As much as it is a city, in so many ways it feels like a small town. It can be provincial, and the degrees of separation are more like two than six.
There are people in east Baltimore who would never dare to hang out in west Baltimore and vice versa, simply because that's how it has always been. I know because I grew up in west Baltimore, and talking about the city and who I know can feel like name dropping.
I attended high school with the current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake; I've known best-selling author Laura Lippman and her husband, David Simon, creator of HBO's "The Wire," since the days I was an editorial assistant at The Baltimore Sun and they were reporters churning out stunning prose about the city.
I first met "Gotham" star Jada Pinkett Smith when we were teens and she was dating one of my childhood friends. Likewise, Academy Award winning-actress Mo'Nique and I have crossed paths: We dated the same man (though not at the same time and she later married and divorced him).
Friends frequently ask me questions about the very popular podcast "Serial," because I used to live right up the street from the now famous Best Buy and I worked for a time with the podcast's creator, Sarah Koenig. One of my first stories as a cub reporter at the Sun was on a then up-and-coming Baltimore city councilman named Martin O'Malley who went on to become governor of the state of Maryland and is buzzed about as a potential presidential candidate.
While the names I can rattle off may be slightly high-profile, having a quilt of Baltimore connections is not rare for anyone who calls Charm City "home." We all know somebody who knows somebody, it seems. And yet for all the connectedness, there have always been two Baltimores.
The tale of two cities goes like this: White Baltimore has long been beehive hairdos, John Waters films and the annual "HonFest" which celebrates "Bawlmer." Black Baltimore is car clubs gathered on weekends at Druid Hill Park, shopping at Mondawmin Mall and, of course, "The Wire."
I worked at Mondawmin Mall as a teen and jokingly called it "Black Marsh" in reference to the then more upscale White Marsh Mall in the suburb of Baltimore County. When I was growing up, Mondawmin Mall was where you went for the freshest outfits, to grab a mixtape of club music by a local DJ who goes by the moniker "Boobie," and where you were guaranteed to find a black Santa during the Christmas season.
The mall also had a reputation for violence, and I remember gunshots ringing out there on more than one occasion. That is why I felt a sense of pride a few years ago when my mother told me the national retailer Target had moved in as a big-box store at Mondawmin. "Oh yeah," my mother said. "Mondawmin is coming up."
That memory is one of the reasons it hurt all the more to watch Mondawmin become ground zero for a clash between youth and Baltimore police officers. While the death of Freddie Gray in police custody was the catalyst for peaceful protests, the mayhem that later ensued has been less about justice for his death and more about the seeming disparity between black Baltimore and white Baltimore.
My friend and former Baltimore Sun colleague Gus Sentementes said it best in his Facebook posting.
"Hi friends from all over who are watching Baltimore burn on TV," he wrote. "What's happening today is wrong and criminal, but it was, sadly, inevitable. Our public schools are broken, our police, while acting valiantly today, have a deserved reputation for harassing poor blacks, our city is largely segregated, and entire neighborhoods have lost black men to the drug war and homicide. What you're seeing today has been brewing for years. It's heartbreaking. The looting is happening today, but the neglect has been going on for years."
I wish I could say I was at all surprised by the powder keg that has been touched in my hometown, but it's been a long time simmering.
In 2014 The Baltimore Sun published an investigation titled "Undue Force"
about the almost $6 million the city of Baltimore had paid since 2011 stemming from lawsuits charging officers with false arrests, false imprisonment and using excessive force against suspects.
"These officers taint the whole department when they create these kinds of issues for the city," the paper reported City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young saying. "I'm tired of the lawsuits that cost the city millions of dollars by some of these police officers."
I've heard the stories of alleged police harassment and I've witnessed firsthand the anger. None of it negates how very wrong it is to loot and destroy already struggling neighborhoods. As some debated whether CVS would return to the community after rioters smashed windows and grabbed what they could, I grappled with the mindset that would cause anyone to set fire to a much needed senior center
being constructed by Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore.
Being hundreds of miles away from my hometown has made it even harder to witness. Sitting in my bedroom in Atlanta, I wept for all the pain, all the destruction and for the heroes of this story -- like the man who identified himself to CNN as Robert Valentine, a Vietnam vet, who stood between a group of tense youth and Baltimore police on Monday night.
"They need to have their butts at home," he said of the young people. "I love my country, I love my Charm City and I am an American."
I cried as I juxtaposed Facebook postings from white friends in Baltimore who called the rioters "thugs" and "scum" with postings from white friends, like Gus, who reached across the divide and tried to engage in conversations about how Baltimore got to this point.
On Monday night, white Baltimore and black Baltimore came together in horror and collectively our hearts were broken.