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West Baltimore Ruins is a photographic story by Shae McCoy featuring images of Northwest, Southwest, and Central West Baltimore. The book is a study by McCoy, a Black artist from Baltimore telling her truth urgently and specifically. It is an in-your-face account of what residents in these communities experience every day. 

As McCoy puts it, “It is an artistic callout for city officials to see the cause of their neglect.” Published in February, the book contains images that were originally housed on an Instagram account that McCoy started in 2018, and all of the photos were captured using a Samsung phone or a DSLR camera. Near the end of the introduction, McCoy calls the project “a visual memoriam.” The thick book consists of photos, interviews, and a brilliant pairing of black-and-white definitions of the direct causes of the conditions that each photo captures, those nefarious and world-ending forces, enacted rampantly in Baltimore City, of gentrification, redlining, and blight.

With this project, McCoy has created a catalyst for contemplation and conversation. Through her work, you are invited to have difficult discussions that involve difficult truths that affect real people—while also reveling in the beauty of her photographic eye. West Baltimore Ruins is a time capsule, marking West Baltimore at this moment in time, and in ten years or in ten months when you return to its pages the places and spaces may no longer exist. 

 

Even in my five years living and working here, I have seen this city change. I can only speak about my ecosystem, but I have seen businesses come and go, some of these closures accelerated by COVID. Sometimes I think of these as modern-day ruins, catacombs of memories of places we once inhabited.

Kendrick Lamar has a lyric that says “looking at the world like where do we go.” I thought about this line as I contemplated this book review. What is so striking to me is that the places in this book were once inhabited by families; the homes once held laughter, love and arguments, aromas, and shared glances, and now they are rendered abandoned by various systems of oppression. As things continue to fall apart, with each new development, with each new apartment complex, as each Black family is displaced, it sometimes feels like gentrification is causing the walls of the world to close in on us. 

What I’ve observed in Baltimore I have seen in Seattle and in Dallas too. It is destabilizing how quickly things shift. That is why the work that McCoy does is critical. As a writer, as a curator, and as a transplant, I am constantly thinking about space and place and distance. I constantly consider the places that I remain tethered to. Reading this book caused me to evaluate the strength of my connections to this city and to the other places that I have called home.

I hope that you purchase West Baltimore Ruins to support the telling of this history by this woman who breathes and echoes her love for her city. The book invites you to take a moment to stop and think about what your relationship with this city looks like. What is your role in the evolving or declining of culture in Baltimore? In what part of the city do you spend your time, your energy, and your money? The entirety of West Baltimore Ruins is a vehicle, a vessel, a time machine, a spaceship powered by the imagination, creativity, and critical lens of this Baltimore artist. 

One image that I was drawn to in particular was a set of two adjacent rowhouses, abandoned and monumental. Devoid of life and human energy, the house on the left is marked by an almost jade green door. Air conditioning window units are still intact, connected to power sources off of the grid, while windows are covered from the inside with wooden planks of various shades and sizes. The traditional red brick is bright against a deep blue sky punctuated with clouds. Who inhabited this space? Who watched TV here? Who made dinner? Who hugged their children? This relic of someone’s existence stands here still, as a testament to the dark power of forces like gentrification, redlining, and blight.

 

The following Q&A includes selections from a talk that McCoy and I did virtually at Red Emma’s on February 11th. You can watch the full talk on YouTube. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Teri Henderson: I remember probably a year ago, I saw you tweeting about how you wanted to write a book, so it’s just been incredible to see it come to fruition. How does it feel to be a published author?

Shae McCoy: I’m just starting to feel the greatness of it because it was a journey. At first, when I started, I thought, “Oh, this is a piece of cake, you know, it’s photography, so I can just put photos together, blah blah.”

But once we got to the nooks and crannies of everything, it was tough. Not gonna lie. It got to some points where I did want to give up, but seeing the product, and having it in my hand, made everything change. My emotions, my feelings towards it changed because it just is so beautiful. And to see other people’s reactions, I know I haven’t seen everybody’s reactions, everybody hasn’t gotten the book yet, but the people I have been able to give the book to had great reactions. So I’m very pleased and proud of myself. 

You should be! I’ve been a fan of your practice for years, and we’ve worked together before. But, even before I met you, I was following your blog, Uncommon Realist, when I moved here. How did we get from your Uncommon Realist platform to today? 

I’m not gonna say I got tired of it, but I grew out of it. I started writing in 2013 for my blog. My first article was about Fruitvale Station and everything kind of progressed from there, but after a while, I just grew out of it. And I started photography because I wanted to have images to go with my journalism.

