Metropole Bookshelf: Revisiting Baltimore

The Metropole Bookshelf is an opportunity for authors of forthcoming or recently published books to let the UHA community know about their new work in the field.

Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City. Eds. Nicole King, Kate Drabinski, and Joshua Davis. Rutgers University Press, 2019. 

By Kate Drabinski & Nicole King

When the president of the United States tweets that Representative Elijah Cummings’s district in Baltimore “is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” a “very dangerous & filthy place,” and “No human being would want to live there,” we know this kind of coded racist language has a long history in attacks on cities and the people who call them home. We must fight for our humanity and our right to the city, again and again, but always with an eye to the past as a guide to understand the long trajectory that got us to where we are today in Baltimore and cities like it.

As we admit in the introduction to Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City, we live in troubled times, especially in Baltimore. Yet this is not a cause for pessimism. We prefer to see our new collection on the city’s social history as a “reflection on a moment, a teaching tool, and a call for action, including engaging in more rigorous and collaborative research and public programming on the past and present stories of Baltimore.” We fight the dehumanization of the poor and working-class residents of our city by continuing in the project of amplifying their stories and the long history of resistance.

Picket line. Protesting Jim Crow admission policy at Ford’s Theater, Baltimore, MD. Mrs. Adah Jenkins pictured far left; Dr. John E.T. Camper forth from left. Photo by Paul S. Henderson, March 1948. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

In 2014, we co-taught a humanities scholars course, “Place and Public History in Baltimore,” at UMBC and used The Baltimore Book: New Views on Local History as a central text. When it was released in 1991, The Baltimore Book was groundbreaking. Arising from a radical history bus tour, it told the story of the city’s neighborhoods from the perspective of workers rather than their bosses, the people of Baltimore rather than the politicians and captains of industry whose stories are often centered. The book also bears the mark of its time. The focus on labor history meant the book didn’t fully discuss histories of immigration and migration, racial strife, gender and sexuality, and other important subaltern histories. The city and its place in the world have also changed since 1991. Baltimore is a prototypical neoliberal city where the public good is privatized and sold to the highest bidder. It was time for a new collection on the city acknowledging how the past must inform the present we inhabit and the future we envision.


What unfolded was a series of conversations with scholars, activists, artists, and educators from across the city. We asked ourselves to think about what a new Baltimore Book for the 21st century would look like and then put out a call for proposals. This new book needed to explore subaltern histories. And we needed to reckon with the question why history? What can public history do to advance equity and justice in Baltimore and beyond? How could we better understand the roots of inequality and resistance? How can research on Baltimore help us understand postindustrial cities more generally?

This last question was a tricky one. The book is definitely about Baltimore, and that place-based focus is vital to advancing the more general work of Baltimore thinkers and writers who are focused on space, race, and political economy—a loose-knit group dubbed the Baltimore School by Johns Hopkins University professor Lester Spence. We are committed to figuring out how these histories can help us shape the city, which like so many others, struggles to find its way in a postindustrial landscape of massive wealth inequality, serial displacement, and persistent racism. Baltimore is a poor city in one of the richest states in the country. Baltimore also has one of the highest rates of hypersegregation of any city in the country and is, in the words of contributor and Morgan State University public health scholar Lawrence Brown, an apartheid city. It is a city where the neighborhood you are born in can impact your life expectancy by decades. Our task as public thinkers is to figure out how to challenge and change these dynamics, and build a city for the people who live here… all of them.

“Corporate Wealth” mural by Nether. Photo by Marisela Gomez, 2016.

These are issues familiar to scholars of urban history. We want the book to be useful to people researching and organizing in New Orleans, Detroit, Oakland, St. Louis, Atlanta, and all other places facing questions about how to develop without displacement and reclaim their right to the city.

With thirty authors and twenty-seven chapters, the book covers a lot of ground. It has chapters about Jewish-African American relations; queer organizing in the 1970s and 1980s; the impact of Johns Hopkins on the African American neighborhoods it displaced; the history of food markets and food access; and so much more. And because any history is also a history of the present, the book looks at more recent developments, including attempts to redevelop core blocks on the west side of downtown and the newest development scheme—Port Covington, a massive new development spearheaded by the CEO of Under Armour. We find resistance in worker collectives, activist businesses, young environmental activists in South Baltimore, and overlooked communities such as Korean-American shop owners and Lumbee Indians of East Baltimore.

The book ends with a meditation on how we archive, collect, and remember the city’s recent past–specifically preserving memories of the uprising in April 2015, following the murder of Freddie Gray by Baltimore city police. The Baltimore Uprising happened in the early stages of developing this collection and the murder of Freddie Gray and all the women and men like him haunt the book as a renewed call to action.

Baltimore Uprising, 2015. Photo by J.M. Giordano.

Issues of police violence, racial segregation, persistent inequalities, disinvestment, and development with displacement—these are not specific to Baltimore alone. We hope that readers will find these stories of inequality and resistance helpful in thinking both about the roots of systemic inequalities in cities more generally, and, how we can learn from the past and continue to fight and resist with renewed vigor and clarity.

Kate Drabinski is a senior lecturer in gender, women’s, and sexuality studies and director of Women Involved in Learning and Leadership, a feminist activist program, both at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Nicole King is an associate professor and chair of the department of American studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is the author of Sombreros and Motorcycles in the Newer South: The Politics of Aesthetics in South Carolina’s Tourism Industry.


Featured image (at top): Howard Street Bridge, Baltimore, Maryland, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, November 1, 2008, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 


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