Jess Solomon-DaCosta remembers taking three buses just to get from her home in Cherry Hill to Southeast Middle School.
The daily trek felt like an adventure for a while, but it eventually took its toll on the Baltimore native. Cherry Hill, created by Black military veterans in the mid-20th century, lies near Baltimore’s southernmost tip; Solomon-DaCosta’s now-defunct middle school, about five miles east of Downtown, is difficult enough to reach without having to cross the Patapsco River as she did.
Yet the long ride taught her a form of resilience, said Solomon-DaCosta, now 40: “I was a kid so it was kind of like an adventure. Sometimes it felt like a burden, but as a young person it made me more observant.”
Solomon-DaCosta’s heightened scrutiny helped her realize that she was growing up in poverty as well, layering a constant sense of disquiet on top of her growing anger toward the systems that put her family in this position — systems she’d only come to understand more as an adult.
“As a young person, I could feel when we were at the end of the month,” Solomon-DaCosta told Technical.ly. “I knew what it felt like to have to negotiate how we would pay certain bills. The bills would get paid, but there wasn’t a sense of ease. We were poor, but it was just a way of life.”
In Baltimore, stories like Solomon-DaCosta’s — of Black families stuck in poverty following decades of structural disinvestment — aren’t uncommon.
In the early 20th century, housing discrimination ramped up in the city as homeowners associations, housing ordinances and block-busting prevented Black people from owning homes. Then, in the late 1930s, the New Deal-birthed Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created residential security maps — which assessed investment risk for all of Baltimore’s neighborhoods — as part of the federal government’s program of housing and mortgage relief.
Black neighborhoods were almost exclusively “redlined,” meaning they were given poor financial grades and marked in red, so investors stayed away. This not only segregated the city but began a cycle of unequal access to resources, poor public safety, high crime rates and suppressed wealth creation for Black residents that exists to this day.
With the city lacking resources and outlets for releasing pent-up frustration, many people turn to the life of crime since it’s easily accessible. The homicide count for 2022 was 333, cementing a multiyear trend of 300-plus homicides.
Yet Baltimore isn’t defined by these brutal conditions. Economic advancement does happen here. Baltimoreans embrace the adversity that comes along with living in the city and use it as motivation to overcome the obstacles in front of them.
What does it mean to thrive for Black middle-class residents in Baltimore?
Technical.ly spoke with Solomon-DaCosta and four other successful Baltimoreans for this installment of Thriving, a yearlong reporting series highlighting the lived experiences of people in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, and other comparative cities to understand what it takes to rise above life’s everyday obstacles.
The five people you’ll meet below represent fields including business, writing, film, art and technology, and each consider themselves middle class or above. Despite their unique professional backgrounds, they all seek fulfillment in a similar way: Their joy stems from using their voices and capital to create a more equitable city not just for them, but for future generations.
For Solomon-DaCosta, for instance, it’s not feasible to advance her own life without uplifting her community along the way: “I can’t think about thriving without thinking about my kin, my community, and the people around me,” she said. “I think about how my life in Baltimore has been touched by race, class and gender.”
These are their stories.