Favorite Things about Summer Time in a Black Neighborhood

The sun is out but it’s 5pm. The vrrmm of the dirt bikes are passing by and sound of Lor Scoota is blasting from a car radio. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times. It’s the summer in Baltimore City. The weather has broke in the Black neighborhood and it’s the best feeling. I look forward to this time of year, when school is out and the nights are longer on the block. The only unfortunate thing are the bugs and the police circling the neighborhood. But there are so many things about summer time ova West that make me love my city and my neighborhood.

We all know the allure of the harbor and everything else downtown but it’s the little things that make me feel happiness and nostalgia. There is literally almost something for every one of the five senses. It’s how I know I am home and no matter how pretty or enjoyable other places are, home is always my favorite.

Best things about summer time in Baltimore:

The Smells

I won’t lie, the smells in the city can have you feeling nostalgic or feeling queasy. I live in West Baltimore and I have smelled everything from piss to fresh cut grass. But we won’t dwell on the pissy alleys. The smell that defines the season is the aroma of a chicken box with saltpeppaketchup- one word. It’s something about the way the grease combines with the fries and the ketchup. If you don’t smell that, you not in the true Baltimore. Somewhere someone is drinking a beer, no matter the time of day or place. The summer time heat will lead your nose to the scent of too much chlorine poured in a public pool. The kids jumping out with the smell of wet hair grease and old pipes from the pool. Of course, you can’t forget the one that makes your mother have bath water waiting for you as soon as you get in the house. Outside- “you smell like outside.” It’s like a combination of grass, dirt and metal. It’s hard to describe but everyone knows it as soon as they smell it.

The Sounds

The almost lullaby of a dirt bike followed by a police siren or helicopter. The sound of the bus pulling up or pulling off and someone cussing at the bus driver for leaving them.  The kids laughing and yelling obscenities about the shape of each other’s head. The snow ball machine grinding damn near solid blocks of ice or the sizzle of whatever on the grill. Summer wouldn’t be the same without hearing, “loud-out,” “diesel,” “body-oils,” or “CD’s or movies.” The cat calls and mating call of the average man in the city.  The “aye sweetheart,” or “’scuse me, can I talk to you for a minute?” The “How you doin’ ms. Lady?” or my other personal favorite, “I ain’t tryna waste ya time. I’m just tryna get to know you.” Hearing, “dummy, head-ass, whore,” maybe all in one sentence. It’s cook-out season which means cookout playlists. Music from our local rappers and K Swift club music. Summer time is cook-out time which means somewhere you will hear, “Before I Let Go,” “Follow me,” or a recent addition to the cook-out playlist. When the cook-out ends you can look forward to the pop of gunshots and the half launch of a firework.

The Taste

Obviously, we are in Baltimore, which means crabs. Crab cakes. Old bay! That’s a given. Chicken boxes- a given. Grilled to a crisp (with the blistering, crunchy black skin) hot dogs and hamburgers. The over sweet syrup of a sky blue snowball or the egg custard frozen cups.

The Sights

The murals on the walls from Pulaski, Payson, and Presbury. Baltimore has several artistic masterpieces on obscure buildings. If you riding too fast or blink at green light you might miss them. The parks full of kids on the rusty swings or playing tag. The sweat dripping off the brow of man caught up in an intense basketball game. A random dice game with crumbled dollars on the ground. A dancing yet lovable crackhead who attracts the laughs of pre-teens popping wheelies on mountain bikes. Kids are outside doing whatever for how ever long because there is no school tomorrow and they don’t have anything else to do. Rats, water bugs, and yes even the eye sore of a vacant house. Yes, an eyesore but it’s home.

The Feels

Summer time Baltimore is a whole vibe. The windows down; the music blasting; the sun out. Summer is where most of your laughs are made and a good portion of memories are created. Summer time brings out the best of Baltimore culture. The sights, sounds, and smells of the city all create a feeling that happens every summer. It’s nostalgic and fun. It’s sunsets at 7 pm and slapping mosquitoes away from you. It’s summer time in Baltimore.

 

 

A Little Jab at Gentrification …

Eventually every big city faces the sad reality of change. The question becomes who does change effect the most. For the “inner city” citizens and the urban dwellers, aka Black people and poor people, who are usually forgotten (until property and infrastructure are involved) it’s usually us with furrowed brows. We wonder what is going to come next. This is not just a simple matter of change construction-site-2858310__340but the buzzword of the century: gentrification. Everyone has some definition in one form or another of what this means. In layman’s terms, gentrification is when wealthier, mostly white people see something they want, and they take it. They take it, restructure it and manufacture it for white audiences. For example, the small cafes and restaurants popping up in what is called “Station North.”

Station North is blocks away from what would be considered dangerous or “ghetto” even, but “redevelopment” has started in the area. Redevelopment that allows white academics and art students to benefit from poverty (having lower rent) while being close enough away to feel safe but close enough to say they care about the plight of Black people and issues of poverty in Baltimore city. The gradual change in Baltimore has been happening for quite some time. The big universities started their bidding wars on properties on East North Avenue. The results are things like Parkway theater and (sorry folks) the notorious anti-establishment Red Emmas (which has left its North Avenue location). As nice as these places are, they both have an unspoken, “we only welcome certain types,” kind of vibe. You should be somewhere between wanting to free the nipples and having a Sinead O’Connor look with a septum piercing and tattoos of a dream catcher, geometric shapes, or the lunar cycle. They have the “I’m a cultured artist who is down with a revolution, some days, and I bike to save the environment” kind of vibe.

