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A Fight To Keep The Charm In 'Charm City'

The landscaped backyard of Farai Chideya's family home in Baltimore. i i

hide captionThe landscaped backyard of Farai Chideya's family home in Baltimore.

Cynthia Chideya
The landscaped backyard of Farai Chideya's family home in Baltimore.

The landscaped backyard of Farai Chideya's family home in Baltimore.

Cynthia Chideya

Today, we hear from Tell Me More guest host Farai Chideya.

I had my faith in democracy renewed this weekend — the kind of small "d" democracy that happens in a community center rec room.

This happened in Baltimore. You know, the TV show The Wire? Rowhouses, drug deals, shady politicians?

Well, I'm from Baltimore. Not the part that looks like The Wire. The house I grew up in has a wide lawn planted with flowers and a backyard filled with fruit trees and vegetable beds. Over the years, my mother has expanded her empire, growing fruit trees — peach, apple, pear, fig — plus vegetables from asparagus to kale. The neighborhood is filled with three-story shingle homes and old trees.

And it's in trouble.

The house next door to Chideya's was turned into a group home and is in shambles, prompting neighbors to complain to city officials.

hide captionThe house next door to Chideya's was turned into a group home and is in shambles, prompting neighbors to complain to city officials.

Cynthia Chideya

Some of those homes are now abandoned. One burned down in a fire set by squatters. And the local grocery store has been shut for years, with a faded sign dangling halfway to the ground.

That's why there was a meeting this Saturday. Half a dozen city and state officials gathered at folding banquet tables on one side of the room. Men and women from the neighborhood filed in and took their places in stacking chairs. Down the hall, someone was practicing piano for an event in another part of the community center.

It provided an incongruous backdrop for the litany of pleas, complaints, and exhortations from citizen to representative.

See, this neighborhood — the one I still think of as my neighborhood — is fighting for its life.

The house next door to my mom was flipped, turned to rentals, and then made into a group home — an unlicensed one.

My mother seemed to get nowhere with her calls, letters and even visits to city officials. I called the city up, talked to the deputy housing commissioner, and got more response in two weeks than my mother had gotten in six years. The city evicted the men in the group home next door, men who were living under a rotting roof in a house that violated multiple building codes. Those men, for better or worse, were not the problem.

The problem is that the city has little money for anything, including housing code enforcement.

There were many a night that I've cried over what was happening to my old neighborhood. But, can I just tell you? While I sat at the meeting and listened, I heard that almost everyone was living through the same thing my mother was. I knew this was not a personal problem, but a systemic problem.

What I didn't understand until this weekend was how hard people were willing to fight for their community. For their part, the City Council people and state delegates listened patiently through discussions of housing, jobs, immigration — two hours' worth of pent-up anxiety. They had some answers, including a promise that a new supermarket would finally be built, with a mix of private money and tax incentives, after a decade of delays.

Some people even sold their homes to the city and let them be torn down to make way for the project — beautiful, well-kept homes. One man mentioned his friends and said, "Did they make this sacrifice for nothing?"

Like many in the neighborhood, he won't quite believe things are turning around until the project is built. But he is one of the people I saw in that room who realize democracy is about more than voting. It's about staying on top of the people in power, arguing your case for resources, and not being afraid of speaking up. On the representative's side, it's about being responsive, dealing with frustrated citizens on a beautiful, sunny Saturday. That's democracy in action.

I hope and pray, for my neighborhood's sake, that it works.

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