Right to the City: anthropology students hit the streets for real talk

Spring collaboration shows students the city, instead of just telling them

May 10, 2016

Anthropology students learn how development deals cause displacement in East Baltimore
Anthropology students learn how development deals cause displacement in East Baltimore

If Baltimore’s year-long tumult is a teachable moment, then the city has waited about 100 years for apt pupils. This spring, Towson University anthropology students have gained a new perspective simply by standing on its streets and listening.

A collaboration called "Right to the City" brings Professors Matthew Durington, Sam Collins and Nicole Fabricant and their classes together with community activists to discuss the systemic socioeconomic and racial issues that have troubled Baltimore for generations.  The collaboration grew from conversations between the professors and their students after the death of Freddie Gray.

“When the uprising occurred last spring, we all found ourselves in each other’s classrooms helping to facilitate conversation and learning from our student’s reactions, as well as each other,” said Durington. “We decided that we wanted to do something strategic and meaningful while there would be discussion around these issues.”

"Right to the City" is based on the notion that people who live in Baltimore have a right to stay there and be treated with respect, regardless of job status, income, background, race or other factors. The professors and activists wanted students to see first-hand both the overt and unintended ways people can be pushed out—particularly through development deals and economic initiatives.

“Talking about issues of rent and then driving past giant condominiums, and then talking about industry leaving and driving past rotted-out factories, I think it’s a really good positioning of this narrative,” said Nora Holzinger ’17, an anthropology major from Montgomery County, as she stood with other students in the city’s Middle East neighborhood in March. “Talking about things conceptually and then having a visualization of it—it’s been kind of emotional.”

The students that day had varied understandings of the city. It was community collaborators—Free Your Voice member Destiny Watford ’17, the Democracy Collaborative’s John Duda, and author Marisela Gomez—who expanded on the packaged news images and academic classroom approaches with the whole-picture realities, rich with contradiction.

Standing in one of Baltimore’s most expensive neighborhoods in front of a sparkling Inner Harbor, Duda explained how the forces that attracted upper-income residents made homeownership impossible for generations of lifelong Baltimoreans. On a littered rec center field, Watford shared how Curtis Bay residents plagued by high rates of pollution-related respiratory disease favored building the nation’s largest incinerator because it might bring jobs. At renters’ court downtown, members of the Right to Housing Alliance discussed how often landlords have the upper hand in disputes with low-income earners in decrepit housing. In the city’s Middle East neighborhood, Gomez walked several blocks with students, pointing out the ways that decades of Johns Hopkins’ expansion has forced people out of their homes even while doing life-saving work that could benefit millions.

“I didn’t know about the structural, systemic issues that we were talking about,” said senior Morgan Bengel, a cultural studies and anthropology student from Harford County whose grandmother had lived in the city’s Brooklyn neighborhood. “From my family’s perspective, there was always that sort of outsider world of having a sense of fear about these particular areas.”

A few weeks later, in an old church on St. Paul Street now simply known as 2640, the students ran their own event as a follow-up. They talked with activists, other students, and residents about what they had learned from each other and where to go from here.

“I think that was the first time a lot of those students had been exposed to… someone saying that there is more to discussing these topics than talking to people from the same background as you,” said Holzinger. “You have to be in communication with the people in the community, and be a little uncomfortable.”

It’s a timely lesson not just for Baltimore, but for TU, where students and activists have been pushing for more dialogue and less racism.

“One connection students made in the 2640 event was precisely that inequality in Baltimore and inequality at Towson are linked—and that both Towson University and Baltimore City partake of the same processes,” said Collins.

Fabricant said the understandings can go beyond anthropology students. She said "Right to the City" and other collaborative efforts help the invisible become visible. She hoped that these could be models for how the university continues to engage with the community.

“I would love to see a meaningful relationship built, whereby we have a sustained presence in communities and are a part of efforts to create healthier, more sustainable, more democratic cities,” she said.

Durington and Collins have worked on projects the university includes in its Baltimore-Towson University, or BTU, partnership program. "Right to the City" is still developing and is not currently included. Durington said the professors plan to create unified curriculum based on undergraduate research with their collaborators in the coming semesters.