First 'Redlining Baltimore' event explores discrimination past and present

JHU's 21st Century Cities Initiative kicks off conversation series

Of all the race-related issues to delve into in Baltimore, redlining isn't the most immediately provocative.

Presenters seated on stage with colorful mural backdrop

Image caption: Activist Chris Wilson (left) and Johns Hopkins sociologist Stefanie DeLuca at a "Redlining Baltimore" event at the Motor House in Baltimore's Station North neighborhood.

Image credit: Barbara Samuels

"It's not as sexy as the riots," said 17-year-old activist Makayla Gilliam-Price, who spoke last night at the Motor House in Station North as part of the first of four "Redlining Baltimore" conversations, hosted by Johns Hopkins University and organized by JHU's 21st Century Cities Initiative. The series brings together academics, activists, and residents to discuss the legacies of discrimination in Baltimore and the future of opportunity and inclusion in the city.

The term "redlining" specifically refers to a federal housing policy, started in the 1930s, that reviewed mortgages based on neighborhood districts—which, in practice, meant denying homeownership opportunities based on race and ethnicity. Over time, the term has come to refer to a variety of discriminatory practices that block services based on race—from credit cards and health insurance, to grocery store access and transportation.

The forum looked at these modern-day expressions of redlining in Baltimore a year after the death of Freddie Gray.

For example, discrimination in Baltimore is evident in discrepancies in car insurance rates.

"The people who need the most cost benefit from auto insurance pay the most, by ZIP code," noted Joseph Jones Jr., founder of the Center for Urban Families nonprofit.

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But he and fellow panelist Antero Pietila, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, pointed to progress: the fact that more people are openly addressing redlining than ever before has moved the topic beyond niche discourse reserved for academics.

"We are now trying to grapple with this information that was hidden from us," Jones said.

Pietila, who penned the 2010 book Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City about race and real estate in Baltimore, noted that redlining maps revealing the federal housing patterns of the past can now be found through a simple click on Google. Before, he said, you had to visit the National Archives to catch sight of them.

"There has never been more interest in redlining as there is today," Pietila said.

Actress and activist Sonja Sohn, known for her role as Detective Kima Greggs on The Wire, said looking at Pietila's book for the first time gave her a better understanding of the roots of Baltimore's present-day unrest. "I felt like I had hit—I don't want to say the jackpot … " she said.

Last night's event, titled "Living and Coming of Age Inside the Red Line," also featured young panelists who shared their experiences in Baltimore.

Activist Chris Wilson has been out of prison for four years. A judge gave him leniency on a life sentence after he candidly narrated to her his background—seeing family members die in violence, witnessing his own mother's rape by a police officer—and outlined his goals for turning his life around. The judge commanded him to make a difference, telling him: "You can't just go out there and be a regular person."

Wilson is currently working on his second college degree, and he's taught himself three languages. He's a motivational speaker and the CEO of the social enterprise Barclay Investment Corporation in Baltimore.

"The potential that you describe is the untapped valuable resource that's going to determine the future of Baltimore," Johns Hopkins sociologist Stefanie DeLuca told Wilson.

Panelist Kenny Liner, who founded the Believe in Music youth program, told attendees to find people in Baltimore who are doing inspiring things.

"If you can, fund those people and help them make this city better," he said.

Gilliam-Price, the teenage activist, had the sharpest words for the audience, pointing to the gentrification of historically black neighborhoods as a modern form of redlining, even when its surface goal is just the opposite.

For many, she said, "combating the impacts of redlining [means] essentially just flooding the hood with white people. And that's clearly not the answer." She noted the "problematic thinking" behind strategies that only "justify investment in black communities if white people are also impacted by it."

Gilliam-Price, who founded the youth justice organization City Bloc, emphasized the event's location within the gentrifying Station North neighborhood and spoke of the need to hold institutions accountable for delivering more than feel-good lip service.

"We no longer have the luxury of hiding behind blissful ignorance," she said.

Correction: The title of Antero Pietila's book was incorrect in an earlier version of this article. We regret the error.