Block of Homes on West Mulberry Street at North Gilmor Street

I wasn’t really feeling a bike ride yesterday, but I knew I’d feel better and sleep better if I got outside, even though it was a gazillion degrees and swampy out there. I was right. I headed down the hill and west and then up the hill again to Bolton Hill. I have some friends thinking about moving there, and I wanted to see how long it would take me to get there if they end up doing that. An important part of any moving calculus: how long will it take Kate to get there on her bike? For this one, about 17 minutes.

After tooling by a couple of prospective houses I continued riding west. I say this all the time, but there are just no other neighborhoods that change with the speed and alarm as Bolton Hill–>West Baltimore (Madison Park, Upton, Harlem Park). Heading north from Butcher’s Hill, maybe, but the profound wealth disparities between even Bolton Hill and Marble Hill are just so stark. You have to ride your bike around or walk to really get a sense of it, and it never fails to astound me. One minute you’re on ornate streets and dead ending at lush pocket parks, and the next the trees have disappeared and it seems like most blocks are vacant. I counted seven different homes in my brief tour being held up by wooden braces to keep them from collapsing. Completely different realities, just blocks apart.

That doesn’t mean people don’t live in these adjacent west Baltimore neighborhoods, though, even if a lot of the housing stock is empty. There were plenty of people hanging out on stoops, out for walks, riding bikes, and sharing how-you-doin’s and “it’s way too damn hot” signals with me. One of the best parts of riding a bike, for me, are those casual hellos with strangers on the street. I like living with other people in a city, and it’s one of the things I’ve missed most as we’ve all headed inside.

I rode west on Harlem Avenue before turning south to Franklin to ride the fancy bike trail that goes around this section of the Highway to Nowhere. It’s so jarring, how pretty this is. They’ve also set up these exercise stations along the path. The signs for them read: “A Healthy Community Starts Here.” They are only for people 13+, which S. pointed out, so yeah, that’s a little late to start a healthy community. Another friend, V., wondered how these stations got there, and who in the community was involved in their design. In her words, “In a city where we criminalize outdoor play for kids and teams, these kinds of spaces FASCINATE me. Who paid for it? Who designed it? Was the community involved, did teenagers have a say in this? Who uses it now?”

So many questions, and now I want to find the answers. What got me was the idea that healthy communities start with individuals exercising. I get it–access to outdoor recreation is incredibly important for all communities, and the distribution of those resources is shaped by race and class and the power dynamics that distribute all kinds of life chances. I’m glad this space is there. And I was struck by the idea that healthy communities start there. Riding around on my bike I thought about a lot of things that might come first, if we want “healthy communities,” starting with cash. The poverty level here is off the charts, and it pushes everything else off the charts, too. Racism and organized abandonment are etched into these streets, and no amount of pull ups will fix it.

I continued my ride up the bike trail to the top, turned, and head down the other side, on Mulberry Street. I snapped this picture while waiting for the light to change at Gilmor Street. There are so many walls of vacant homes here, and this is just another one. Who used to live here? What conspired to drive them out? Who owns them now, and what will become of them? Will they stay right there, empty, until they collapse and kill? Will solutions remain focused at the individual–let’s rehab this house, tear down that one, get that person to exercise, this one to wear a mask. Everybody figure out on your own what to do with your kids in the fall, because we can’t reopen schools safely. Collective problems, individual solutions. What are we even doing.

I turned north and east for my ride home, taking Harlem Avenue to its end before riding through Bolton Hill and back to the bike lane on Mount Royal, up to Guilford and then up the hill. I passed a guy in a motorized wheelchair, dinged my bell hello, and kept going. As I crossed North Avenue one of my extra spokes popped out of its spot on my bike frame, and I pulled over to take care of it. The guy zipped up to me a few minutes later. “You whizzed by me, but now look!” We chatted for a few minutes, mostly about bikes, because he used to ride and is working up the strength to ride again. And then he took off, and a couple minutes I did too, and I passed him one more time, ding ding, how-you-doin’, and then I was home. Baltimore is so terrible, and it is the greatest city in America.

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