Redlining Baltimore: Exploring Systemic Discrimination Through Art Discussion

Redlining Baltimore: Exploring Systemic Discrimination Through Art Discussion

If you’re unfamiliar with the term redlining, the easiest way to explain it—specifically to Baltimore—is by looking at a map of the city. Notice how our city’s major highways divide neighborhoods—from 95 to 83—these cement barriers separate what are recognizably contrasting neighborhoods, both visually and economically; and that was precisely by design.

As the anniversary of last year’s Uprising is upon us, we look back at a year of introspection, analysis, and dialogue. The Uprising was the result of compounded years of systematic oppression and institutionalized racism—government sanctioned policies that have crippled opportunity and inclusion in this city for the majority of its population. Of these systems, perhaps the most obvious and present is redlining.

In leu of the Uprising’s anniversary, Johns Hopkins University has launched Redlining Baltimore, a speaker series dedicated to conversation through art to reflect upon our city’s history and continue working towards solutions to our ever-present inequality.

Sponsored by Hopkin’s 21st Century Cities Initiative, the series consists of four events that will bring together academics, activists, civic leaders, residents, local artists, and musicians hosted by actress and activist Sonja Sohn. Each event will discuss our city’s intimate history with discrimination, and more importantly, what the community can do to change the course of our city’s future. The series consists of four events: Legacy: Living and Coming of Age Inside the Redline, Opportunity: Inclusive Development and Wealth Creation Inside the Redline, Transform: The Future of Justice and Knowledge of the Redline, and Experience: Public Health and the Redline.

While the roster of organizations, artists, and academics involved in Redlining Baltimore is extensive, one of the most captivating aspects of the series is the art being designed to help convey what all the talks will focus on.

“We were tapped in to do the art activation for the spaces,” Richard Best, founder and Executive Director of Section 1 explains. Rather than have the event lean on the academic side, Best and the organizers wanted to, “find some way to bring youth and arts oriented minds into the conversation. “Fortunately,” Best says, “within the conversation that we’re having there are already several artists in the community that are already having this conversation or have work that reflects that conversation.”

Rather than just talking about the context of redlining, the series will host works by several artists and musicians to portray our city’s story through different mediums. Most of these artists and musicians have been talking about these issues for years.

“Especially with all the riots, it seems like there was a very reactionary approach to this dialogue,” Best says, “but there are a lot of folks that are already working in this space and doing really important work. So it’s important to highlight them as an essential part of whatever solution needs to happen. Art in itself has always been gritty—it gets out there to say something; it has an important role in the conversation and duty to the city.”

Muralists Gaia, Nether, and Ernest Shaw collaborated for the series to create a mural 30” by 8.5” that takes audiences from the beginning of colonization to the contemporary divides we still see today. Along with artists, musicians have prepared work to be performed during the events, with involvement from various musicians like emcee Eze Jackson to the youth oriented music program, Believe In Music.

“Baltimore has all kinds of history doing [redlining], and really a bunch of cities do,” Best says. “I mean, the infrastructure in the city itself was designed to segregate different communities. 83 splits the city and causes divides—“

“95 too,” Nether chimes in.

“Exactly, so many of them—it’s just really horrible. Fortunately I think, with Section 1 at least, we can repurpose one of those spaces and create a cultural center and bring communities back together,” Richard explains. The series starts with the four events and will hopefully continue long after the last.

“A speaker series is so much more inclusive; more people can participate,” Gaia explains.

“That’s the first way to process this kind of issue,” says Nether.

To add to the series is where these artists and Section 1 come in. The arts in general have an important role to play—especially murals. “Arts are the visual voice of the city. The more comprehensive, inclusive, interesting, and informed they are, the better,” Best explains. “I think art has an important role in just having a conversation about the city but also being able to touch on some of the problems that we have with inequality.”

Gaia, Nether, and Ernest Shaw’s first collaborative mural together will illustrate the concept of redlining and its history with the city. “Ostensively it’s a very brief chronology beginning with colonization as the foundation of this city, you know, as an only catholic state,” Gaia explains. He then walks through the rest of the mural, starting with an image of fertility from West Africa to George II who granted land to the Calvert families, to the appropriation of bodies over to this country, and even more specifically to Maryland as a slave state. As the mural’s timeline progresses, the painful truth of our history unfolds.

“It’s always been about the dispossession of property or treating bodies like property,” Gaia explains. What might seem like dense subject matter or an incredibly condensed portrayal of Baltimore’s history will prove extremely beneficial to help illustrate the talks throughout the series (the mural will also have labels and further information to help audiences understand its context). Consisting of several images of urban renewal, the work reminds audiences of the promise to affordable housing that, “of course did establish a lot of affordable housing but the policies ensured that they wouldn’t be maintained over the years because they weren’t for the permanently poor—but the impertinently poor,” Gaia explains. “This is the era when you start to see the Interstate Highway Act is proposed as the initial real beginning of the 1949 Housing Policy Act,” which were essentially the most blatantly obvious influencers of redlining as we know it today.

Many have trouble looking back over the past year and seeing the Uprising as a catalyst for positive change. “If it wasn’t for this awakening,” Nether reflects,”the door wouldn’t have opened and people wouldn’t be as willing to talk about this.” Although there are many community leaders organizing, artists and museums holding exhibits, and panels offering talks, it’s difficult to quantify what exactly has changed within the past year, which is why it’s important to keep looking forward.

“The main goal is to use art to bridge economic divides and bring people together in the city. I’m not 100% what that’ll look like after this,” Best ponders. “It’ll be interesting to see how much continues after April.”

Sure, it’s been a year since the Uprising—an eye-opening year full of conversations long overdue. A year of conversations that were already happening, finally became unavoidable in communities that hadn’t been addressing some major issues our city, and cities nationwide, face. As we acknowledge the growth Baltimore has made over the last year, however small it may seem, it is extremely important that these conversations continue to occur. April may be packed with retrospect and a recollection of what last April forced everyone in this city to acknowledge, but it is vital to progress that once April ends, these kinds of conversations do not.

Originally published on What Weekly & JHU in the April of 2016.

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