An Excerpt From Lawrence Lanahan’s ‘The Lines Between Us’

Image courtesy The New Press

In this excerpt, author Lawrence Lanahan writes about the two Baltimores and how they came to be.

Mark Lange and Nicole Smith have never met, but if they were to make the moves they were contemplating—Mark, a white suburbanite, to West Baltimore, and Nicole, a black woman from a poor city neighborhood, to a prosperous suburb—it would contravene the way the Baltimore region had been programmed for a century. It is one region, but separate worlds. And it was designed to be that way.

An affluent “White L” runs down the middle of Baltimore City and along its waterfront. To the east and west are wide swaths of high poverty and racial isolation for African Americans. The segregation aggravates countless racial disparities that afflict every aspect of Baltimoreans’ lives. For instance, the average life expectancy in Baltimore City varies from sixty-three years in a nearly allblack neighborhood to eighty-three years in a four-fifths white neighborhood. To understand how Baltimore’s separate worlds came to be, one need look no further than Gilmor Homes, a low-rise public housing project in West Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) designed Gilmor Homes as a black-only project in the late 1930s. HABC originally picked a construction site on vacant land in a white part of Baltimore’s southwest corner. When residents complained that the project would make it “dangerous for white school children and white persons going to and from work,” HABC instead chose a four-block stretch of Sandtown.

By placing Gilmor Homes in a black neighborhood, Baltimore officials reinforced a deliberately created pattern of segregation. The message was clear: certain races belonged in certain places. But it hadn’t always been that way. In the nineteenth century, the geographical separation of whites and African Americans that is typical in northern states today didn’t yet exist in Baltimore. African Americans lived all over the city then in an arrangement that kept them residing close to whites, but in substandard alley houses that were disconnected from the water system.

Around the turn of the century, that changed as the black population rapidly grew. African Americans flooded in from out of town, and their demand for housing outpaced the supply available to them, leading to overcrowding in a so-called “Negro district” just west of midtown. Better-off black families moved northwest, and by 1910, the border of the district had reached West Baltimore’s N. Gilmor Street, encompassing some of present-day Sandtown.

The next year, city officials passed an ordinance prohibiting African Americans from moving to all-white blocks, and whites from moving to all-black blocks. It was, in effect, a quarantine. Progressive reformers cited unhealthy conditions in black slums, but the quarantine was just as much about containing crime and depressed property values. As it is today, integration of housing was perceived by many white property owners as a financial risk.

In 1917, the Supreme Court struck down segregation ordinances. Baltimore’s white power structure became craftier. The city demolished black neighborhoods in the name of “slum clearance” but failed to create enough replacement housing. When landlords rented to African Americans in white areas, the city came sniffing for code violations. The real-estate industry ostracized agents who sold white homes to black buyers. Some sales contracts contained covenants barring owners from selling or renting homes to African Americans. The federal government developed residential security maps to highlight areas where mortgage lending was risky—areas that correlated with high black populations—and went on to insure home loans disproportionately in the white suburbs.

City leaders segregated public housing by race and placed it in a way that some believed would protect home values and racial homogeneity in white neighborhoods. The city’s housing authority placed Gilmor Homes along a four-block stretch between Gilmor Street and Fulton Avenue in the early 1940s. By that point, the border of the “Negro district” had pushed west precisely from Gilmor to Fulton. To build Gilmor Homes, the city demolished not just “slums” but the kind of solid rowhouses where one finds “self-respecting families,” according to a Baltimore Evening Sun editor at the time.Gilmor Homes was placed strategically, and it may have been faced strategically. On the Fulton Avenue side, the front doors faced inward toward the other units and away from white Baltimore. Some believed that the idea animating these placements—and the city’s increasing demolition of dilapidated housing— was creation of a barrier to stave off “the encroachment of colored [people]”—or, as the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation termed it, “Negro infiltration.” One scholar called the city’s strategy “clearance and containment.”

Copyright © 2019 by Lawrence Lanahan. This excerpt originally appeared in The Lines Between Us: Two Families and a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

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