Baltimore is not a large city, and one frequently runs into people s/he knows. Because of that, sometimes people in Baltimore refer to the city as Smalltimore. Andy Ellis, a Baltimore activist and debate coach working with Leaders for a Beautiful Struggle, suggests that Baltimore’s Smalltimore-ness is a
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result of racial segregation in the city. Whites interact with other whites and imagine the city to be small, but in actuality they are only interacting with a small portion of the population. Here is what he has to say:
Baltimore City is a majority Black city. This should come as no surprise to anyone who lives here or knows anything about the city (even if that knowledge only comes from “The Wire”).
It is however worth discussing for a bit, because as such it is a relative anomaly among cities its size. I think it is important to understand how unique Baltimore is among American cities in this regard, because majority Black political entities are rare in the United States. Even more rare in large cities. Among all cities in the US with over 100,000 population Baltimore ranks 21st in size with ~620,000 residents. It Ranks 7th in Total African American or Black Population with ~399,000 residents.
This city has a long history as a central location for Black life on the east coast and in America. There are plenty of places to learn about this history and how it relates to the present. People jokingly call it “Smalltimore”, and it’s a huge part of its appeal.
I have always had an uneasy reaction to the term “Smalltimore” when used by white folks who moved here as adults (like myself). That being said, I have somewhat embraced some of the potential meanings. “Smalltimore” is a place of “memorable restaurants” where “some of the brightest minds come to this city every day” (emphasis added) to embrace diverse neighborhoods, amazing educational opportunities, and harbor front communities. All in a small setting where you can almost always run into people you know.
But what is “Smalltimore”? Why does it feel so small?
In “Smalltimore,” not only do a large majority of white people live in communities with a larger percentage of white people than the city-wide average, but in fact most live in communities where white people are the majority.
There are 55 neighborhoods in Baltimore. 31 of those neighborhoods have a percentage of African American population higher than the citywide average. These neighborhoods have a total population of 360,000.They are on average 89% black, 8% white, 2% Hispanic, and 1% Asian.
The other 24 neighborhoods, with a percentage of black population below the city average, comprise a total population of 256,000 people. This grouping of neighborhoods is on average 28% black, 60% white, 5%Asian, 8% Hispanic, 1% Native American, and 2% other. The last time Baltimore was as small as “Smalltimore” was between the 1860 and 1870 Census. Even then, Baltimore had the largest free Black population in the nation. Then as now, “Smalltimore” is not a monolith, it is a place of “diverse neighborhoods.” 24, to be exact.
Race is an important component of understanding Baltimore. The construction of Smalltimore is based on establishing and defending a series of white spaces on top of a Black City. What is interesting to me is why white people find comfort in white spaces, seemingly without the ability to see those spaces as white.