At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

For the Love of a City

Three hours of sleep last night.

I guess looking back, it's a miracle I got that much. Such is the problem when you go to bed with a broken heart. A city...was in flames.

I am well aware I've lived for a long stretch in St. Louis, which is making a case for being "home", but many who know me recognize I went to high school less than a half-hour northwest of Baltimore, and upon my graduation, my father took a position as senior pastor of a church tucked in an urban residential neighborhood of northeast Baltimore. We lived there for six more years and I was home from college in summer and other breaks. I never thought I would warm to Baltimore, but the city grew to capture me in her embrace.

Baltimore is a tough city. It's a scrap-iron town, hewn out of pavement by the bay. The afflictions of its core are legion: racial contention and the need for reconciliation, IV drug users contracting HIV/AIDS, a steadily increasing homeless population topping 4000, and a level of violent crime four times higher than the national average. Yet it is a town that--like a troublesome relative or friend who can struggle with luck--you just can't help but love with a depth that defies logic. Whether it's an affluent neighborhood like Roland Park and Guilford or working-class areas like Hampden, the residents of "Charm City" resolutely march on.

The marching just got a good deal more difficult last night. The purge by gang members and other thugs to issues beyond the funeral of Freddie Gray, the attacks on police officers, the slow response of public officials, and other actions have plunged the streets of downtown Baltimore into terror. Last night, flipping from Fox News to CNN and back, my heart was ripped in two as I saw places familiar to me trampled on by violence borne out of pain but which can never heal the pain.

No offense to others who may see differently, but it made the events here in St. Louis in the city of Ferguson look paltry by comparison (I said, by comparison). This was Ferguson on several cycles of anabolic steroids. Police attacked, buildings torched [A senior center at a Baptist church was incinerated], and businesses looted.

Thankfully, ministers took to the streets to pray and help other see reason. It could have gotten a lot worse than it did.

How I wish we had waited to see how the prosecution of the police officers in the case of Freddie Gray's death might have played out. If only restraint triumphed over violence. If.

Truth be told, I don't see how people can believe this wasn't police brutality in this instance. I know we don't know the whole story, but those injuries don't get self-inflicted in the back of a police van, especially when the guy could barely walk.

There are questions that need answers, and there's a city that needs healing. And this is affecting all of Baltimore. That's one difference between Baltimore and St. Louis, in my opinion. St. Louis, stratified into various suburbs and inner-ring neighborhoods, can navel-gaze more on one's primary smaller civic association. People here identify more with their enclaves ("I'm from Kirkwood", "I've lived in Webster Groves for forty years", "Bevo Mill's my home") than saying "I'm from St. Louis."

There are neighborhoods in Baltimore, but what tends to define people from Charm City is that they are first and foremost Baltimoreans. They are not primarily from Hamilton, Overlea, Penn-North, or other enclaves. More than anything else, they hail from Baltimore, an identity as clear and bright as the Domino sugar factory sign that illuminates the territory around it downtown. And when part of Baltimore suffers, the whole city weeps.

I pray that reconciliation occurs, and that the weeping will end. Because I love my city.

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