December 15, 2017
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What city bus systems can tell us about race, poverty and who we are

By Mary Hui, Washington Post
IVAN ALVARADO | REUTERS | BDN
IVAN ALVARADO | REUTERS | BDN
A woman travels on a bus

Standing on the sidewalk with her back to the traffic, Shan Wallace took a step backward, off the curb and onto the road, her black Sony A7 camera swinging from her shoulder. She leaned back and gazed down the broad avenue, into the distance.

Where was the bus? When was it going to come?

The traffic continued to roar by, but the bus was nowhere to be seen.

Wallace stepped back onto the curb. At the bus stop with her were some 15 other people, and together they waited for the bus that would take them down North Avenue, toward the city’s west side.

For many in Baltimore, buses are woven deep into daily life. And they also tell an important story about the city and its history, rooted in racial and economic divides that have shaped the course of its development over the decades.

“You see a true reflection of the city’s politics just taking a bus ride around the city,” Wallace said.

Standing on the sidewalk with her back to the traffic, Shan Wallace took a step backward, off the curb and onto the road, her black Sony A7 camera swinging from her shoulder. She leaned back and gazed down the broad avenue, into the distance.

Where was the bus? When was it going to come?

The traffic continued to roar by, but the bus was nowhere to be seen.

Wallace stepped back onto the curb. At the bus stop with her were some 15 other people, and together they waited for the bus that would take them down North Avenue, toward the city’s west side.

For many in Baltimore, buses are woven deep into daily life. And they also tell an important story about the city and its history, rooted in racial and economic divides that have shaped the course of its development over the decades.

“You see a true reflection of the city’s politics just taking a bus ride around the city,” Wallace said.

Wallace is a 26-year-old photographer based in Baltimore, where she was born and raised. Tall, with long dreadlocks, she speaks softly but with conviction and wears an assortment of buttons on her all-black outfit: “Very Black.” “Black Power.” “Black Women Rock.”

For as long as Wallace can remember, the bus has been her way of getting around the city. She has fond childhood memories of catching the bus with her dad to go downtown from her west Baltimore home. Instead of waiting idly at a bus stop, they would walk until the bus came, passing the time with long conversations. Sometimes, they would beat the bus to their destination.

“Just small life lessons while waiting for the bus,” Wallace said. Lessons like how to overcome her fears to walk past two giant Rottweilers, but also why one block of the avenue can be teeming with businesses while the next block is blighted and vacant.

Now, years later, she continues to be a regular bus rider. And she continues to draw small but important lessons from that daily experience. They are lessons in inequity and iniquity, identity and community, and how all that plays out on buses that crisscross the city, at bus stops that dot the streets.

Wallace recently showcased her work in an exhibit titled “What We Learn While Waiting” at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center as part of the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy, a 10-day incubator program for social entrepreneurs.

Through her photos, Wallace documents Baltimore’s buses, bus stops and the people who fill those spaces. For her, the bus system is the beating heart of the city. Moving within it, she puts her camera up to her eye and captures snapshots of everyday life in Baltimore.

“I see through a lens, and I see things that I don’t see with my eyes,” Wallace said. “The camera is my third eye.”

And with that third eye, she hopes to illuminate the questions that race through her mind when she waits for the bus.

Where are people going? Why are they taking the bus? Why are so many homes vacant? Why does west Baltimore look so different from east Baltimore – the west seemingly abandoned, the east quickly gentrifying? What does it mean to be “the Greatest City in America”?

Tied up in a simple bus ride and in the mundane act of sitting on a bench, waiting for a bus, Wallace said, are deeper questions of socioeconomic status, class and race.

“I think about the circumstances of everybody, but also where all those circumstances are rooted,” she said.

She wants people to dissect a still moment in time and to reflect on questions that aren’t talked about enough. And she wants to make this opportunity accessible to all.

“Not everyone can read a 1,200-page book,” Wallace said. “But everyone can look at a picture and ask questions.”

