Salon Publishes Essay “Against the New Baltimore”

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D. Watkins
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Writer (and speaker and educator) D. Watkins has written so much, and so movingly, about life in Baltimore that he has become, in his words, “the go-to guy on issues concerning the Negro culture of our city.” In his new essay at Salon, “Black History Bulldozed for Another Starbucks: Against the New Baltimore,” Watkins wonders aloud whether he even still loves Baltimore, which, despite his frequent meetings with “politicians, investors,” and other local mucky-mucks, has changed into something “alien.”

“Baltimore is Brooklyn and D.C. now,” he writes. “No, Baltimore is Chicago or New Orleans or any place where yuppie interests make black neighborhoods shrink like washed sweaters. A place where black history is bulldozed and replaced with Starbucks, Chipotles and Dog Parks [sic].”

The essay stays very personal throughout. It’s not so much an investigation into the mechanisms of “gentri-f***in-cation” as it is an elegy for the author’s personal history. And that’s shaded some of the reaction to the piece.

The blog “Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space” devoted a post to explaining “that a Starbucks location is a follower of success not the creator of success,” so Starbucks itself is not causing “black history” to be “bulldozed.” (It’s an interesting piece in its own right.)

One Salon commenter informed Watkins that there are “[p]lenty of bad neighborhoods still left in Baltimore if you want to get a nostalgic bullet wound.”

Still, some are sympathetic, even in unlikely places. When one user mockingly posted a link to the article at an online forum for “Maryland’s premier shooting community,” another rose to Watkins’s defense, comparing to the way he feels about the changes in Southern Maryland:

“I watched it grow from 1-2 stores to strip malls and more damn Mexican restaurants than any bathroom should be able to handle. I liked ‘the way it was,’ and I suspect many of us here on the forum do as well. Just because your, or my ‘way’ is different doesn’t make the longing for that ‘old way’ any less powerful.”

I’m not sure if that’s where Watkins expected to find a sympathetic viewpoint, but there it is.

Read the essay here.

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  1. Kind of funny that his photo features him sitting on the roof of what looks like a modern building overlooking the Inner Harbor.
    Could he not find the steps of a crack house in the hood to sit on or would he have soiled his shoes and pants?

  2. The title of the Salon article was very misleading. Regardless of where you grew up in Baltimore, and I’ve been here way longer than Mr. D. Watkins, nothing is the same as it was 20 years ago. Things change. That’s the one thing that never changes.

  3. There needs to be consideration for those who have lived here for years and for their thoughts on changes to their communities. When I heard about Kevin Plank developing Port Covington, I was excited since so much beautiful space on the water was being wasted. Then, he commented that he wanted to make the entrance to Baltimore more beautiful, and I immediately wondered where he saw Walmart in his development picture. Plenty of folks in the South Baltimore area depend on that Walmart. Does it match his picture of beauty, though? They may not be in the middle to upper income levels. Will the gentrification of Port Covington include their needs? Maybe that would have made Mr. Watkins feel better about the changes to his old neighborhoods – inclusion.

  4. An admittedly new (3 years) resident of Baltimore, I realize I have a drastically different perspective from Watkins. I’m a Caucasian, middle class, older millennial who lives, plays, worships, and volunteers in the city. I love Baltimore. The piece made me feel unsettled, and I think I’ve pinpointed why– it felt personal. I read “You don’t belong here–go back to your tiny Midwestern town.” But every day I feel like I’m in the exact place I should be. I don’t want to go. And I won’t.

    It hit me that Watkins just seems like a NIMBY in a surprising exterior. As a newspaper reporter in a small town, I used to see a parade of people fighting change—no matter how good it was—because it was change. “Not in my backyard,” is the best way to surmise their often emotional battle cry. I really began to resent their charged tirades. Rails to Trails? It will bring crime! A Kohl’s store? What about the little guy?! That housing development? It will crowd my school! I fully understand the need for community investment and sustainable growth, and not all change is good, but there is generally something in the middle. Watkins is a NIMBY with a different nostalgia, and just because it’s a nostalgia echoing a great city’s darkest allies and producing beautiful stories about despair and humanity doesn’t mean it’s any better than the middle aged couple that don’t want kids to have a playground nearby because it “Might give Sherry a migraine.”

  5. I certainly understand Mr. nostalgia for a black culture he feels has been supplanted by urban gentrification, but I think it’s important to note that the ma and pa businesses and working class sense of community that has, to a large degree, disappeared, is not so much color-based as class-based. Most of gentrified Baltimore is unaffordable to whites in the lower economic strata, as well as to the bohemian class which laid the groundwork for such gentrification in the 80s-90s.

  6. This post and the Salon article make me sad. I think Baltimore is more racially/culturally divided than ever. I drive through the neighborhood the author described and I can’t help but wonder if his friends feel the same nostalgia for it. My neighborhood to the south of his has changed in the past 22 years as well: No more white teenage boy prostitutes, a nice playground was built in a refurbished park and yes there is a Starbucks. Still lots of trash so that’s one change I await.

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