Tag Archives: cities

Why is there no one in my classes from the city where I teach?

I teach at a public university called Towson University, a mile over the Baltimore city line. My students come from all over the state of Maryland, as well as from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. They are racially and ethnically diverse, but they all hail from suburban and rural communities. Why? Why are none of them from the city down the road from campus?

I wondered this in my class the other day as I began another semester teaching a course on urban education. Students take my classes to understand what “urban schools” are like. They come with all kinds of stereotypes and myths about urban schools as chaotic places where students do not care about learning and teachers do not care much about teaching. In my classes, I work to undo these stereotypes and to get them into urban schools to see the complex daily experience of teachers and students in urban schools.

With some exceptions, of course, graduates of urban high schools, like those in Baltimore, tend not to come to Towson. Students who graduate from Baltimore’s schools, for instance, often do not have the requisite SAT scores, college prep courses, or a guidance counselor to guide them through the application process. The school system is  underfunded, and has historically under-served its majority African-American population.

The price tag for a year at Towson is also another obstacle. Students need to pay over $10,000 each semester if they are an in-state resident. That’s over $20,000 per year, a price tag way too hefty for many Baltimore residents, over a quarter of whom live at or or below the poverty line.

Even if all of those obstacles were not in place, it’s not like Towson’s campus has  exactly had a reputation for being a welcoming place for people of color. Last year, students occupied the president’s office to demand that the administration pay attention to racism on campus and to act against it. Just five years ago, Towson had a white student union, whose leader was named an extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The new president is trying to change the campus climate, but it has a long way to go before we welcome more graduates of Baltimore’s schools to campus.

While ironic, I will probably continue to teach courses on urban education to students who are unfamiliar with urban spaces on the outskirts of the city.

Talking about the fight for schools in West Baltimore

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These are the folks I was with yesterday talking about schools in Baltimore at the Imagining America conference. This year the conference was held in Baltimore, and our panel, featuring Dayvon Love from Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Helen Atkinson from the Teachers Democracy Project, and George Mitchell from the Park Heights neighborhood association and Langston Hughes Elementary School.

Our conversation was about the ways in which decisions were made to keep certain schools open and to close others in Baltimore. Twenty-six schools were slated for closure under something called the 21st century plan which is a plan to renovate some schools in Baltimore. The agreement, which was made with the state legislature, provided funds for school reconstruction if the district agreed to “right size” itself, which meant school closures. Even though school closure has a negative impact on communities, the city agreed– the positives outweighed the negatives for them.

Hearing the story of Langston Hughes Elementary school’s closure, however, sheds light on the plan for closure. As George Mitchell reported, the plan for closure was riddled with problems. The school was small, but served Park Heights, a low income black neighborhood, well. It was higher performing than other schools in the area and had a thriving after school program for children. The school was also in a renovated building which had technology, air-conditioning, and a facility that would rival any school serving a more affluent community. So why close the school? Charter operators had their sights on the location for one of their schools. Mitchell started getting calls two years ago and continues to get calls about turning over the school to private operators. He and others have tried to fight the closing, but once the city announced the list of school closures, parents began to pull their children out of the school, causing it to have declining enrollment and weakening their case to keep the school open. Many people started to see the closing as inevitable and even elected officials withdrew support from the school.

Children who attended Langston Hughes are now going a mile down the road to Pimlico Elementary, a school built in 1910 without the air conditioning, technology, and modern facilities. They have a bus to transport them there, but the research tells us that the children will face other problems integrating into the new school. Anecdotal reports have confirmed that the children are not fitting in at the school and struggling academically. Some parents have pulled their children out of that school  as a result.

What does this mean for Baltimore? For urban schools? The Langston Hughes story is one which tells us that the improvement of urban schools is not always about looking at genuine successes and building upon them, but deal-making. The closure of Langston Hughes was agreed upon by city and state officials long ago. The success of the school and the broad support that it had in the community meant very little to those folks. Their plans were made. However, this does not mean that all is lost in Baltimore or in urban schools, it means that the resistance to these plans needs to be more forceful. Plans to close Dyett High School in Chicago were finally abandoned because of a group of supported that launched a hunger strike for that school. They built a broad coalition, got a lot of media attention, and forced the city to compromise. Those will be the kinds of actions that teachers, parents, students, and community members will need to take in order to resist plans for urban school improvement that are guided by interests outside of low income communities of color.

What is lost when cities gentrify? How can it be preserved?


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These photos you see above are from a recent walk I took in the East Village of Manhattan. These are places that are still standing in the face of a massive wave of gentrification that has all but obliterated the East Village as it once was.

Gentrification, for those still unclear, is the influx of affluent, often white, people into an existing low income or working class, often community of color, causing increased rents and changes in the community’s character and culture as well as displacement of residents. It has swept through cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago so much so that displacement and lack of affordability characterize those cities just as much as their landmarks and cultural amenities. In fact, a recent story reported that young people are seeking more “authentic” cities that have yet to be fully transformed by gentrification.

For low income communities of color, the process of gentrification wreaks havoc on their neighborhoods. As one author describes, gentrification is “a systemic, intentional process of uprooting communities and the roots stretch back to the disenfranchisement that resulted from white flight and segregationist policies. Real estate agents dub changing neighborhoods with new, gentrifier-friendly titles that designate their proximity to even safer areas: Bushwick becomes East Williamsburg, parts of Flatbush are now Prospect Park South. Politicians manipulate zoning laws to allow massive developments with only token nods at mixed-income housing.”

This does not happen overnight or by a set of individuals looking for a cool place to live Rather it happens deliberately through a set of policies that get enacted to support change. According to Dr. Lawrence Brown of Morgan State University, gentrification is induced by a set of policies that are racially exclusionary. Such policies include the dismantling of public housing and privatizing public housing  (i.e. the HUD RAD program).  Gentrification is also induced by eminent domain and mass foreclosures due to subprime lending or reverse redlining.  He finds, “Baltimore does this in the following ways; Restricting home sales to students and faculty from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Station North; the city’s Live Near Your Work program which offers up to $36,000 in grants offered by Johns Hopkins for its employees to live in the city; as well as the mass closing & charterization of public schools so that gentrifiers can control public dollars, not have to pay for private school, and not have the same level of oversight & accountability (see Maia Cucchiara’s book Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities).  These exclusionary policies unfairly advantage disproportionately white and incoming residents at the expense of disproportionately black and poor current residents, creating an exclusionary corridor in center of Baltimore.  BleeckeratCarmine10Years

      What can be done? One way neighborhoods can be preserved is through through community land trusts, non-profit, and often cooperatively owned, organizations that own and take care of property. Many cities have examples that need to be supported and expanded. See this one in San Francisco  and in Boston. Another way neighborhoods can counter the impact of gentrification is by surfacing the stories that are lost in the process of gentrification.  Telling the stories of the places that once existed, places that were centers of communities is important as gentrification erases the names and places that once existed in low income communities.  The Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia is telling the stories of schools that have closed through the process of gentrification and privatization of the school system.

There are also local groups working to take charge of the decision-making around urban development in their cities. The Baltimore Redevelopment Action Coalition for Empowerment (BRACE) organizes in Baltimore and creates spaces for communities to advocate for community-based decision making in urban planning. United Workers, a Baltimore-based organizing group, does the same. Find these groups in your city and decide what you want your neighborhood to look like, or share a story that got lost when your neighborhood’s demographics changed.