Rebuild It Now

Seven months ago, I joined Jezic & Moyse (then Jezic Krum & Moyse)  in Montgomery County, and soon thereafter I moved to northern Prince George’s County in Calverton, a modest fairly quiet suburb with not much going on. Most of my social network is located “north of the River” – the Patuxent River – and the intense, client-focused work pace at J&M is enough to keep one from developing a massive new social circle (especially for someone like myself, relatively reclusive anyway and focused on fatherhood every other weekend.)

Most of the attorneys I know are north of the Patuxent River, the statistical boundary between the two major metropolitan areas. Back when local calling areas really mattered, most of the people north of the river could call Baltimore for free, most south could call Washington for free. The legal cultures differ, the accents are different. In Baltimore, Senators Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski sound … normal.

Most weekends I am north of the river at least briefly, either to get or drop off my children or to get my mail from the PO Box I have had in Reisterstown for the last ten years. Those from out of town reading this may be aware that the unrest in Baltimore caused the Reisterstown Road Plaza shopping center to close today (27 April); I lived in the outer suburb of Reisterstown connected by Reisterstown Road, formerly Reisterstown Pike, to the City.

Most of my formative experiences happened out there: family, high school, life in the Church (no longer part of my life, but remembered fondly), learning to drive. I remember going on a double date with my buddy Alan, his girlfriend and one of her best friends on Labor Day; we parked the Chevette at what is now the Eutaw Street pedestrian zone in front of the B&O Warehouse, what was then free parking on a holiday behind a warehouse. I lived in the City for three years in law school, started out as a young attorney in Fells Point.

Baltimore is violent, drug-addicted, impoverished, provincial, corrupt, petty. It so rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. But it is real. I pass by restaurants in Washington with ridiculous pretension in, well, everything: fake food at fake prices sold by fake people to thronesniffers. That’s not the totality of life in DC, of course, but it’s so startling to someone from a city where you find broke-ass residents of every ethnicity. It’s hard for someone from Baltimore not to respond dysfunctionally to the thronesniffers, the patricians who run Washington, Inc., not to puncture the television when the Sunday morning talk show pretenders prance and bray. A Baltimore politician won’t pretend to be some figure of high moral character; he will simply direct you to his bag man for payment. In such small things, one finds integrity.

Former Mayor William Donald Schaefer was known for his urgency in getting things done. His favorite phrase was “do it now.” Schaefer was old Baltimore if old Baltimore ever existed. The Inner Harbor, once a rotting underused waste, became a major tourist draw under his inspiration and drive. Later when serving as Maryland’s governor, Schaefer conceived the current incarnation Baltimore’s Light Rail and got it built fiarly rapidly, warts and all (and it has warts.) Schaefer wasn’t perfect, but he never claimed to be and did not expect humanity to be “perfect” either. He was always looking for the chance to do it now, build it now, not to wait for perfect conditions. He knew that conditions aren’t perfect and that imperfect is the permanent condition.

I don’t have anything to say about the demonstrations regarding the death of Freddie Grey and the riots (these are two different things that happened in the same time in the same city) except to say that people don’t go from organized protest to busting down Italian grocer and food distributor Trinacria on North Paca Street, and that “they” didn’t riot. We, or some of us, did. They didn’t demonstrate. We, or some of us, did. The “they” that comes so easily to white people, especially in the suburbs, is part of the problem that holds the City back. If politics and civic life mean a damn thing, it’s that this “they” barrier needs to do. One of us got died in police custody due to a severed spine. We demonstrated. We burned the City down and shut it down. It is as true as saying that “we” won the Second World War; I didn’t fire a shot, wasn’t born until 24 years later.

I commend my colleague in the Bar J Wyndal Gordon for organizing a lot of attorneys to help with the aftermath of the unrest in Baltimore.  His perspective is distinct and focused on protecting the civil rights of Baltimoreans from police brutality; he is working with the National Bar Association, an association of predominantly African-American attorneys. One of the best ways to reach him may actually be Facebook, a medium at which he excels. What he is doing is very important, but the crisis of the events of this past week will eventually subside. The aftermath will be much longer and more severe.

Baltimore still has not recovered from the 1968 riots after the death of Martin Luther King. Much of West Baltimore is still in economic disarray; a walk down North Avenue from the JFX west will show that. It’s going to be easy to isolate Baltimore politically; Baltimore’s population has shrunk over the last thirty years (with tiny reversals) and Montgomery County has by now 1 million people and so much of the money in this state. More importantly, economic rent-seeking from the government can’t last and cannot solve the core problems in the City.

As an attorney, I am obliged (encouraged strongly) to provide pro bono services to people who need it. Lots of people are going to need pro bono help in the aftermath of the unrest (which included riots, but wasn’t just riots.) There will be people needing lots of help probably for the next 18+ months due to this unrest; the economic damage the City under curfew (no pub crawls, that means you, Fells Point) alone will damage people, cause businesses to shut down. Unemployment hearings, foreclosures, fights with insurance companies, evictions, you name it. The City will be a “target-rich zone” for unmet legal needs even more than before. Accordingly, I intend (subject to practical requirements of the Bar, geography and the entirely justified business-side expectations of my employer) to meet my advisory pro bono requirement by helping people who suffered losses and need legal help in the aftermath of this mess in the City.

Somebody should help; if you have a Maryland law license, you are “somebody” who can help. We need to rebuild it now, and lawyers can help. Don’t wait for Chief Judge Barbera or some MSBA functionary to send you a letter. Your name on the attorneys’ Test Book in Annapolis is your invitation. Rebuild it now. Do it now.

Posted by Bruce Godfrey

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