Gabriella Demczuk: Baltimore Sings the Blues

Gabriella Demczuk (USA): Baltimore Sings the Blues
Inge Morath Award Finalist, 2016

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“Lady sings the blues. She’s got them bad. She feels so sad. And wants the world to know what her blues is all about” — Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues

My uncle remembers fondly driving a Freezy Palace ice cream truck around West Baltimore the summer before his freshman year of college in 1965. He remembers the “vibrant street life” and the “active, close knit” black middle class community that would line up with “enormous sunny smiles” to hand him silver coins in return for soft serve ice cream cones. It was at this time that West Baltimore was at its finest. The black community was thriving, restaurants and shops were booming, and Pennsylvania Avenue was the hub of entertainment and culture, having showcased some of the biggest artists in history including hometown legend Billie Holiday. Drive through it today and you will see nothing but rows of abandoned homes and blocks of extreme blight, skeletons of an era that once was and fragments of a city that has been plagued by systematic racial inequality, economic disparity, rampant drug abuse, poor education and police brutality.

On April 19, 2015, a 25 year-old Freddie Gray from West Baltimore died under police custody after having suffered a spinal cord injury from his arrest. Days of protests followed which lead to violent clashes with the police on Pennsylvania Avenue just hours after Gray’s funeral on April 27. A long night of rioting broke out all over the city causing $9 million in damages and a staggering increase in the homicide rate that year—344 deaths in total, the highest in decades. Not since the death of Martin Luther King Jr. has Baltimore seen such violence, forcing Baltimore residents, its city council and police department to confront the issues that have long been ignored. Local organizations and activists have kept the conversation going but it will take time and constant perseverance from all sides before real change can be seen.

This project seeks to take a closer look at the issues and changes Baltimore’s underserved and forgotten communities are facing after the national attention surrounding Freddie Gray’s death. For the past three years in which I have been covering Baltimore, I am interested in areas that will have a large impact on the city’s future, particularly in the housing development. Governor Larry Hogan plans to spend $700 million in the next couple years tearing down thousands of blighted homes and investing in low-income housing. There has been much discourse on how to solve the blight problem in the city with many residents hoping to renovate instead of creating more empty lots. I want to look deeper into these policies and what the city has planned for these communities, documenting the buildings before they are torn down. Much of the architectural history in these neighborhoods has already been lost. I hope to research its history and to team up with historians and architects who are working to save what is already there. I also want to look at what the city is doing to redevelop its low-income housing and the many problems its tenants face such as lead poisoning and sanitation.