Themes in Baltimore’s Story

Lee Boot is Research Associate Professor/Associate Director of UMBC’s Imaging Research Center

Lee BootA number of us from UMBC have been working with partners from across Baltimore–artists, civic leaders, and faculty, staff and students from local colleges and universities–to plan for the Imagining America conference (October 1-3, 2015). Imagining America supports creative work in the arts, humanities, and design fields to advance diversity, inclusion, and democracy. We’re thinking about themes and locations for conference activities that will engage participants from across the U.S. in Baltimore’s stories, challenges, and innovations.

In preparation for a recent meeting of this Baltimore Organizing Group, I put together a rough summary of themes that had come up in our previous meetings: a highly abbreviated account of Baltimore’s distinctive history, and its urgent challenges and opportunities, as seen through the eyes of the group’s members. I’m sharing it because I thought the key themes people came up with are so salient to recent events:

Perhaps [the most central theme] is that the city we have, and our experiences in it, can be understood as socially designed (versus inevitable or accidental). Both responsibility and potential are revealed in this understanding of social design. Are such designs artifacts of, and also contributors to, culture, and if so, in what ways? Also voiced was a consistent desire and need to see through our present day systems and circumstances to the history from which they evolved. For example, when we talked about categorization, red-lining, or gentrification the discussion was coupled with stories about Baltimore as a point of origin not only for Star-Spangled Banner and the Civil War, but early railroads and nationally-recognized writers, the intentional and codified segregation of communities, and even the pseudo-science of phrenology. Our harbored and central location on the East Coast made us a transportation and industrial nexus, a key port in the slave trade and builder of its ships, and perhaps as a consequence, a contested, dynamic, elusive border that both divided and included North and South, Black and White, free and slave, rich and poor and the cultures of immigrants. Also in our history are innovators, leaders, and creators of justice and hope such as free Black businessman and labor leader, Isaac Myer and his shipyard; courageous protesters and organizers; and innumerable other iconoclastic figures from Poe and Mencken to Holliday, Shakur, Simon…Real News. Our layered complexity can be illuminated and made valuable to citizens through the work of the arts, humanities, design, and social sciences.

Race runs through everything: politics; crime; the geography of neighborhoods; transportation; socio-economic divisions; injustice; displacement; all levels of education including the school to prison pipeline; employment; the arts…To quote J.C. Faulk at the most recent Art-part’heid meeting, race is a constructed illusion, whereas racism is very real.

The cycle of boom and bust took Baltimore from being an industrial mecca to a recent example of de-industrialization and the nationwide challenge to find an economic plan that serves everyone but leaves us less vulnerable than in the past.

What is that plan? We have assets that include an innovative brain trust, makers, culture workers and community scholars that could make us a leader not only in technology and medicine, but in addressing the problems of our time and releasing our potential. However, though as a whole, Maryland’s schools, including arts programs, are among the best in the nation, the state of education in our city—often arts-less risks the future of Baltimore’s youth—particularly Black and underserved youth. Powerfully encouraging is the fact that Baltimore’s youth are finding their voices and agency in protests, poetry, and filmmaking… Organized efforts such as the Algebra Project, Urban Debate League, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and numerous community arts organizations including the Youth Resiliency Institute, Dew More Baltimore, New Lens, Viewfinders, Wide Angle…and many more, all contribute to a growing sense of democratization that starts with citizens often still too young to vote.

In recent years, the arts have flourished in Baltimore for some, but not all residents . Why? As with our neighborhoods, educational achievement, and socioeconomic status, the divisions between the “haves and have nots” in the arts appear to be racial. Interestingly, Baltimore is home to a disproportionate number of social practice artists. There is a powerful sense here that the arts may be able to make progress where laws, institutions, technology, medicine, and high stakes testing have failed. But how does it work? How do we understand or measure the change the arts bring? Are all arts-making intentions equally beneficial? What are the factors that contribute to the rise in Baltimore’s social practice scene?

What is the current and potential role of colleges and universities? Should researchers and students restrict their civic engagement to the neighborhoods in which they actually live? What does, say, critical participatory action research (CPAR) really look like on the ground when it’s working? And what about the impact of foundations and non-profits, and what provides these groups the social license to intervene in places where they are inclined to do so?

What is Baltimoreans’ relationship to the natural environment of Baltimore? What does nature mean in the context of our city? How important is the bay—what we put into it, and what we get from it? How are green spaces valuable, and to whom? Who cares about them? Who uses them? Where do we get our food? Who can get what food where? Are urban farms a long-term solution to affordable nutrition? How much control do we have over our food, based on our circumstances?

This list is far from complete, but it’s a start. In its remaining spring meetings, the Baltimore Organizing Group will continue to identify gaps in this list and develop plans for a rich and productive conference that provides attendees with access to the heart of our city’s challenges and potential.

Contact the author, Lee Boot, at



  1. […] For more information, please see UMBC will host Imagining America’s 2015 National Conference, Themes in Baltimore’s Story, and Addressing Social Inequalities in Fall […]

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