The Trouble with “Simple” Solutions

I recently spent the better part of a day showing around two people from Twitter who were in town to check out Baltimore, as they were considering moving here.  Since I do my best to try and help bring in new people to the city, I figured I’d show them around some of the areas they were interested in, as well as some that I thought would also be a good fit.  Both of them were very involved in the activist community, and very interested in social justice, so we had some good conversations about gentrification and segregation and the relationship Baltimore has with both.  I told them about the positive things that the city has to offer, but also did not shy away from discussing some of its issues as well.  Unfortunately, that led our discussion down a path that I am sadly very acquainted with: the naïve simple solution proposition.



West Baltimore

It usually goes something like this:  “Well, why don’t they just do X?”


Without fail, the answer is almost always:  “Because of Y.  Which we can’t fix because of Z.” (Z is usually lack of funding)


I see a lot of handwringing about the state of the city of Baltimore; some from those of us within its oddly square bounds, but mostly from those looking in from a very distant outside.  Here’s the thing:  the handwringing is legitimate.  We have a serious problem with crime (especially youth crime), we have some big infrastructure problems (raw sewage in your basement, anyone?), some of the worst de-facto segregation in the country, and a host of other issues.  The problem is that most of the proposed solutions to these problems come from “outside experts” who don’t really seem to have a great grasp on the city, and it’s my opinion that this is one of the reasons that those solutions often fail.


I know a little bit about this firsthand.  When I did my thesis, I wrote about gentrification and de-facto segregation in several Boston neighborhoods.  When I go back and re-read it, it’s painfully obvious to me that even though I spent a year doing fieldwork in the city and a year doing research, I still did not have the insight that comes with living in a place for more than a few months and with observing a place over time.  My writing comes off as almost condescending to me now, and it’s a tone that I now recognize when I hear “experts” (or worse, Joe Schmoe) talk about how we should “fix” our city.  Without a local perspective, any solution is likely to be incomplete and therefore, ultimately, to fail.  Not only that, but hearing these solutions as a local is equal parts hilarious, insulting, and infuriating.


“You should sell your vacant houses for cheap so people can fix them up!”  Thanks, but we already do.  The problem is, we don’t have the funding for the bureaucracy that it takes to properly make sure that they’re renovated and then maintained, so instead it just often exacerbates the slumlord problem we already struggle with.


“You should put in more public transit!”  Yes, we’d love to, but Governor Hogan thought it was better to score political points with his buddies in Annapolis and DC by torpedoing our shovel-ready Red Line project, setting public transit improvement in the city back by at least a decade.  We can barely afford the buses we do have.


“You should give people jobs helping fix up vacant houses!”  Pray tell, with what money would we pay them, and pay to properly train them in construction?  Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to, for instance, see someone open up a trade school here teaching preservation trades to help fix up Baltimore’s beautiful but aging architecture, but those things take money, which is something the city is in short supply of.


“But if you spend a little money now, it will really help out in the long run!”  Yes, but unfortunately, just like many of its citizens living paycheck to paycheck below the poverty line, Baltimore mostly runs from budgetary fire to budgetary fire, trying to put out the ones that are the most likely to burn the whole thing down.  We sadly do not have the privilege of being able to invest much in our future at this time, it seems.


Don’t take my answers as defeatist.  If I thought that Baltimore was going to be forever stuck in a rut of crumbling infrastructure, crime, and unemployment, I wouldn’t have just bought a house here.  Even in the two years I’ve been here, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of positive change.  I’ve seen a so-so neighborhood become the new hot spot (Remington), and I’ve seen a really bad neighborhood become an affordable option for middle class families (Oliver).  I’ve seen half a dozen new community spaces open up, I’ve seen plenty of new local businesses not just start up but thrive and grow, and I’ve heard more and more people down in DC talk seriously about moving here.  Hell, I’ve heard people from several states away talk seriously about moving here.


But it’s important, especially in the midst of such change, to remember that it is often the people who already live in a place that are the ones best suited to know how to change it.

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