Boarded-Up Windows at Perkins Homes at Gough & Caroline

Boarded up windows on a square brick  at Perkins Homes in Baltimore

I was a grumpy ol’ crankpot yesterday. It was the first day back to work after a much-appreciated vacation, and when somebody put a meeting that could be an email on my calendar, I just lost it. I hate it when my time is wasted so that bureaucrats can feel like they have work to do. There’s so much of that in so many of our lives, and I wish that the way capitalism has resulted in a world that needs less “work” meant we actually worked less. Anyway. I was angry about the meeting, but then I was off the races with it, just huffing around, not doing anybody any good. So I took my bike out for a ride.

I haven’t been riding my bike much these days, now that there’s nowhere to go. I love riding for pleasure, sure, but it takes motivation that I’ve largely given that over to running. I love the conversation I get to have with myself and my body as a runner, but the pace of it–and how hard it is for me–means I don’t spend much running time looking up and out. I missed that, and got it immediately when I rolled off on a ride with no destination.

If you don’t look up and out as you travel around the city, you might start thinking the way you live, what matters in your tiny neighborhood radius, is how everybody is living, and what everybody thinks matters. A quick bike ride, though, and it’s immediately clear. We might all live in Baltimore, but we’re living really different lives out here. I have written this down over and over again on this blog, said it a thousand times to my students, and yet here I am again, remembering that my life is just mine, and there’s so much about yours that I’ll never really understand.

My bike ride started out on Barclay Street, no pedaling, just waiting at stop lights, the stop and start of city riding. I took a left at the T at Oliver Street, a right on Greenmount, a left on Hoffman, and headed east and south and east again on Biddle Street, before making a right on Mount Street to head toward Patterson Park. The neighborhoods change block to block here, and crossing Fayette is like entering a different universe, one where most of the houses are occupied, the lights on the poles aren’t blue, and there’s a park full of joggers, walkers, dogs, ducks, and places to enjoy a touch of green, at least in the summertime. The dividing streets in this city are so profoundly dividing, more so than any other place I’ve lived. And I’ve lived in a lot of places.

I did my turn around the park, popped out on Gough to head west to the cycletrack to home. I rode through Perkins Homes, stopped to snap this picture. The buildings here are all boarded up now. Doors are sprayed with color-coded Xs and checks that mean something to someone. There are still some people here, but they don’t live here anymore. Perkins Homes is being redeveloped. They’ll replace the public housing units and add a bunch of market rate spots; that’s the only way to make the project affordable in terms of the billion dollars it is currently budgeted to cost over the next decade.

I have never lived at Perkins Homes. Everyone who did had to move, and they are offered a right to return when it is rebuilt. People had lived there for years and years, and they all had to move. I’m sure there are as many opinions about this process as there were people who lived there. I hope people found new living situations that are working for them. I hope those who want to return actually can. I am skeptical, but I actually don’t know anything specific about this spot, so I’ll keep those thoughts to myself.

What I do know, though, is that whether or not something is “affordable” is a matter of choice. A billion dollars is a ton of money for Baltimore, of course, but on the national level, compared to what we spend on, say, the military, it’s nothing. Almost one thousand billion dollars, that was the military budget in 2020. Yeah, I know these are “different pots of money,” blah blah blah, but that they are is a choice. That money could be spent differently. Our leaders keep choosing this way over and over again, and at this point it seems almost natural, like there’s no other way. But there are other ways, and destroying our imagination of these other ways is some of the most insidious work done these days. Notice the passive voice here: I’m not sure who does this work, or how much I do on myself.

I snapped this picture and continued on my ride home, thinking about how much I’ve missed since I stopped riding at least three days a week around the city. Last time I was through Perkins Homes, people still lived there, the ice cream truck still stopped there, it was still home for so many people. I thought about that as I finished my ride, my anger at the meeting in a couple weeks dissipating with every pedal stroke. Looking up and out, I have to keep doing that.

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