Baltimore serves as a vivid example of the decline of a once vibrant industrial capital. Since the violent death of Freddie Gray in 2015, the city has seen the worst race riots in the recent history of the United States. Here in Maryland, a mere 45-minute drive from Washington, D.C., the gap between rich and poor, black and white, hope and despair is enormous.
The situation in East Baltimore seems beyond hope. Still, there are people leading for change and trying to turn the city for the better: Reverend Donte Hickman has made it his mission to narrow this gap – at least a little bit and as much as he can, with the help of God. The pastor of the Southern Baptist Church is assuming leadership in a vacuum left by a state that no longer cares.
Fifteen years ago, he adopted a neighborhood that did not have any help. Those who acccompany Hickman around the twenty-square-block area surrounding the old American Brewery – now home to the social enterprise Humanim – understand that he means this literally. Everywhere people greet Hickman, he is a kind of godfather of the neighborhood. As a man of the cloth, he is untouchable – even for the dealers at the street corners.
"The judge gave me approbation. I took that chance and devoted my life to God."
As a young man, Hickman himself hung out at such corners and sold drugs, but before the downward spiral went into high gear, he slammed on the brakes. Or, more precisely, a judge did it for him. “The judge gave me approbation. I took that chance and devoted my life to God,” says Hickman.
Responsible Leaders Forum North America
The BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Forum in Baltimore injected new ideas into the public debate about elites, solidarity, and social inclusion. It focused specifically on Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities. Baltimore is a vivid example of a metropolitan area confronted with deep structural changes, racial divisions, and poverty. During the Forum, participants visited Reverend Donte Hickman at his Southern Baptist Church.
Now he is trying to show young African-Americans in this almost exclusively black neighborhood the way. Against all odds. It is, after all, a neighborhood where nine-year-olds are carrying weapons. Where most residents do not even have an 8th-grade education. Where the annual average income is below $20,000. Where there is no longer a supermarket or a school.
“Restoring people while rebuilding properties” – this is Donte Hickman’s motto, as he, together with urban planners, tries to breathe fresh life into the neighborhood. To do so, it takes millions of investments – and a change in awareness on the part of the residents, many of whom see themselves as completely dependent. Hickman’s church on Gay Street and other Baptist congregations are often their only anchor.
Entire blocks in the north and east of the city are crumbling and decaying. Sometimes, more than 60 percent of buildings and houses are vacant. Renovation is no longer an option.
Whole blocks of the rowhouses typical for the area are demolished, the residents resettled. Those who can leave do. Those who must stay adjust to the fact that their neighborhood has more to do with a developing country than with an industrial superpower.
The government is only notable through the permanent police presence: police cars that patrol the streets, and helicopters that circle above the neighborhood day and night. It feels a little bit like in a civil war, with the sirens providing a nerve-racking soundtrack.
When it comes to the United States’ most dangerous zip codes, East Baltimore regularly ranks in the top ten. This mixture of hopelessness and violence provides the natural backdrop for TV series such as “The Wire.” Running from 2002 until 2008, the HBO series revolved around the city’s gang and drug problems, seen from the perspective of the police, the dealers, and the politicians. For many people, “The Wire” is one of the best – read: most realistic – TV shows.
Donte Hickman disagrees. “I don’t think the show takes ownership of the city,” he says. Rather, it is merely another distraction from the actual problems and their roots. “These people don’t want to do drugs or sell drugs.” But they often have no other chance. And not everybody gets the opportunity that Donte had as a young man. “These communities,” he says, “are the manifestation of segregation, policy, and investments of the past.”
"These communities are the manifestation of segregation, policy, and investments of the past."
Arbendella Pannell is 76 years old and has lived in the neighborhood for over forty years. She is surrounded by vacant houses, and dealers hang out in front of the abandoned liquor store. “I try to ignore these people,” she says. For her, it seems to work. What she cannot ignore is the fact that she lives in a food desert. No shops, no restaurants. “You grow into things. I am so used to it.”
She is not afraid to go out on the streets. “I feel safe,” she says. True, the street fights are mainly between different gangs or between the gangs and the police. If you’re unlucky, you die as collateral damage.
Cordelia Washington is Arbendella Pannell’s neighbor. The 60-year-old has lived in the neighborhood since 1982. “If I could afford it, I would move,” she says. But she does not earn enough to do so. Luckily, nothing has ever happened to her son. She has managed to keep him away from the gangs and make sure he goes to school.
Despite her circumstances, Cordelia does not grow tired of planting flowers in front of her house and picking up the garbage from the street. “I would like to see some trees and flowers,” she says. Like Arbendella Pannell and Donte Hickman, she refuses to give up. Instead, they keep on going. For in Baltimore, giving up hope is not an option.