How do we measure ‘good’ neighborhoods from ‘bad’ ones and change our perceptions of urban Baltimore?
The Midrash (Tanchuma) teaches the Torah is written with “black fire on white fire.” This means there is a dynamism at play in the interaction of word and parchment. It also means we ought to be paying as much attention to the spaces between the letters as to the letters themselves.
The rabbinic sages were teaching about the oral tradition, the layers of hidden wisdom beyond the Torah’s plain meaning. But this midrash is also a reminder of how often we see only from one perspective. Like the famous optical illusion of two faces with a cup between, some of us see the faces, others the chalice. But, say social scientists, we can train ourselves to see both, if not in the same instance.
The way we perceive gathering spaces is not all that different from how we see Torah or optical illusions. The Jewish community, of course, values our Jewish spaces. We construct houses of worship reflecting our aesthetic, with Torah verses or Jewish art adorning the walls. Jewishly oriented space helps us to feel comfortable and secure in a world where Jews too often don’t. The first (and only) time my wife and I ate (vegetarian) at Zahav in Philadelphia, I also felt that way. To see food in such a highly regarded restaurant served with Hebrew clippings from Israeli newspapers made me swell with pride.
Those of us who have white skin don’t always consider the ways our majority status means we are naturally comfortable in most spaces where people of color may not be. When the Dovecote Café opened around the corner from my house (and Beth Am), I was amazed at how quickly it became a central gathering spot for West Baltimore. Art by Black artists adorns the walls and music piped through the speakers affirms African-American culture past and present. Neighbors, of all races and backgrounds, breeze in and out of this unapologetically Black space, picking up a coffee or slice of peach upside-down cake, or sitting for hours working, or chatting with friends.
But this is not the image many people have of urban Baltimore. Instead, we hear of unbridled violent crime, failing schools and rampant drug use. These stories have become predominant narratives of Black neighborhoods, eclipsing the cultural vibrancy and social connectivity of Black spaces. These stories become self-fulfilling prophesies of doom, furthering divestment if not all out condemnation.
How many of us ask ourselves how we measure “good” neighborhoods over “bad” ones? Ibram X. Kendi notes in his recent book “How to Be an Antiracist” (One World), “The idea of the dangerous Black neighborhood is the most powerful racist idea …. for instance people steer away from and stigmatize Black neighborhoods as crime ridden streets where you might have your wallet stolen ….”
But Kendi points out “… estimated losses from white color crime are believed to be between $300 and $600 billion per year, according to the FBI. By comparison, near the height of violent crime in 1995, the FBI reported the combined cost of burglary and robbery to be $4 billion.”
When I support a Black-owned and culturally Black space, with my dollars and my willingness to be present on the terms of the owners and patrons, I am contributing to a more just and equitable society.
For those who want to see urban Baltimore at its best, there are numerous opportunities to do so in many wonderful Baltimore neighborhoods. But you can also remain in Pikesville to support Black-owned business. The Baltimore Sun recently featured (baltimoresun.com/entertainment) the wonderful NextAct Cinemas, housed in the historic Pikes Theatre on Reisterstown Road. I recently visited (all the way from the city) to see “Just Mercy,” the remarkable story of Bryan Stevenson who created the Equal Justice Initiative. The film was great. But seeing it in one of only a handful of Black-owned theaters, in the heart of Jewish Baltimore, that felt a bit like the midrashic conception of black fire meeting white fire — something dynamic, just and even sacred.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg is spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill, where he lives with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, and their children, Eliyah and Shamir. This column and others also can be found on The Urban Rabbi. Each month in Jmore, Rabbi Burg explores a different facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood, a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish values reimagined in Baltimore.
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