, padlocks on the exteriors of the doors or eviction notices – all indications of abandoned or long-vacant properties.
When Young and her family – she’s married and has three sons – moved into her house, it was part of a new development. More were supposed to follow, and the neighborhood was supposed to turn around.
For the most part, that didn’t happen. One development that did come – the CVS she used regularly, although her prescriptions came from another pharmacy – is now burned and boarded up.
In the meantime, she said, she’s seen two men dying on her street corner, one about two years ago, the other 15.
Those images have stuck with her: “I look out my window a lot of the time and I see them lying in the street,” she said.
The riots this week solidified a decision that had been brewing for a long time. That choice is a big one – not only for her, but for the street as well. Nearly all the owners on her block are original owners, and they’ve long maintained a sense of community.
“The next thing is to sell and move,” she said. “This is enough. I’m too old for this.”
“It’s a dream to own your own home,” she added, “and we’ve done that. Now it’s time to move on.”