The long, painful and repetitive history of how Baltimore became Baltimore

By Emily Badger

(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Before there was a funeral and protest, then violence, curfews and canceled ballgames in Baltimore this week, there were other chapters in the life of this city that must be remembered.

Just a few years ago, Wells Fargo agreed to pay millions of dollars to Baltimore and its residents to settle a landmark lawsuit brought by the city claiming the bank unfairly steered minorities who wanted to own homes into subprime mortgages. Before that, there was the crack epidemic of the 1990s and the rise of mass incarceration and the decline of good industrial jobs in the 1980s.

And before that? From 1951 to 1971, 80 to 90 percent of the 25,000 families displaced in Baltimore to build new highways, schools and housing projects were black. Their neighborhoods, already disinvested and deemed dispensable, were sliced into pieces, the parks where their children played bulldozed.

And before that — now if we go way back — there was redlining, the earlier corollary to subprime lending in which banks refused to lend at all in neighborhoods that federally backed officials had identified as having “undesirable racial concentrations.”

A Home Owners Loan Corporation 1937 map of Baltimore shows the least desirable neighborhoods identified in red. Johns Hopkins University.

These shocks happened, at least 80 years of them, to the same communities in Baltimore, as they did in cities across the country. Neighborhoods weakened by mass incarceration were the same ones divided by highways. Families cornered into subprime loans descended from the same families who’d been denied homeownership — and the chance to build wealth — two generations earlier. People displaced today by new development come from the same communities that were scattered before in the name of “slum clearance” and the progress brought by Interstate highways.

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