Looking Down Greenway from Stratford Road

Tuesday was one of those surprisingly packed-with-work days that reminds me that a lot of academics don’t get “summers off,” as much as I wish it were so. The highlight, though, was guest teaching a class for a friend of mine about Baltimore history. I did a broad-sweeping story, all of it geared to understanding how this city, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, is constructed on a miles-deep firmament of white supremacy.

Baltimore’s white people, like those in many cities, have worked incredibly hard for generations to never ever ever have to share space with Black people. Rather than share public schools, white people just took their kids out of them and built their own private ones. Rather than share a pool at the park, white people demanded a separate one for Black people. Rather than live near each other, they put covenants in deeds to keep houses from being sold to Black people. When those covenants were deemed illegal in 1913 and nationally in 1917, white people still managed to segregate from Black people in neighborhoods, using structural techniques of redlining and racial terror, among others. Maryland used to pay Black students who wanted to go to college to go to college out of state. When the Donald Gaines Murray became the first Black student allowed to enroll at University of Maryland’s law school, one of the stipulations was that he had to leave an empty seat on either side of him, so no white students would have to sit next to him. When South Africa was setting up its apartheid system, it sent people to Baltimore to see how it was done. I could go on and on and on.

What I’m trying to say is that one of Baltimore’s firmest foundations is white supremacy, and you can see it on every single street, both in its past, but also its present. Baltimore is still an incredibly racially segregated place.

I thought about this on my run on Wednesday as I headed up through the leafy country estates of the Guilford neighborhood. I have really been struggling with running since the heat lamps turned on, so I went out earlier than usual and ran toward trees to see if that would help. And it did. I made it four miles pretty easily, none of it walking, and that felt amazing.

The difference was in the morning weather, but more than that, in the shade offered by the giant trees along my route. That there’s shade on these streets is not by accident. It’s another example of the wealth accumulation of white supremacy, the resources poured in and the stability over generations, thanks to generational wealth. I snapped this picture as I turned to run back home. These leafy trees would largely be with me for my mile and half ramble back, but if I’d taken my run east, west, or south from my house, it would have been almost entirely in the heat of direct sun.

It doesn’t take much looking around in most cities to see a similar pattern. It was true in my hometown of Boise, Idaho, one of the first things I noticed about New York City when I moved there for college in 1993, and it has been a real thing everywhere else I’ve lived–and I’ve lived a lot of places. My friend O., an artist, made a quilt that mapped the tree canopy differences in Baltimore based on the redlining map of 1937, and it demonstrated what I notice on my bike rides and walks on a larger scale. My friend E. pointed me to this story about how in Baltimore, it’s the poor who much more often bake in the sun. Click on that link–the literal heat map of the city is a map of Baltimore’s wealth and poverty, aligned tightly (but not exactly) with racial segregation.

This inequity harms souls and bodies, and that will be even more true as we slog through a hot summer without open park pools or open places with air conditioning.

Even with the shade and relatively early start I was a hot and sweaty mess when I got home. I stood under a ceiling fan for a few minutes before hopping in a cold shower, my first of two for the day. That I have the time and resources for this is remarkable, and not just about luck. It’s also about whiteness, my whiteness, and the accumulated wealth I am able to spend to stay cool. It makes a really big difference in my ability to do all the other things in my life. Everyone should have access to greenspace, shade, and a way to cool off, especially as the sun beats down harder and harder. It is going to be a dangerous summer for the same people facing so many other dangers. Catastrophe upon catastrophe.

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