Freddie Gray’s Broken Neighborhood

Even by the standards of troubled Baltimore, Sandtown-Winchester is tragically impoverished and violent.

A pile of empty and smashed liquor, beer, and Champagne bottles forms an informal memorial around the corner from the Baltimore police station where Freddie Gray was taken after being arrested in the Sandtown neighborhood, on April 21, 2015, in Baltimore.  

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As the aftershocks of Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police officers continue to reverberate in Baltimore, the key questions that remain unanswered have to do with why Gray was pursued by police in the first place, and what caused the spinal cord injury that ultimately killed him. While we wait for those answers, it’s worth looking at the incident from a wider angle, in an effort to understand the place where the incident occurred, and its history of strife and struggle.

One glimpse at that broader context comes from a December 2011 report by the Baltimore City Health Department about Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Gray grew up and lived and where he was arrested. The report, part of an effort to figure out why some parts of Baltimore were so much less healthy than others, paints a picture of a community strangled by poverty and crippled by violence.

Economically, Gray’s neighborhood and the adjacent Harlem Park were found to be a disaster zone, with an unemployment rate of one in five (nearly double that of Baltimore as a whole), almost a third of families living in poverty, and more than half of all households earning less than $25,000 a year. Abandoned lots and unsound housing conditions were exceedingly common, with almost a quarter of all the neighborhood’s buildings standing vacant (compared with 5 percent of buildings across all of Baltimore) and the rate of lead paint violations almost four times as high as it was citywide. (According to a lawsuit filed by the Gray family against their landlord, Gray and his two sisters were all found to have “damaging lead levels in their blood.”)   

Those underlying conditions are bad enough, obviously. But the Health Department report doesn’t get truly shocking until you read about what actually happens in Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park. For starters, look at the juvenile arrest rate: Citywide, Baltimore saw 145.1 kids out of every thousand arrested between 2005 and 2009; in Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park, that number was 252.3. As the Baltimore Sun pointed out in an op-ed, that means a quarter of all 10-to-17-year-olds in Gray’s neighborhood were arrested at some point during the time period in question. (A separate study, published this past February, found that Sandtown-Winchester had sent more of its people to state prison than any other census tract in Maryland.)

Arguably even more striking than the arrest numbers is the disparity that the Health Department found between the city’s overall homicide rate and the homicide rate in Gray’s community, with residents of Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park more than twice as likely to be killed than residents of Baltimore overall. If you look at nonfatal shootings, you see pretty much the same ratio, with 91.2 people for every 10,000 being shot in Gray’s corner of Baltimore, versus 46.5 citywide.

All that violence, combined with other factors, is reflected in the mortality rate reported by the Health Department, which was 44 percent higher for 25-to-44-year-olds in Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park than it was for the same demographic citywide. The life expectancy in Gray’s neighborhood, in turn, was 6.5 years shorter than it was in Baltimore overall.

You can see more of the Health Department’s findings here. And though there’s nothing in the agency’s report that explains the chain of events leading to Freddie Gray’s death, it describes the grim reality in which Gray lived, and died.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Freddie Gray’s death.