"A riot is the language of the unheard": Baltimore and America's long legacy of hollowed-out cities

Police form a line to block North Avenue in Baltimore. Image: Getty.

Now that the dust has settled and the media have moved onto the next crisis, we can ponder what the Baltimore riots tell us about broader and deeper issues in the US.

Using a stress testing approach I developed for other major social events, I investigated the major social forces at play in Baltimore. Among them are decades of biased economic policies, class differences as well as racism, structural problems in metropolitan America, the consequences of aggressive policing and the geography of multiple deprivations.


Long time coming

The fundamental problems faced by Baltimore and other industrial cities are a result of decades of economic change stemming from policies that promoted deindustrialisation and job losses for the semi-skilled and unskilled.

In 1950, Baltimore had a population of 950,000 and, like many cities in the US, a vibrant manufacturing base providing jobs and economic security. The prospect of jobs attracted black migrants from the South; since the mid-1970s, though, there has been a steady loss of manufacturing jobs due to offshoring, relocation to suburbs in non-union areas of the US and increased productivity.

The Gates Rubber Co. manufacturing plant in Denver. Image: The Denver Post.

This is a trend across the US and across the world. But in Baltimore, as in so many industrial cities in the US, there were few employment alternatives or attempts at retraining. The result is pockets of poverty in neighborhoods across the country where there are concentrations of the unskilled people, and limited opportunities for retraining older workers or education for younger people.

It is ironic that at the same time that President Obama was sympathising with the plight of Baltimore, he was also promoting a free trade agenda. Even more ironic, he made the announcement at the headquarters of Nike, a company that last made a pair of shoes in the US in 1984 and makes all of its apparel in the cheap labor areas of East and Southeast Asia.

There are benefits to free trade. But we need a honest assessment of their redistributional consequences, and a much greater commitment to job training and help for those displaced when manufacturing jobs are lost.

And while the Baltimore riots focus attention on race, we also need to consider the issue of class. It is much easier to talk about race in the US than class – so the the debate is easily racialised, while the wider issue of restricted opportunities for the semi- and unskilled, black as well as white and brown, is ignored.

There is a squeeze on the semi- and unskilled, with the squeeze all that much tighter on the minority groups. The events in Baltimore, often seen through only the prism of race, are also freighted with concerns of class. The sociologist William Julius Wilson showed that the disappearance of work is the central cause of social disorganisation in the inner city.

Geo-economic disconnect

There is also the balkanisation of metropolitan America, through which declining central cities are cut off from the economic benefits of suburban growth.

Central Baltimore’s population declined from almost a million in 1950 to just over 622,000 in 2013. The wider Baltimore metropolitan area, which includes Baltimore and surrounding suburban counties, has grown from 1.1 to 2.7m in 2010, with the fourth largest median income in the US. I examined this hollowing out of central city cores in my book, Alabaster Cities, and a series of recent papers.

Graffiti in New Orleans. Image: Bart Everson via Flickr.

County governments, not the city, reap all the benefits of these increased property and income taxes. There is a fiscal disparity between the central city and its suburbs, with the city pressed hard to meet the mounting social needs of an increasingly impoverished population with a diminishing tax base.

This fiscal squeeze promotes, in Baltimore as in other similar cities, an emphasis on flagship downtown developments such as football stadia, ballparks, race car events and convention centers. These benefit downtown business interests, but fail to do much for the stubborn poverty in the inner city.

Cities concentrate on attracting middle- and upper-income groups because they provide revenue. And across urban America, we see pockets of gentrification and gleaming downtown towers beside these persistent pockets of poverty. Yet hamstrung by job loss, declining revenue and population loss, many cities across the US are still stuck with making up for decades of federal neglect and the lack of a coherent and well-funded urban policy program.

Policing in America

The policing of the cities in the US is dominated by what amounts to a war against low-income minority neighborhoods. In 1980, the US had a prison population of 500,000; but by 2013 this increased to 2.5m as more young men, especially young men of colour, were caught up in an expanding web of criminal incarceration as minor infractions became felonies. The narratives of "tough on crime", broken windows theory, war on drugs and militarisation have all escalated into an aggressive policing and a fracture of trust between residents and police.

Police sharpshooter at Ferguson protests. Image: Jamelle Bouie via Flickr.

To compound problems, these neighborhoods also suffer from multiple deprivations that include abandoned dwellings that are sites of fires, disease, criminal activity and unhealthy environments. Elevated lead levels in inner city Baltimore make it difficult for children to learn and concentrate. So it is not just limited employment and educational opportunities but also a complex web of multiple deprivation that effectively traps people.

There are many Baltimores. Within the city boundaries, there are old established elite areas such as Roland Park, and more recently gentrified areas such as Federal Hill. The Baltimore of the riots was only part of the city, a swath of inner city neighborhoods impacted by job loss, poor education and aggressive policing.

But there are other Baltimores outside of Maryland. They include Akron, Birmingham, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Toledo. It is not just an inner city problem. Along with Bernadette Hanlon and Tom Vicino, I have documented the problems of inner ring of suburbs.

There are also the bleak areas in the cracks of the metropolis: the trailer parks and suburban rental units that house those pushed out of the city by gentrification and redevelopment. Baltimores of economic neglect, massive job loss, aggressive policing and multiple deprivations are found throughout metropolitan regions across the country. They are the places of despair that house the voiceless of the US political system, the marginalised of the US economy and those left behind in the commodification of US society.

The remarks of Martin Luther King Jr made in 1966 still have resonance: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

For complete coverage of the Baltimore riots, see here.

John Rennie Short is a professor at the School of Public Policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.