Poverty in Baltimore: Open Secrets

Si Yeon Lee reviews Swimming in Baltimore: How Poverty Works.

I sat in a room, in the basement of MICA Place, with thirty, forty other strangers, who turned out to be children and their mothers, former policemen, students, all of us waiting for a documentary to give us some answers to the question: why does poverty exist? Swimming in How Poverty Works, a documentary about the deep-rooted causes of poverty in Baltimore, was screened at the MICA Place last Saturday, followed by a panel discussion and an art workshop.

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A scene from How Poverty Works

The documentary opens with the voice of a female narrator, over shots of homeless Baltimore residents, and as she begins to make an analogy about water for fish being poverty for Baltimore, it starts to become desperately clear that the story should be told through the voices of the people on the screen. The statistics that are given are startling; the difference in the average life expectancy between Sandtown-Winchester, 70 years, and Roland Park, 84 years, is undeniable, and underscores the urgency of this conversation. The consequences are life and death.

Once the talking heads, whether they are police officers, professors, journalists, or young Baltimore residents, begin to dominate the conversation, and the voice of the narrator falls into the background, the documentary realizes its potential as a stage for Baltimore city residents like Gregg Hill or Shabria Johnson to speak about the reality of life here. Shabria’s story about how she was almost arrested in front of her own house for staying outside past the curfew highlights just a moment of the hassles of everyday life of black citizens of Baltimore.

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Archival footage of “blockbusting” from How Poverty Works

How Poverty Works touches on police brutality and the Freddie Gray incident, since it is impossible to even begin to discuss poverty in Baltimore outside its racial context. We learn that Baltimore has the 3rd largest police force per population in the country. But the documentary moves onto other, historical issues that aren’t talked about as often. Former Sun journalist Antero Pietila talks about how real estate speculators used blockbusting – provoking racial fears by spreading rumors, asking questions like “Did you hear about the rape?” – to buy houses from white families at a low cost and “flip” it to a black family for double the price.

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A shot from How Poverty Works

Inner Harbor was turned into a tourist attraction by the taxes of the poorest residents. Baltimore city councilman Carl Stokes says, “The wealthiest projects and developments in the town are often being subsidized by the average low income taxpayer who must pay their taxes every year or have their home taken from them.” The documentary goes on to focus on lead poisoning, and the permanent brain damage that it causes to Baltimore’s youngest citizens. And it is frank enough to acknowledge that the only reason that the city doesn’t do anything about it is because the children who are poisoned are black children.

The panel discussion after the film got fervent and was full of tension at points—residents and panelists arguing about the implications of police brutality and law enforcement in Baltimore. But everyone recognized that poverty and racism in Baltimore was real and intertwined, that the only problem to be worried about is solving the issue. And it was during this discussion that one highly animated, older black man pointed to a woman across the room, saying that she was part of the solution to Baltimore’s issues.

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Surveillance footage of Calvin Wilkes’ arrest from How Poverty Works

This woman was Jennifer Bartley, whose story was featured in the documentary. Bartley is a middle-aged white woman who had only recently moved into Baltimore when she witnessed Calvin Wilkes, a young black man, being arrested at Inner Harbor and held to the ground, bleeding from his mouth. Bartley, who admits to having been somewhat unaware about these realities for black residents in Baltimore, went on to pay the $15,000 bail for Wilkes, whose charges were mostly dropped.  Wilkes says that Bartley and he have come to become close friends as Bartley’s become actively involved in trying to make people aware of the injustice and prejudice that surrounds black people in Baltimore. This was, perhaps, where the documentary gained its emotional power, exemplifying the two sides of Baltimore through two ordinary citizens.

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Swimming in Baltimore: How Poverty Works is available to view on therealnews.com

Si Yeon Lee is a Baltimore-based writer from Toronto.

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