by Teresa Genaro
Now is usually when they start. The comments about going to the Preakness, the inevitable warnings about the “bad” neighborhood, the perpetuation of the image of Baltimore as a lawless, terrifying abyss of crime.
This year those comments started a little earlier, the warnings a little more urgent, given the unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody last month. On social media, racing fans wondered whether they should attend the Preakness this year, or whether the Preakness should be moved, or whether it should be held at all.
The city of Baltimore is graceful, historic, and beautiful. Much of it is also ravaged by poverty, and parts of it by crime, and the areas that abut Pimlico Race Course represent all of these Baltimore realities. Within walking distance across Northern Parkway is Mt. Washington, a middle- and upper-middle class neighborhood of tree-lined, undulating streets with the feel of an arboretum; “across the track,” in the local vernacular, one treads more cautiously, aware of gang presences. Closer to Pimlico live poor and middle-class families, mostly African-American.
Tony Pridgen has lived near the track for much of the last 40 years. A veteran and retired corrections officer who now works security for nearby Sinai Hospital, Pridgen grew up in the neighborhood known as Garrison, returning as an adult to care for his ailing grandfather.
I think I’m skipping the Preakness this year unless they move it to civilized Laurel.
— Brian Russell (@BRussellSoFla) April 27, 2015
There is no way they should have The Preakness in Baltimore. MOVE IT TO PARX!!!
— AZ (@AtoZ128) May 4, 2015
Many tweets during and after the Baltimore riots called for the Preakness to be moved or canceled.
— Mr. Wonderful (@JValentinesbro) April 27, 2015
“This neighborhood is like a family,” he said by phone recently. “It was full of older people when I was small, and now it’s their kids having kids.”
There are some places, he acknowledged, that you don’t want to be at night, but that doesn’t mean that he accepts the universal characterization of his neighborhood as unsafe.
He’s used to the negative depictions of where he lives, particularly from people who don’t spend a lot of time there.
“I learned a long time ago,” he said. “When people don’t really know you or your neighborhood, you shrug it off.
“You don’t get defensive with it. As much as bad things go on, good things are happening, too.”
One of those good things, he said, is the Preakness.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” he said. “It’s great for the teenagers and the older kids. They can’t wait to get carts to help people carry their stuff to the track; they stock up on soda and water to sell.”
And as they do around Saratoga Race Course, local people advertise their yards for parking.
“It’s definitely a job opportunity,” said Pridgen.
Jessica Hammond, wife of trainer Scott Hammond, also works at Sinai, the hospital at which she was born, “overlooking the track” from birth, she said. A Maryland native—from one of the many parts of Baltimore County that bear no resemblance to their urban neighbors—she read the social media comments that cropped up over the last 10 days with irritation, particularly as many of her co-workers live in the area around Pimlico, and others, who lived further away, had to wonder about whether they’d be able to get home, or what they’d find when they did.
“…the concern right now,” she tweeted from their Somerset Racing account on the heaviest night of protests and violence, “[is] the safety of the people of Baltimore.”
“You don’t need to make a bad situation worse by panicking people,” she said. “It’s counter-productive. Be concerned about the people who live here, and if you’re not in a position to help because you’re far away, you can help people’s attitudes about what’s going on.”
Orioles’ executive vice president and chief operating officer John Angelos didn’t waste any time in making a statement about what was going on in his home city, taking to his seldom-used Twitter account with a strongly worded, multi-tweet declaration after the Orioles were asked, on Saturday, April 25, to keep fans inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards after a night game, as protestors swarmed the area.
“I agree,” wrote Angelos, “that the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law [are] of utmost importance in any society. MLK, Gandhi, Mandela, and all great opposition leaders throughout history have always preached this precept. Further, it is critical that in any democracy investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible.”
He continued:[su_quote]That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts [of one group] but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the US to 3rd world dictatorships like China and others [and] plunged tens of millions of good hard working [A]mericans into economic devastation and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.
“The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violation, surveillance, and other abuses of the bill of rights by government pay the true price, an ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importance of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards.
“We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the US and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic[,] civil and legal rights and this…makes inconvenience at a ball game irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans. [/su_quote]
Earlier this week, Angelos explained what spurred that response.
“What initially instigated my reaction was that enough is enough with this refrain about people needing to work harder, to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” he said.
“When it gets to the point,” continued Angelos, a fixture at the Saratoga racing meeting who co-produces with Andy Serling the weekly “At The Post” radio show from downtown Saratoga, “that you’re talking about social conditions through the one-dimensional lens of how it impacts what are basically entertaining but unimportant sporting events in the grand scheme of things, that reflects how society has gotten lost along the way.”
Angelos grew up in Baltimore and has watched what has happened as the city’s manufacturing base has been sent overseas, eliminating thousands of working class jobs.
“Bethlehem Steel, the shipyard, Western Electric, Unilever, General Motors,” he said, listing the companies that have left Baltimore. “When those jobs disappear, when they go offshore, you can’t deny the impact that had on neighborhoods like the North/Penn area [which withstood significant damage from looting] and Pimlico.”
Moving the Preakness, he said, would just make the situation worse.
“How much more can you ignore these areas?” he asked. “If you follow logic—move the Preakness because the area is distressed — wouldn’t you just be furthering the ignoring of these areas? Why would you do that?
“To the extent that that area has degenerated over the last 35 years or so, the question isn’t, ‘Should we move the Preakness?’ The question is, ‘Why has this happened?’”
The racing analyst at Pimlico and Laurel Park, Gabby Gaudet was, like Jessica Hammond, disturbed at the portrayal of the city in which she works.
“The media didn’t show the non-violent protests,” she said. “They made it look like everyone was lighting cars on fire.”
Gaudet recently led a Pimlico service mission, working with jockeys, trainers, backstretch workers, and racing executives on a Habitat for Humanity project. Building houses alongside people putting in their own “sweat equity” as a down payment on a rebuilt property, she and her team, which included jockeys Trevor McCarthy, Victor Carrasco, Forest Boyce and Sheldon Russell, and Maryland Jockey Club executive Georganne Hale, and David Richardson from the local horsemen’s group, raised nearly $5,000 for the organization in addition to their physical participation in the project.
“It was so impressive,” she said. “Habitat for Humanity buys a whole block of housing, to transform not just a building or two, but a whole community.”
The travails of Baltimore’s residents are not limited to those living in neighborhoods in the midst or in need of revitalization. Tony Pridgen can relate all too well to the experience of people of color in Baltimore and nationwide, to people who aren’t fortunate enough to have his background or connections.
“I recently got stopped,” he said, “by an officer who told me that I ran three red lights.
“I said, ‘Three red lights? I haven’t run three red lights in 40 years.’
“’Are you calling me a liar?’ the officer, who was white, asked me,” recounted Pridgen. “Then he called me a black piece of s—t.”
Pridgen will be at the Preakness this year, as he has been for many years. He went first when he was five years old, taken by his grandmother.
“I love it,” he said. “I like horse racing.”
And while he concedes that there are areas that Preakness visitors might want to avoid, he has another message for the people who will throng his neighborhood in a little more than a week.
“The first thing people think of when they think about Baltimore,” he said, “is The Wire and The Corner,” referring to two HBO series that focused on the crime and poverty in the city.
“It’s more than that,” he said. “Don’t label us as ‘the riot people.’”