Look up the word in the dictionary and its synonyms are refurbishment, restoration, renovation, urban renewal, and even improvement. There is a constant question of what is being improved and who asked for the improvements. The problem with the “urban renewal” becomes losing the people who built the infrastructures around what is being “improved.” The problem becomes white people start moving in and pushing Black people out. When the hipster liberals come in, preaching peace, love, and all lives matter while taking your row home to hang ropes of paper lanterns from Target.

Gentrification becomes so important, especially to Black people in Baltimore city because it is more than a word or a synonym of “restoration.” So much culture has been built and erased in the city. From club music to style of dress and even the way we talk. You know someone is from Baltimore when you hear them! Higher rent and destruction of once were homes make life a lot harder for those relocating and reminiscing on “the good old days.” Gentrification is having your childhood memories become a portion of history because Johns Hopkins needs homes for residents and of course expansion of its famed facility. The Hippo, most of East Baltimore, Hammerjacks- places like these are no longer apart of the breath of the city. Instead when people think of Baltimore, they think of Natty Boh and Camden yards – which is a part of Baltimore but every neighborhood is not Canton or Camden yards.

East Baltimore should now be called “Hopkins Town.” Hopkins has changed most of it and is trying to mold it into a uniform, almost carbon copy of other cities. Baltimore once had a flair that is bitterly hanging on. That’s a problem with “urban redevelopment.” Gentrification is not just a textbook synopsis of the many inequalities Black & poor people face. It is the feelings, soul, and authenticity of a place being diffused brick by brick. It is almost as if Thanos snapped his fingers in much of East Baltimore, devouring the city. Higher rent and fancier grub makes nice for tourists and people who can’t afford New York and don’t want to stare D.C in the face, so we meet here in the middle, in Baltimore.

Before Fashion Nova, there was Rainbow …

I grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s era where jelly shoes and door knockers were still a thing. Outlined lips and low-rise jeans were a must along with skirts with odd slip placements. These looks defined my youth and defined somewhat laughable trends to look back on. But what is ever present in our current fashion trends is the return of looks from the 90s. From lip outlining to baby hairs and various colored clothing. One thing that I remember most from these trends are the stores where people got their clothes. A little store called Rainbow, a littler known store called Fashion Bug, and maybe lesser known, Dots. These stores were formally considered the catalog for the “ratchet” girl. The girls who purchased make-up from Rite-aid or the around the way hair store. Girls considered to be “hood rats” before being a hood rat was cool.

I remember being young, in the mall, watching these girls go in and out of the store with bags and bags of Rainbow clothes. Outfits for almost every occasion. I also remember some of the whispers and looks for the girls who came from Rainbow with the huge bags. As years past, Rainbow had morphed from popping to being “that” store. The one where “those girls” shopped. I remember once reading Facebook comments about the clothes looking like they would, “make the skin itch.” The trendy powerhouse of the 90s became the “ghetto, cheap” store where none of us wanted to go, or where we went in secrecy. It was the store to get the big bangles, quick camisoles, and a basic t-shirt. Those gems that made Rainbow a go-to faded into the background. This was not the move anymore. The urban fashionistas transcended to Forever 21 and H&M. Of course, by this point the jelly sandals and door knockers had become a thing of the past. Skinny jeans, snapbacks, and Polo had moved in like a cold front. Rainbow was a background shop being dragged by Forever 21 and H&M.

It had become an unwritten punchline to a joke about the “basic girls at Rainbow.” Later, the emergence of Fashion Nova changed the entire game in about 2014. Fashion Nova became IT, especially with their magic jeans and crop tops. Fashion Nova and Forever 21 changed the game with their fashions except I couldn’t help but notice some of their clothes looked like Rainbow’s. From the fabric to the look, some of these clothes are the same. But what was it about Fashion Nova and Forever 21 that people loved so much? It could be they have everyday essentials or date night outfits or something cute and causal.  Somehow, the reputation of Fashion Nova was building while Rainbow kept its bad name and bad taste in people’s mouths.

For years, up until recently, Rainbow was tens of steps behind the trendier stores. Recently, Rainbow has been making a comeback, being featured in magazines as a “cheap on trend store.”

The point is, before Forever 21 and Fashion Nova made their way into the hearts of thousands of Baltimore girls, there was Fashion Bug, Dots, and Rainbow. Three stores that defined the kick back, ring dance, and night out looks for several years.

Elementary, my Woe

If I were to take an honest look at my early-childhood education, I would have to admit I was more blessed than I’d previously believed. Despite going to a public zone school in one of the many hoods of west Baltimore, I had teachers who showed me genuine care, support and love. For the most part, I felt respected, safe and guided.  I went to school close to my home in Easterwood with many of the other children from this low-income, African-American neighborhood. My classrooms were usually led by Black women who looked like me and the women in my family. They spoke to us in the language we spoke. They identified with our struggles, and did not judge us for going through them. Even with all the awkwardness that a young child feels as they adjust to an environment outside the comforts of home, I felt at home.

