From Baltimore…

My cousin Theresa Nicholson (left) and my mom Gail Nicholson (looking away.) 

“You from Baltimore?” 

The TSA agent asked in his Southern drawl as he surveyed my license. I had been standing in the security line at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport for about 20 minutes and I had watched as people handed this agent—middle-aged, tall, blonde, seemingly jovial—their boarding pass and license without much conversation.

But he asked me a question. 

“You from Baltimore?” 

Of course I’m from Baltimore. The address on my license reads “Baltimore.” It has for the past seven years. “21218” succeeds the “MD.” That means I live in Northeast Baltimore, Mary Pat’s district. The rare, but wonderful part of the city where people of different races and income levels live next to each other and stand next to each other inside an actual grocery store, complaining about there never being enough open checkout lines. But to those outside of the area, it means I’m from— 

“—’The Wire’! Love that show!” 

Or I’m from the largest U.S. city with the worst homicide rate according to 2018 FBI data, or the scene of “the riots” (2015, never 1968) or I’m from—according to the president—an “infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” 

I stood silently facing the agent for what seemed like half a minute. My shoulders tensed up to what felt like my ears. My brow furrowed. My throat tightened. I had to be careful how I responded to this man who had the power to prevent me from making my flight back to Baltimore, or worse. 

“Yes.” 

He continued to hold my license in his hand.

“Hmmmmm.”

I scanned his face for signs of what was to be said next. No clues. He extended his arm and held out my license and boarding pass. I gently grabbed them. 

“I didn’t know we flew directly to Baltimore.” 

Imagine my face.

“I, uh—-not sure—this is my first time doing it so we’ll see.” 

He put me out of my word-jumbling misery by waving me through the line. 

“Alright. Have a good flight! Next!” 

Walking through the short but slow-moving screening line, I had several moments to think about this exchange. The agent was just curious about the airport’s flight coverage, not about my destination or the danger often associated with it. But because I’ve heard 30-plus years of opinions about Baltimore, I knew what to expect. Especially as I used to share some of those opinions. 

I’m from Baltimore, but I’m technically not from Baltimore. 

I grew up six miles outside of The City, in Glen Burnie, a blue-collar suburb that many Baltimoreans fled to in the ‘50s and ‘60s, looking for bigger homes, yards, and likely, whiteness. My Black family had never lived inside the boundaries of The City and growing up, we didn’t venture past Brooklyn Park except to visit my one aunt who lived in West Baltimore (Walbrook Junction) and the few times we did that, it was a big deal. 

My parents didn’t see the need to cross The County line. Glen Burnie had a mall, movie theaters, shopping centers, and the presumption of safety. Growing up in the ‘90s, I rarely saw news reports of crime taking place in my area but stories of Baltimore’s murder and drug problems dominated the headlines and informed many people’s perception of The City, including the ones inside my home. 

My parents worked hard at their jobs at the MVA (the Glen Burnie branch) and a construction company based in Millersville (a few miles outside of Glen Burnie) and they used their modest salaries to buy a house and send their kids to a small private school (also in Glen Burnie). 

My few memories of actually being in Baltimore City were from school field trips to The National Aquarium and the Maryland Zoo. Driving through downtown you’d think I was in Times Square, my neck craning to look up at the buildings, grinning as I watched the tourists and workers in sneakers and business suits walking around the Inner Harbor. I liked being in the big city. The dangerous city.

Even though The City was foreign to me, it was familiar to some of my family members. This summer, a second cousin shared some family photos that I had never seen before. One square photo dated November 1966 showed my cousin and my mom smiling in a Druid Hill Park pool—“the Black pool” as the family member clarified, even though the pools had been desegregated in 1956. 

“You took the bus into The City? Gram let you?!” 

“Yeah” she shrugged. 

Was I allowed to take the bus into The City? 

“No.” 

I recently found out Gram went into Baltimore to see movies. 

The older folks had all these adventures taking in the cultural and recreational treasures of Baltimore but my siblings and I were forbidden to do the same. 

Baltimore wasn’t the only place we didn’t go—we didn’t go much of anywhere growing up. My parents didn’t make enough to take us on vacations and my overprotective father required his family stay within a five mile radius, unless you were going to Annapolis. The state capital was one of my parent’s favorite places. Main Street and surrounding areas were safe, clean and aspirational. When I got the opportunity to travel after high school and someone would ask me where I was from, I would tell them “Annapolis” which was 22 miles away from home. 

Sure, it was the “nicer” place to be from but my family did have some ties to the area: several relatives attended Annapolis’ William H. Bates Middle School. Pre-Brown vs. Board of Education, Black kids from all over Anne Arundel County attended Bates, as it was affectionately called, because the closer white schools were off-limits. My maternal side worshipped at a United Methodist church in Crownsville, a few miles outside of Annapolis. 

Annapolis wasn’t on the news because of the way violence or crack was ravaging communities. Baltimore was. I remember wearing my uniform, sitting on the living room floor in the mornings before school, eating Cream of Wheat and watching the local news. I remember the words “another shooting” starting many a broadcast. What I don’t remember were long-form stories about where the guns were coming from, or the Black joblessness rate, or the prevalence of unremediated lead paint in homes, or the shameful conditions within Baltimore City schools, or how Baltimore’s history of segregation and redlining prevented (and still prevents) Black residents from building wealth. My little eyes just watched the packages about the violence and the crime and that was all I knew. 

Those images, coupled with my isolation from The City, created a contempt for it, and its people. Stop me if you’ve heard this before but I used to think, “Why would anyone want to live there?” I never thought when I was younger that I would live in The City, let alone be there at nightfall, but again, stop me if you’ve heard this before, Baltimore is charming. 