Behind the humble bus is a long and complex history, closely intertwined with race and civil rights: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott of the mid-1950s; the Freedom Riders of the 1960s; Boston’s busing crisis of the mid-1970s, when a court ordered that kids be bused across town to desegregate schools.

Today, race, socioeconomics and transportation remain intimately linked. Bus riders across the nation are poorer and more likely to be minorities than those traveling by car. Since the recession, more than 70 percent of the nation’s transit agencies have cut service or raised fares, according to the American Public Transportation Association, having a disproportionate impact on the poor.

And perhaps nowhere can the ties between transportation and racial and economic inequality be seen more clearly than in Baltimore.

The city used to boast an extensive streetcar system dating to 1885, but the spread of car culture after World War II led to the system’s demise in 1963.

“Baltimore was now a bus and car city,” writes the journalist Alec MacGillis in an article for Places journal about the city’s transportation and racial history.

Still, the almost-century-old streetcar system had by then facilitated a decades-long expansion of suburbia, making possible the migration of middle-class whites out of the city. The construction of new highways in the postwar era only further enabled white flight, all the while dividing and displacing black neighborhoods in Baltimore’s fading and gutted urban core.

In 1968, the state drew up a plan for a mass-transit system with three rail lines through downtown Baltimore. But the grand plan never fully materialized. One line, connecting the suburbs to downtown Baltimore, was built in 1983. The second line, running north-south, began service in 1992. A third line – the Red Line – was supposed to run east-west, connecting west Baltimore to downtown, but it was never built.

A few months after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, R, canceled the Red Line in June 2015, the NAACP filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging that the state’s canceling of the Red Line “was only the latest in the state’s long historical pattern of deprioritizing the needs of Baltimore’s primarily African-American population, many of whom are dependent on public transportation.”

And so, to this day, the people of Baltimore continue to rely on buses for their east-west journeys across the city. But bus service had long been spotty, leaving West Baltimore – where Freddie Gray had lived – isolated and impoverished.

This summer’s $135 million overhaul of Baltimore’s bus system aimed to improve its reliability and connectivity. But it immediately drew angry cries of frustration, as some riders complained of delays and new bus routes that meant having to wait on some of the city’s most dangerous streets.

Wallace spends a lot of time thinking about all of this history. She mulls over how the legacy of slavery lingers on in its 21st-century forms of mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. She reflects on how one man she met on the bus nonchalantly mentioned that he had done prison time and lifted up his shirt to show his gunshot wounds for her to photograph.

Amid all of this, she sees her work as a way to make disparities evident and to reflect reality, one photo at a time.

“Times have changed, and things just look different,” but the systemic repression is ongoing and remains the same, Wallace said. “My art just has to complement that,” to compare and contrast “how now is still the same as so long ago.”

As the CityLink Gold bus, which traces an east-west route across the city, made its way down North Avenue toward west Baltimore, Wallace pointed to a CVS Pharmacy behind the Penn-North Metro station. It was the CVS that had been destroyed in the riots that erupted in April 2015 following the death of Gray, who was fatally injured in police custody.

“I felt the pain of Baltimore,” she said, recalling the violence and looting that overtook her home town.

The 2015 riots were a wake-up call for Wallace. It opened her eyes to what she describes as routine, systemic acts of violence and brutality that people in Baltimore suffer, she said – and the fact that for too long, much of this has been ignored, accepted as the way things are.

“We normalize a lot of the brutality here,” Wallace said. “There were a hundred Freddie Grays before Freddie Gray.”

Her aim is to challenge those normalizations, she said. But the work isn’t emotionally easy. Everywhere she looks, she sees the open wounds of trauma.

“It’s a sad city. There’s a lot of sadness here,” she said. But “within trauma, too, is community. Tragedy is community.”

For now, Wallace’s project of documenting Baltimore’s buses and bus stops continues. She continues to wait, and she continues to learn.

And it’s not just the bus that she is waiting for.

“A lot of us are just waiting for equity,” she said, as the bus rumbled down the avenue. “We’ve got to get ours. When are we going to do that? When are our schools going to get better? When are our neighborhoods?”

 


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