Is “Community” a Verb or a Noun? Provocations From Baltimore and Washington
Who will you meet?
Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.
Baltimore became my refuge when I moved to the District four decades ago. As a native New Yorker, I could not quite adjust to overly conformist official and bureaucratic life in a nation’s capital. Charm City’s quirky citizens just an hour away offered a much appreciated escape. Working-class Baltimore was the opposite of Washington, blues singer Leadbelly’s quintessential “Bourgeois town.” Watching Baltimore’s torment unfold in recent days has broken my heart.
Over time, I came to understand that Baltimore and the District have much in common. Both cities were carved out of large slaveholding states at the beginning of the republic. Baltimore and the District were two of the three cities on the eve of the Civil War in which there were more free blacks than slaves (St. Louis was the third). These venerable African American communities faced down vicious segregation by creating their own vibrant institutions – civic, educational, commercial and religious. Both cities produced people who changed the country and the world. To mention but a single example, the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, grew up in Baltimore and secured top legal training at Washington’s Howard University.
Both cities followed similar trajectories of urban “decline” and population flight following World War II.
Baltimore and Washington experienced destructive riots in 1968 following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The scars from those riots are becoming less visible in the District but remain starkly evident in Baltimore. Recent development in the areas that saw rioting in 1968 in the District underscores two significant differences between the cities that offer important insights into how we think about cities.
The large African American working classes of Baltimore and the District and Baltimore’s notable white working class benefited from core economic sectors that provided long-term, decently paid employment with opportunity for upward mobility. In the case of Baltimore, the steel and shipbuilding and related industries that supported so much of the city’s life have collapsed. In the District, the federal government has played an important role in supporting the city’s recent economic vitality. Employment and, more important, career opportunities matter for people and for communities.
The concept of neighborhood has evolved differently in both cities as well. Following the related but distinct traumas of white flight and suburbanization in the 1950s, the District’s neighborhoods entered a half century of turmoil and upheaval. Many established in-town communities collapsed as blacks and whites and rich and poor changed places. Working-class white neighborhoods in Anacostia became black; prestigious uptown neighborhoods transformed from white hands to become a black “Gold Coast.” In more recent years, the once pre-eminent African American community around U Street became majority white.
In Baltimore, the same social and economic forces encouraged the glorification of “neighborhood.” Baltimoreans love their city — as has been evident despite all the traumas of recent days — and their adoration begins at home. Communities became surrounded by invisible moats with clear and defined boundaries.
The advantage of strong neighborhood identity is a deep social capital enhancing community resilience. The disadvantage are walls that declare those not within a community’s embrace to be outsiders.
The uneasy relations among Washington old-timers and newcomers are real. We should understand that tensions are rising in the District and — given the wrong people at the wrong place at the wrong time — neighborhoods here can explode as they have in Baltimore. Nonetheless, the constant disruptions of Washington communities have forced an at times unwelcome yet fruitful interaction among residents. Most important, open neighborhoods can create pathways into the world at large. The District’s many current trials include connecting still-disenfranchised neighborhoods – particularly those “east of the river” — to the opportunities that exist elsewhere in the city and region.
As time passes, Baltimore will find ways to move forward. Too many Baltimoreans are too committed to their city for the status quo to remain invariable. To do so, though, community and neighborhoods have to engage a larger world rather than build existing walls ever higher. Community has to be a process, not an object; a verb, not a noun.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
The development of public, open-access middle mile infrastructure can expand internet networks closer to unserved and underserved communities while offering equal opportunity for ISPs to link cost effectively to last mile infrastructure. This strategy would connect more Americans to high-speed internet while also driving down prices by increasing competition among local ISPs.
In addition to potentially helping narrow the digital divide, middle mile infrastructure would also provide backup options for networks if one connection pathway fails, and it would help support regional economic development by connecting businesses.
One of the most visceral manifestations of the combined problems of urbanization and climate change are the enormous wildfires that engulf areas of the American West. Fire behavior itself is now changing. Over 120 years of well-intentioned fire suppression have created huge reserves of fuel which, when combined with warmer temperatures and drought-dried landscapes, create unstoppable fires that spread with extreme speed, jump fire-breaks, level entire towns, take lives and destroy hundreds of thousands of acres, even in landscapes that are conditioned to employ fire as part of their reproductive cycle.
ARISE-US recently held a very successful symposium, “Wildfire Risk Reduction – Connecting the Dots” for wildfire stakeholders – insurers, US Forest Service, engineers, fire awareness NGOs and others – to discuss the issues and their possible solutions. This article sets out some of the major points to emerge.
Whether deep freezes in Texas, wildfires in California, hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, or any other calamity, our innovations today will build the reliable, resilient, equitable, and prosperous grid tomorrow. Innovation, in short, combines the dream of what’s possible with the pragmatism of what’s practical. That’s the big-idea, hard-reality approach that helped transform Texas into the world’s energy powerhouse — from oil and gas to zero-emissions wind, sun, and, soon, geothermal.
It’s time to make the production and consumption of energy faster, smarter, cleaner, more resilient, and more efficient. Business leaders, political leaders, the energy sector, and savvy citizens have the power to put investment and practices in place that support a robust energy innovation ecosystem. So, saddle up.