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Baltimore Through A Reporter's Eyes: 'Primary Problems Are Not Racial'

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It was only a matter of time before Baltimore exploded - that stark view this week from Washington Post correspondent Michael Fletcher. He's lived in Baltimore for more than 30 years, and he joins me now to talk about the combustible city that he knows so well. Michael, where are you talking to us from?

MICHAEL FLETCHER: I'm standing in West Baltimore, actually near a large residential drug treatment center, not far from where the rioting took place, and right in the community where Freddie Gray lived.

BLOCK: You point out in The Washington Post, it was once home to Thurgood Marshall and Cab Calloway.

FLETCHER: Yes.

BLOCK: And the data now show just what a dire this part of the city is. It has twice the murder rate of Baltimore, twice the poverty rate, twice the unemployment rate...

FLETCHER: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...And a quarter to a third of the buildings are vacant. Is that very much what you see as you move around and talk to people there?

FLETCHER: Yeah, very much so. I mean, there are pockets of redevelopment. This drug treatment center itself is housed in the old Frederick Douglass High School where Thurgood Marshall once walked the halls as a student.

BLOCK: You say, Michael, that the primary problems that you see in Baltimore are not racial. Why is that?

FLETCHER: Right. You know, I was sort of saying that sort of in relation to Ferguson. Here in Baltimore you have a majority black city that's run by African-Americans. The mayor is black. City Council president is black. The top prosecutor, the police chief - go on and on - many of the judges who sit on the bench are African-American. And yet you have disparities here that are as gaping as anywhere in America.

BLOCK: You tell an anecdote in The Washington Post this week about a time when your wife's car was stolen from in front of your house in Baltimore and what the police told you then.

FLETCHER: Oh, yeah. It was so interesting. We were going through kind of the normal kind of Q&A about a stolen car. Then my wife asked, what do you guys do to try to find stolen cars? And the officer explained, just as clear as day - he said, well, typically the kids are joyriding. Your car will probably turn up, you know, out of gas somewhere, and that'll be that. But, you know, if we have time, if we see a bunch of young black guys in a car, we'll pull them over. And at the time, I was in my 20s. I'm African-American. My wife's African-American. And we just looked - we were kind of dumbfounded. And the officer, he didn't mean any harm - at least apparently not. I think he's also thinking, well, you guys are law-abiding folks, and, you know, you're the good guys kind of thing. And just so - we're not really - we're saying race, but we don't mean race. I mean, I think that was part of the code there.

BLOCK: As you've been talking to people this week, Michael, have you learned more about Freddie Gray and his family? Maybe does it give you a portrait of the problems that Baltimore faces?

FLETCHER: You get a picture of - another picture of the layers of problems and social ills that Sandtown is dealing with. He had suffered lead paint poisoning because of peeling - you know, peeling paint. He had some learning issues as a result of that. He was kind of on the periphery of the drug game. His mother used heroin. All these things were sort of talked about in court papers.

BLOCK: We've heard a lot of people talking this week about reinvesting - that this, you know, shines a light on these underprivileged communities that nobody seems to care about. Do you expect anything to change? Do you think this is a time that would really fundamentally change anything different about Baltimore?

FLETCHER: I wish I could be optimistic, and I certainly hope things do change, but it's not like Baltimore has not been invested in in the past. I mean, people in the city might complain that downtown gets a lot of investment, but when Kurt Schmoke was mayor, Sandtown itself had a huge investment. It was - then it was considered kind of a national model where foundations and government came together to renovate housing, sort of established wraparound social service programs, and, in their minds, sort of tried to raise Sandtown back up to be the place it used to be. And it's too - it's hard to call that effort a failure, but it certainly wasn't transformative.

BLOCK: Michael Fletcher, thanks so much for talking to us.

FLETCHER: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Michael Fletcher is a national economics correspondent with The Washington Post. He's lived in Baltimore since 1981. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.