From the teachers, to the administrators to the volunteers, I was surrounded by Black women and men who cared at least a little bit. I never fully appreciated the diversity of the staff and parents at this school.  We had people from an array of cultures, family structures, age groups, gender identities and personal styles. The teachers and parents sported various hairstyles and colorful clothing. I particularly recall one administrator named Ms. Bullock, about mid-50s, who rocked this glorious, curly gray high-top fade. The fade stayed clean, okay? I think she even had hard curls at the top. The haircut was very much reminiscent of the Living Single and Martin-esque styles of the time. Thinking about this definitely reminds me that I started school in the ‘90s. A different time.

There was a queer, masculine woman named Ms. Florence who volunteered at our school almost every day. She was very kind and funny, but also delivered the necessary stern approach that teachers could not. She would remind whatever unruly student like “Hey, I’m not your teacher, I’ll beat your butt and tell your muva I did it!” Despite the opposing opinions of people who never have to deal with children, you do in fact have to be firm with them sometimes. And they will live if you roast them back a little. Anyway, Ms. Florence was probably around from grades K-4th, and made every lunch time, recess and movie time a fun, yet structured environment. For those of you who use the “my children will be confused” excuse in attempt to keep the existence of queer or same-gender-loving people away from children, I’ll tell you some of us were confused. I wondered why we called her “Ms.” even though her clothing and persona were more masculine than I had been taught to associate with women. Perhaps a better word would be curious, because that’s how I would describe my thoughts at the time.  I certainly wasn’t afraid to ask questions, and one day during movie time, I did. It went like this:

Me: “Ms. Florence, are you a boy or a girl?”

Ms. Florence: “What are you?”

Me: “A girl.”

Ms. Florence: “Well, okay then.”

That answered my damn question! No more confusion and I went on about my third-grade life. It was that simple. Talk to your kids!

There was also the very colorful, young, gay Mr. Ellis. He was the best art teacher I ever had. I loved his bold, sarcastic sense of humor and how his pastel crayons matched his many pastel sweaters.  He somehow planted a seed of confidence in me that snuck up on me later in life. He taught for a couple years then left after being struck by a car for the second time in two years. From what I heard, he was fine but no one really answered our questions about this situation. I certainly never forgot Mr. Ellis.

We had a classmate’s mother volunteer with us as well. This woman was the poster child for Lexington market in the early 2000’s. If you know, you know. She was a very kind, gentle, and funny woman. Every time I saw her, she was sporting a long, greasy dark brown ponytail, a black bubble coat and a big Styrofoam cup full of half-and-half (iced tea and lemonade). She was an either white or biracial woman who stood close to six feet tall with a very slim figure. Her teeth were somewhat crooked and discolored, but she still had one of the brightest smiles in the whole school. She, like many other parents, often brought her daughter a fresh chicken box for lunch a few times a week. She may not have been an official volunteer, but rather a parent who showed up often and shared her warmth with the other students. Her daughter was one of my earliest friends, and stayed my friend despite the fact that I threw up on her a little when I had the flu in kindergarten. She was as kind and gentle as her mother. Of all my memories of loving parent-child relationships, they will always stand out to me. I hope they are doing well.

I could go on through the entirety of my elementary school experience and the impact of each teacher because it was just that important to me.  So many kids in this city grow up ahead of the average child in traumatic experience, yet behind in all the resources deemed necessary for success. Somehow these teachers, administrators, and parents managed to provide me with a hilariously unconventional education that has kept me grounded two decades later. This is where I fell in love with the passion that would never leave me: writing. I saw my friends fall in love with drawing, dance, and music. I had no idea how fortunate we really were.

To many people (likely including my classmates) this school would be dismissed and condemned for both its location in central west Baltimore and the backgrounds of the students and parents who attended. It would be deemed unworthy of mention and assumed to offer nothing of value to its students. Just another ghetto Baltimore school. To be real, the school did have its fair share of issues, and maybe some things happened there that should not have. I’m pretty sure we shouldn’t have watched Scary Movie 3 AND Set it Off in the same week, but we didn’t die. I understand that many of us have been hurt at our schools in ways we believe others cannot understand. I understand that many of us feel that we have been cheated and abandoned because being born Black and poor disqualified us from a quality education early in life. I also understand that we look to our wealthier and whiter counterparts for what a good school environment should look like, and see that we didn’t have that. No, we did not have horseback riding and state-of-the art computer labs. We did not have organic chicken nuggets in the cafeteria and luxury hypo-allergenic reading rugs in the classrooms, but we had people like us who cared. We had the benefit of being under the care of people who were reflections of us. They effortlessly related to us and never had to be reminded of our humanity.  We were educated within our own culture, and never had to question our identities in the process. We were enough for ourselves.  This is an important difference between knowing and being proud of who you are, and having to spend your adult life trying to discover it. Two and two makes four no matter where you learn it. It’s everything else that counts.