Around the age of 17, I started venturing into The City (my parents thought I was in Annapolis) to see concerts at the Ottobar and the now-shuttered Sonar. From driving through the city—and getting lost in the city—I got to know it. All the cool stuff and cool people were there. There was culture, and I’m ashamed to admit it now but as a young near-outsider, Baltimore’s rough edges were attractive. Its problems were apparent though—violence, drug addiction, homelessness, but these problems started becoming apparent in Glen Burnie too. 

In 1993, the Light Rail came to Glen Burnie. A stop was put in on B & A Boulevard, a few minutes from BWI Airport. While the plan was in the proposal stage, it drew the ire of nearby residents. They didn’t want the noise, the lights, and I’m sure some didn’t want the Blackness. Nevermind that the Light Rail would be used by locals to get into The City, conversations were focused, and continue to be focused, on who is coming in and the trouble they’re bringing with them.

The dividing line between The City and The County, while culturally murky, was clear to county locals and they (including some residents of color) didn’t want that line to be easier to cross. The line was something to be protected and the resources inside the lines had to be guarded, even though those resources were getting more scarce for locals. In the early aughts, I started seeing tents pop up in fields near shopping centers. After years of disappearing and reappearing tents, the ‘encampments’ would be broken up at the behest of residents and elected officials. 

Over the course of a decade I went from being a ‘County Girl’ to a ‘Glen Dirty Girl.’ You couldn’t say you were from Annapolis when you were in your own town. One local even asked me which zip code I lived in. Apparently I lived on the wrong side of town. I didn’t see it. Both sides had an overabundance of shopping centers, car dealerships and McDonalds. There were apartment complexes on both sides, and people of all shades were paying high rent to live there. But I kept hearing on many occasions that “Glen Burnie was getting bad.” Sure, I started hearing about more crime—armed robberies of convenience stores, domestic disputes…all bad things. But it seemed like it was “getting bad” not because of a growing opioid crisis, or vacant stores and lost jobs because of a shifting economy more dependent on Amazon than brick-and-mortars, but because it was getting less white and less middle class. This is an unscientific opinion, based purely on anecdotes and too much practice unpacking coded language, but it seems that when a large number of Black people exist in a given space, it’s undesirable or “bad.”

Which is why I was ready for the TSA Agent to say something disparaging about Baltimore. Just like I was ready for the well-dressed man sitting at the table next to mine in a Charleston, South Carolina restaurant to say something crazy after he asked me where I was from. Turns out he had lived in Baltimore for several years and only had negative things to say about the Orioles. 

An Uber driver waited until pulling up to the Asheville Regional Airport to ask me and my traveling partner where we were coming from. 

“Baltimore.”

He sprung up from his seat and looked at us in the rear view mirror. 

“Oh man! Y’all is rough down there. Y’all be shooting!” 

I rolled my eyes. 

“Well, there are too many guns. Too easy to get a gun…”

He opened his door. I observed a skip in his step as walked around to the trunk of his SUV. 

“Y’all got some thugs. They ‘bout it, ‘bout it!” 

His cultural references were as off as his understanding of Baltimore.

And it’s not just outsiders who don’t get it or don’t attempt to get it. A local Uber driver asked me while driving through Baltimore what “I thought the reason was for all of the crime” and then didn’t let me get a word out before he railed against how “bad it was getting” and shared how he thought it was wise for Hopkins to be getting their own police force. 

“It’s getting bad.” The reason why family members to tell me to “be careful” and ask me if I “like living there?” I do. But I don’t feel the need to defend it. 

I get tired of being asked about Baltimore because the questions are rarely open-ended and it’s a short list. People rarely want to talk about causes or solutions. When the president sent out his tweets about Baltimore, I decided not to go on the defensive like so many friends did on social media. I didn’t have the energy and I didn’t see the point. I know what’s great and what’s tragic about Baltimore and trying to appeal to people, specifically those who don’t seem to care, doesn’t usually make a difference. A few days after Trump’s tweets I saw a quote: “opinions rarely ever produce actions.”  

I know things aren’t right. As I write this, 285 people have been killed in Baltimore in 2019. And tomorrow that number will likely be higher. The majority of those homicides are black men between the ages of 26-34. And there are many other crime and quality of life metrics that may not be as visible that have to be considered in any discussion about what’s a good or a bad place. 

I’ve had the freedom to choose where I live and where I go in The City, and that affects my opinion, but as a whole, I feel no more unsafe in Baltimore than I feel in movie theaters, shopping centers, places of worship, schools, or any place where violence occurs, which is everywhere. 

On most days, I feel like I’m not doing enough for Baltimore, and on the others, I remind myself I can only do so much. Most days I feel frustrated and hopeless. But I’ve got it better than a lot of people in my two hometowns so I snap out of it.

I rarely cross the line into Glen Burnie anymore. My roots have been pulled up as people have moved, people have passed, relationships have changed. But my dentist is there, my chiropractor is there. When I need to go to the MVA I go to the branch my mom worked at for 30 years instead of going up Reisterstown Road. But when I do go back to “The Burn,” I’m happy to be home. 

I’ll probably be saying “from Baltimore” a lot this week. I’m flying to Tampa for a workshop and I’ll have to go through TSA, take a rideshare to get me to and from the airport, make small talk with a bartender. I can’t control if people make insensitive comments after I tell them where I’m from, but I can be prepared with a follow-up. 

I think I’m gonna go with, “Wanna do something to change it?” 

I anticipate some shoulder-tensing, some brow-furrowing, some throat-tightening, but they won’t be mine. 

Jamyla Krempel is a Baltimore-by-way-of-Glen Burnie-based writer, multimedia producer and educator. 

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