BALTIMORE (Slate) – “We want people to register to vote, because that’s where the change is made,” said State Sen. Catherine Pugh, standing near the smoldering remains of the CVS on North Avenue, and handing voter registration forms to anyone who caught her eye. The street was thick with people—children on a day off from school, adults from the neighborhood, a few street musicians, an incense-waving activist, at least two men with bullhorns, and a gaggle of reporters—and it was a good day for any politician to show her face and shake a few hands. After handing a form to a young man and giving him a pen to fill it out, she turned back to finish her pitch for why this—more than ever—was the time for traditional political action. “I am a senator, I was a city council member. I know that by being there, it does make a difference, and if you don’t vote, it doesn’t happen.”
Pugh is a politician, and politicians—if they do anything—support the system they serve. But you can forgive the residents of West Baltimore—and East Baltimore, both united by huge blocks of long vacant homes and long boarded businesses—if they’re cynical about civic engagement. Since the civil rights movement, but especially since the 1968 riots—sparked by Martin Luther King’s assassination after 15 years of nonviolent protest—Baltimore has been a largely black city. This is mostly a function of population decline, stemming from the riots. From 1970 to 2000, the city’s population fell by nearly one-third, from 906,000 to 651,000. At the same time, the number of black residents rose. In 1950, just 24 percent of Baltimoreans were black. By 1980, it was 54 percent, and by 2000, it was 65 percent.