Using images online, stock images, it just wasn’t authentic for me. So I bought a camera randomly from someone on Facebook. I just started going out every day, shooting different events, and I was doing this stuff for free at first. And then people started hiring me, and then it just kind of progressed from there. As that progressed, I felt that my love for journalism was still there, but [my love for] the written part, not so much. Especially after I went to school for it, I thought, I don’t know if this is something I’m really gonna want to do for life.

But I think my photography is some type of journalism as well. So I guess it’s still there, it’s just the writing part, writing about people is kind of tiresome to me. 

 

 

One of the most powerful aspects of your introduction stated, “West Baltimore has aggressively opened my eyes to the irresponsibility and disservice of city officials done to urban Black communities. Ironically these communities once thrived and now they decay as new developments await.” Blight, redline, gentrification, and ruin are all defined for those who might be unfamiliar with the terms.

You mentioned that the first sign of gentrification that you saw in your neighborhood was the closing of all the corner stores close to your home. Although many argue that gentrification is not a bad thing, you stated that you disagree, saying that “gentrification is an aggressive tactic that is non-exclusive for minorities and for the poor.” Can you talk about what you meant when you made that statement?

I literally just moved from my neighborhood, my childhood neighborhood, in 2019. I was on Facebook one day and I was talking about gentrification and someone was like, “gentrification isn’t bad. Who would be against their neighborhood being fixed up?” Well, most of the time when neighborhoods are fixed up and changed and buildings are knocked down, you don’t see the people who used to be around there. And it’s slowly happening in my neighborhood. They built a new luxury apartment building and all the stores are gone. There’s nowhere to get food and stuff except for Hollins Market, which has gotten renovated and doesn’t have any of the stuff that it had before, except for a few stalls. 

So it’s slow, it’s not like, “Hey, you gotta go right now.” But it’s like, “Eventually you got to go.” And you see that in a lot of neighborhoods in Baltimore. This area might be the projects or something for a long time, and then they just come and start overhauling and they give people vouchers to move out to the county. 

Eventually, I feel like that’s what it’s going to be. It’s going to be Black, urban communities in the county and all the white people back in the city when they didn’t want to be in the city. It’s a confusing thing, but it’s definitely happening. Part of the reason that I wanted to do this book was to make people aware, especially residents in the neighborhood. When you’re in the midst of going through poverty, you are not [as] worried about what’s going on around you, you’re worried about keeping your family fed and housed and what you have to go through on a day-to-day basis.

So I think that people have an advantage when it comes to those neighborhoods, because it’s feeling like, “Oh, well, these people are not even paying attention, so let’s go and do what we gotta do for real. And they ain’t gonna know. They’re just gonna think they’re going on to somewhere better.”

And a lot of people do think that they’re “going off to the county to a nice house, but there’s no way for me to get back in the city.” They changed all the bus routes. So there’s no easy way to get in the city. There’s no easy way to get out. It’s a lot to that. 

According to Dr. Lawrence T. Brown, racial equity consultant and author of The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race & Space in America, the term Black Butterfly describes “the geographic clustering of where Black Baltimoreans live. The phrase denotes not only where Black Baltimoreans are geographically clustered but also where capital does not cluster and where structural disadvantages have accumulated due to the lack of capital access. (Penn North, Walbrook, Cherry Hill, Loch Raven, Waverly). The term White L is the description of the geographic clustering where white Balitmoreans live. The White L describes not only where white Baltimoreans live but also where access to capital is most readily available and the structural advantages incurred due to that capital access (Mount Washington, Greater Roland Park, Hampden, Remington, Charles Village, Fells Point, Little Italy).” How much of West Baltimore Ruins’ creation and design was inspired by Dr. Lawrence T. Brown’s research? 

The part that is in there about the Black Butterfly, that was before I actually knew who he was. I was researching and trying to find information, because I first heard about it in college. When I was going to UB and I had community studies, my professor touched on that. And once I looked it up, I kept seeing his name. So I’m like, okay, who is this person? And then my professor told me who he was and how he coined that phrase, “the Black Butterfly.” 

So I just went on to ask him about his research because I felt like it was very expansive and it was very important. At first, I paraphrased information that I found from articles about him and I was just like, “Why not go to the source?” So I went to the source and asked if I could include some information from him about the book directly. We talked and I’m really appreciative of him sharing that information, especially from his book. Y’all need to cop that, I’m copping that. That particular part of the book was inspired by him.

 

This is a definition that stuck out to me: “Redline: Verb – 1. To refuse a loan or insurance to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk.” According to the 1937 Baltimore Residential Safety Map, the majority of the photographs you took were in the red, yellow, and blue areas on the map. You were raised in the Poppleton Community, or Lexington Terrace, and that was the inspiration for you making red areas the focus of the project.

