As Latoya Peoples painted a mural with high school-age students Monday in Baltimore, she was determined not to let President Donald Trump’s recent tweets about the city “sink in too much.”
Peoples was in Sandtown-Winchester, the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up years before his death in police custody in 2015 prompted a racial uprising. Now Baltimore is in the spotlight again, this time because of the president’s recent attacks on Rep. Elijah Cummings, a powerful Trump critic who has represented Maryland in Congress for decades. Trump called the congressman’s district a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”
While parts of Maryland’s 7th Congressional District have struggled with poverty and crime, it also includes more affluent areas and Baltimore landmarks such as Johns Hopkins University and its hospital, the Social Security Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Elsewhere are cultural touchstones like the Baltimore Museum of Art and the world-class Walters Art Museum.
Residents of Maryland’s largest city say their home bears no resemblance to the place Trump described.
“People think you can’t walk through here. It’s intimidating,” Peoples said. “It’s nothing like that.”
Trump’s tweets paint an incomplete picture of a sprawling district that spans Baltimore City and parts of surrounding counties. It has stretches of empty storefronts and boarded-up homes, as well as trendy neighborhoods dotted with manicured parks and restaurants. It also has Pimlico Race Course, which is home to the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of horse-racing’s annual Triple Crown.
Sari Garbis, who lives in Clarksville, more than 20 miles from Baltimore City, said her community is diverse and well-educated and that she is “very proud” that Cummings represents her.
“You’re talking about a congressman that needs to represent very diverse interests,” Garbis said. “I believe that he represents my interests as well, and with the same sense of purpose, as he does the people of Baltimore City.”
Clarksville is in Howard County, which is routinely counted among the nation’s most affluent. So is Ellicott City, a historic mill town. As he stood outside a recreation center, longtime resident Mac Chrysskos said that nearby Baltimore has a crime problem that needs to be brought under control, but that attacks on the district were “totally uncalled for and totally unfair.”
Cummings’ district, which is nearly 53 percent black, has a median household income of $60,929, though there is a sizeable wealth gap between white and black residents.
Few residents will deny that Baltimore has problems with violent crime and drugs. The city’s murder rate has soared in recent years, with Baltimore recording more than 300 homicides in 2018, most from gunfire. Residents say those struggles have compounded over the years, owing to institutional segregation and neglect by the federal government.
The city’s previous mayor was forced to resign earlier this year. In the past five years, there have been five police commissioners.
Residents are clear-eyed about the community’s challenges but frustrated by Trump’s comments, which seemed to shrink the city to a crime-infested caricature.
Nancy O. Greene, who has lived in Baltimore for 15 years, pointed to the thriving arts community in her neighborhood of Charles Village and throughout the district. Greene said she supports Cummings but complains about times when “money was needed and money wasn’t received” by district residents.
“You’re not going to keep Baltimore down,” she added. “Despite anything, people will come together to defend the city. It has a rich history from Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald — you name it. … You can’t say this city doesn’t have a lot going for it.”
Other parts of the city are represented by two other Democratic lawmakers: Reps. John Sarbanes and Dutch Ruppersberger. Statewide, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1.
Earlier Monday, the Rev. Al Sharpton held a news conference at a West Baltimore church alongside former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a Republican.
Trump has described Sharpton as “a con man” who “Hates Whites & Cops!” Sharpton said Trump “has a particular venom for blacks and people of color.”
For his part, Steele challenged Trump to visit blighted areas of West Baltimore and talk with residents to learn about their challenges and understand their “hard work and commitment.”
“Mr. President, come on down,” Steele said. “The streets are ready for you. The neighborhoods are ready for you … Put the tweet down, brother, and show up.”
But some local residents say they are not interested in a visit from Trump.
Benn Ray, who lives in the Remington neighborhood of Baltimore City and is the co-owner of Atomic Books in neighboring Hampden, said Trump “hasn’t ingratiated himself to the city, he hasn’t made himself welcome.”
“I don’t know what city he is describing,” he said of Trump’s attacks. “Like every other city, we have rats and crime. We have good neighborhoods and bad. But as a city, and a community, we endeavor to make things better.”