When journalist and author Antero Pietila came to Baltimore from Finland 52 years ago, he encountered a city in turmoil one year after the infamous “race riots” of 1968. Crime was his first beat with the Baltimore Sun, allowing him to learn the area’s web of neighborhoods intimately. He quickly learned that the codification of racial discrimination 80 years ago had a far and deep effect.

“Baltimore became a laboratory of bigotry,” he said.

Pietila’s books, “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City” and “The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy that Shaped an American City,” have shaped fresh context for a generation grappling with the racial justice questions of a post-Freddie Gray society.

Speaking with Catholic Charities colleagues during a virtual “Something to Chew On” discussion sponsored by the organization’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, Pietila explained that redlining was a significant cause of the disparities that still exist. Redlining involved a federally backed mortgage-loan process of drawing literal red lines around mapped areas in order to force “undesirable” residents into underdeveloped communities with lower-quality housing, and charge them higher interest rates.

Journalist and author Antero Pietila (photo by Bonnie Schupp). 

“The most gruesome difference was the federal government’s belief that redlined areas were beyond recovery – that they would keep deteriorating until they crumbled and could be redeveloped” for white people, Pietila explained.

The modern impact of historically codified decay

Over time, the city’s segregated east-west division has morphed to a division of shapes – the “White L” and the “Black butterfly.” The “White L” – the corridor that runs roughly from Homewood south to the harbor, and then east through Canton – is where the city spends most of its infrastructure money. It is also where gentrification is most prevalent, pushing low-income homeowners out via rising property taxes as values increase.

The “Black butterfly” spans out from the L, running along common corridors of segregation like Reisterstown Rd. on the northwest side. This shape contains the most public housing and Section 8 housing, in areas where access to high-performing schools, fresh food and non-fee-based bank services is limited.

Pietila said as recently as five years ago, only four of the city’s 43 supermarkets were zoned in historically redlined neighborhoods. A recent study showed that about 75 percent of redlined communities still struggle economically; two of Baltimore’s most affluent and whitest areas, Harbor East and Canton, were not historically redlined because, when the practice began 80 years ago, they were considered industrial rather than residential.

Less fresh food means higher rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other expensive and long-term health challenges that stress individuals and health systems alike. Less access to wealth-building – like local living wage employment, business investment, homeownership at manageable mortgage, tax and interest rates, and other opportunities – leads to generational poverty. Because of the way schools are funded, poorer neighborhoods have lower-performing schools. Failed educations lead to less higher education, which leads to fewer employment prospects. And the cycle continues.

An uncertain future

After decades of studying the causes of this segregation and struggle, Pietila agreed with one Catholic Charities colleague’s suspicion that private capital is likely needed to fill in the scarring lines bigotry has dug.

“It would take a very deep-pocketed investor to start changing some of the Black butterfly neighborhoods,” Pietila told the group. “The question there is, ‘Where would this kind of investment come from?’ I have no idea.”

Compounding this question, the pandemic has impacted the city’s already-struggling revenue sources. Pietila pointed out that the city relies on state and federal aid, and with a looming election, questions about urban policy are on the proverbial ballot.

But his perspective is not entirely bleak.

“Lots of progress is being made,” he said, citing Baltimore County’s new law making it illegal to refuse to rent to someone based on legal source of funds like Section 8 vouchers. He also noted a thawing of relations between city and county police departments. And, he said, the city’s immigrant population represents hope.

“Immigrants are responsible for keeping American cities vital and vibrant.”

He also pointed to Cherry Hill as a light.

“It’s very good that Catholic Charities is involved in Cherry Hill and is redoing the town center,” he said. “There are many other things that are happening that are good in Cherry Hill. I think what is interesting about Cherry Hill today is that the view seems to be far more optimistic than it had been in my previous experiences.”

Watch the conversation with Antero Pietila