Redline ranking goes from red (fourth grade/D)—those neighborhoods that have been deemed high-risk, in areas that are considered “undesirable” for living. The qualities of a fourth-grade area include low percentage of homeownership, poor maintenance, and an influx of criminal activity. While green areas are those communities that good mortgage lenders typically seek. They are the areas that are not fully built and more desirable to lenders. Can you tell us more about why you chose to select photos from the red area for the project?

Because of where I grew up. Even though there are homeowners in that area, that area is definitely high-risk, with crime and also low-income people who live around there and things like that. So I felt it was more relatable. I feel like the people that the book is kind of for would understand that as well.

In the definition for “blight,” you stated that “Blight and Baltimore are too often referenced together.” You reference that “the neglect of neighborhoods in West Baltimore and the purposeful depreciation of them for future non-inclusive developments is an ugly truth.” I loved this phrase because it made you realize that the ugliness is not caused by the residents that live there. It’s the powers that be who are allowing these things to happen.

In 2019, 17,000 was the recurring statistic for the number of abandoned homes in Baltimore City. And by June 2020, 18,006, vacant homes were reported to be scheduled for demolition. Last year you shot the cover photo for Zadia’s Vacants project. How did that collaboration happen? I know that they’re not directly connected, but they are kind of connected.

They are connected because me and Cheyenne are both from West Baltimore. That [project] was perfect for me. I think one day she just randomly hit me up, and was talking to me about the project. And then shortly after, we started going out and shooting. I really enjoyed it because I just felt like we were on a field trip. It didn’t feel like work. It didn’t feel like, “Oh my God, I gotta do this.” It felt so organic. And the images we grabbed, everything just flowed, and the songs on the project kind of flowed with the mood of my project. So that’s her song on the promo video, but it just all flowed out, but it was literally a random thing.

Photo of Zadia for “Vacants” album cover by Shae McCoy

 

Black and white might have made it look more somber and not really jubilant. And that wasn't the message. Even though housing vacancy is a thing and it is a thing that has been going on for a long time, I also want to show the beauty in that, because once upon a time people lived in those places, people had businesses in those places and they thrived.
Shae McCoy

It’s a beautiful cover. Originally the book was supposed to be in black and white and you made an editorial decision to change it. When you gave me the book yesterday, I remember looking at it and being like, okay, these colors are amazing. I was thinking when I was reading it last night, what would this book be like if it was in black and white? It would still be extremely powerful, but there’s just something about the colors that’s really striking. You made a good decision, but also how did you get there?

Thank [editor] Destinii Williams for that. Thank her for that, because, literally, we were done! We were about to ship it to the printer and get a proof and see how it’s going to look, and Destinii was like, “We should change it to color.”

And at first, I was like, “Oh my God, we’re right here, we’re right here. I don’t want to change it.” But then I thought about it and I’m like, those pictures are very vibrant and there’s so much texture and all of that in the photos. 

I think the black and white might have made it look more somber and not really jubilant. And that wasn’t the message. Even though housing vacancy is a thing and it is a thing that has been going on for a long time, I also want to show the beauty in that, because once upon a time people lived in those places, people had businesses in those places and they thrived. So the color I think was a very, very good idea. 

You can always get it printed another time with the black and white later, but you’re right, the colors are so good!

I liked the fact that the cover is still black and white. You’re like “Okay, I’m going to get this black-and-white book and it’s just about to be all black-and-white photos.” And then you open it and it’s like, “Oh my gosh!”

 

There’s something super sharp and present about the photos that you take and that translates whether you’re taking pictures of people or whether you’re taking pictures of houses. When you began taking the photographs that are in this book, or when they were on the Instagram account initially, did you know that you eventually wanted to make a book?

No. I was still living in my childhood neighborhood. So I would just be walking—a lot of times I’m walking to my grandmother’s house or walking downtown or walking somewhere, I always walk. I would just take photos and then I would post them on Instagram and people were like, “Oh my God, you made that.” And then somebody said something about how I take portraits of people, it’s like I’m taking portraits of homes, and how those homes become lively when I photograph them.

It started off as just that. And then as it developed and I developed a purpose for it, I was like, “Okay, this needs to be a book.” ‘Cause this is history. As I was photographing all of these places, a lot of them are not even homes anymore—they’re flat. I’m just glad to have been able to grab some things, even things I remembered as a child, buildings and businesses that were closing, and all types of stuff.

 

*****

West Baltimore Ruins can be purchased through Red Emma’s. McCoy’s next exhibition will be virtual and presented by UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery. West Baltimore Ruins will feature photography by Shae McCoy, opening March 1 and closing on March 31. On Thursday, March 11, McCoy will be having an artist talk at UMBC. 

 

Images courtesy of Shae McCoy

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