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Charm City or Harm City: A Baltimore Documentary Reveals the Former

By Dylan Balter '19, Staff Writer

· Dylan Balter

The title flickers, oscillating between Charm City and Harm City.  Indicative of initial ambivalence in characterizing Baltimore, Marilyn Ness’ documentary ultimately reveals the often unspoken, yet powerful, community engagement present in Baltimore.  

In the opening scene, we meet the founder of the 900 Rose Street Community Center, Mr. C, who introduces himself amidst Baltimore’s infamous blue flashing lights.  As a community leader, Mr. C provides bus fare and assists with job applications for his neighbors.  Moreover, he encapsulates a deeper essence of community:  Mr. C fosters discussion about ways to reduce violence, provides a place for communal prayer, and organizes community birthday celebrations.

In juxtaposition with flickering birthday candles, Ness captures the solemn glow of vigil lights to demonstrate community unity in both celebration and sorrow.  In July 2015, Baltimore had the highest murder rate per capita, yet police solved only 38% of homicides.  When Mr. C holds a young man in tears after his friend’s murder, these statistics are seen.  When Mr. C’s mentee, Alex, mourns the murder of his sister, these statistics are felt.  Yet, when Alex chooses to retaliate not with violence, but rather with community engagement, these statistics are challenged.  

Alex’s employment through Safe Streets is one way in which Charm City presents Baltimore’s violence not as the story, but rather as the backdrop.  Instead, what takes the front seat are programs that help alleviate such violence while mobilizing communities.  Safe Streets is an organization spearheaded by the Baltimore City Health Department that employs men in Baltimore who have formerly been incarcerated and involved in the city’s violence.  Safe Streets trains these men to initiate community mediation with the goal of reducing violence.  The product of this community effort, which mobilizes community members to enable change rather than policing change, is remarkable: in 3 areas occupied by Safe Streets workers, no fatal shootings have occurred in over a year.

Moreover, the employment offered by Safe Streets enables these men to spark new communal initiatives, furthering an extended family and mentor network.  For example, Alex runs his own kickboxing class for children in the community.  Beginning each class with pushups, Alex smiles as he remarks that this gives youth something to look forward to in a community void of recreation centers, public transportation, and adequate schools.  Alex also critiques the norm of intervening when children are adolescents— we must help them when they are young and at their most critical developmental stage.  On the night of the vigil for Alex’s sister, a young boy runs over, tugging on Alex’s shirt and asks, “Practice today?”  Here, we see that, in the midst of anger and despair, a sense of hope and community thrives nonetheless.  Practice was cancelled that day, but it resumed the next.

While Charm City’s emphasizes community engagement, it does not overlook Baltimore’s violence and tension between the police and the people.  However, Charm City does rebuke the extremes that surround this tension— neither all police, nor all youth, are malicious.  Community Conversations, an effort to initiate candid conversation and refute extreme generalizations between Baltimore City Police and its people, attempts to reduce conflict through honesty.  In these conversations, police and youth are paired into twos, talking about their perspectives and slowly unearthing their vulnerabilities.  In one conversation, a teenage boy candidly speaks about how he was assumed to have a gun even though he was just adjusting his pants.  In another conversation, a police officer reveals that he is frequently racially profiled when not in uniform.  These dialogues spawn dual humanization of Baltimore’s youth and police, culminating in understanding with the potential for change:  in a final conversation, a police officer says that his take away is to approach youth on the street differently – instead of assuming wrongdoing, he promises to ask them how they are, how school is going, and how home life is.  The youth agree in unison, expressing that their request is to simply be treated respectfully.  

Today, the Safe Streets program is being expanded and the Community Conversations model is being reproduced throughout the city.  These programs, alongside the people who run them, demonstrate that Baltimore truly is Charm City.  The title’s sporadic flashes of Harm City naively overlook the beauty of community and the steps Baltimore is taking to engage its communities to sustainably reduce unprecedented violence.  Thus, in the title’s initial oscillation between Charm City and Harm City, the former title triumphs.   

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