Hope and Thanksgiving in Baltimore


I was biking to work one day this summer and came upon a man decorating a police box. Y'know. A normal day in Baltimore. It was July 8th, the new interns and residents were one week old, and the city was getting ready for Artscape*. On my bike that morning though, I didn't put two and two together. I hadn't had coffee, was paying attention to the road, and was thinking about the day ahead (patients to see, resident outpatient supervision with my brand new supervisee!). Still, this creation stopped me in my tracks. On this face of the box, the mirrored writing says "BUILD TRUST PLEASE".

In the days after phones were invented but while they still had to be attached to wires to work, police boxes allowed citizens to come ask for help, and police could call for assistance, get out of the weather, and so forth. You can see this very police box, sans bedazzling, in the Wikipedia entry on police boxes. Really.

This summer, this Artscape, was taking place in a post-Freddie Gray Baltimore. Freddie Gray was arrested by Baltimore City police on April 12th. He died while in police custody, and the trials of six officers charged in his death (2 with assault, 3 with manslaughter, and one with second degree murder "with a depraved heart") are to begin next week. After Mr. Gray's death, protestors marched and sang, and the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum. While there was a great deal of anger, the vast majority of those expressing it did so peacefully.

Chaos and disorder need only a few instigators, whether they are malignant cells in a tumor or those bent on civic destruction. Baltimore subsequently experienced civil unrest, burning and looting of stores (including thousands of doses of opioids stolen from a drug store) and a senior center. The governor declared a state of emergency and the National Guard were called in. It was just a few days. It was heartbreaking. The organized, forceful, articulate protests were drowned out by the melodrama of "city on fire" coverage.

The single best web page encapsulating the systemic causes underlying Baltimore's unrest presents a series of maps depicting the geographical and socioeconomic interrelationships between poverty, life expectancy, the abandonment of neighborhoods by businesses. It's the New York Times at its best - data-y, compelling, and clear, a show-me-don't-tell-me description of why some in this city I love are in a pretty hopeless place and might resort to violence. By contrast, this piece of hand-wringing plays to baser journalistic instincts, casting Baltimore as "fragile" and "struggling." Baltimore is a complicated place, but if you listed all 42,869** English adjectives, I would put "fragile" at number 42,869. Yes, that far down. Baltimore is tough, spirited, vibrant, creative, quirky, beautiful, dark (in places), friendly, and beauful. Charming.

Forget fragile, as this letter-writer to the NYT says. The senior center that burned is rebuilding. Neighborhoods have been rescued (Station North, Harbor East, Remington). Charter schools are thriving (City Neighbors, Henderson Hopkins, Bard High School Early College).

And the arts thrive too. The creative expression of Baltimore's spirit keeps going and going.

I didn't know his name until yesterday, when I started writing this post, but Loring Cornish was the man I saw getting his mirror on all over that police box. He is a visionary artist, untrained but committed and inspired. He is an African American man making a powerful statement. An exhortation to heal. An emphasizer of building rather than destroying.

Trust is a beautiful thing. It is the lifeblood of the doctor-patient relationship. It takes two to build, sometimes over years, and it can be shattered in an instant, like shards of a mirror. But there is the opportunity to rebuild. Baltimore knows this well. Mr. Cornish's demand is built of mirrors, that we might reflect on our own roles in the building and tearing down of trust. Every day I ride my bike to work I pass this monument to hope, this reflection of our consciousness and intentions toward each other. I am thankful for all this city has given me - outstanding professional training, deeply felt relationships with my colleagues, trainees, and patients, brief encounters that lift my spirits, a world of creativity and community.

May peace be upon us all. Happy Thanksgiving.

- S

*According to promotional materials on its website, Artscape is "is America's largest free arts festival, attracting 400,000+ attendees over three days. Artscape features 150+ fine artists, fashion designers and craftspeople; visual art exhibits on and off-site, including exhibitions, outdoor sculpture, art cars, photography and the Janet & Walter Sondheim Prize; incredible live concerts on outdoor stages; a full schedule of performing arts including dance, opera, theater, film, experimental music and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; family events such as hands-on projects, demonstrations, competitions, children's entertainers and street theater; and a delicious, international menu of food and beverages that is available throughout the festival site. Artscape's total economic impact on Baltimore City is $25.97 million."

**Someone is going to ask me how I arrived at this number, and on the one hand it's nonsense and on the other this page claims both that there are 171,476 words in the English language and that roughly one quarter of them of are adjectives. So there.

[Sisyphus, an alumnus of the Phipps residency, will post occasionally on living in Baltimore, the view from ground level. - Ed.]

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