An entire block of vacant row houses in West Baltimore, within the 7th Congressional District of Representative Elijah Cummings. (VOA/C. Presutti)
An entire block of vacant row houses in West Baltimore, within the 7th Congressional District of Representative Elijah Cummings. (VOA/C. Presutti)

BALTIMORE - U.S. President Donald Trump’s denouncement of the storied East Coast city of Baltimore as a “rat and rodent infested mess” and its longtime African American Congressman, Elijah Cummings prompted a cacophony of objections from Baltimore City and Maryland state officials who defended the city as a work in progress.

National civil rights leaders assailed Trump as a racist, given the city is nearly 64% African American.  

But the president insisted there was nothing racist about shining a harsh light on a poorly run city that has long shortchanged its African American residents. Trump’s attacks on Twitter and in press appearances have touched off both outrage and soul-searching by many of the city’s residents in the past week.

WATCH: Feud Between Trump, Congressman Shines Spotlight on Baltimore's Blight

History of violence

In 2015, violent protests filled the streets of Cummings’ district after a black suspect, Freddie Gray, died in police custody. Protesters set fire to numerous vehicles and businesses, including two pharmacies. Outside one of those pharmacies, now rebuilt, resident Dexter Dixon says the president is trying to create a racial divide in the United States, and he suggests someone from the administration visit to “see the positive stuff instead of concentrating on all the negativity.”

Baltimore City Police statistics show 196 murders since the beginning of the year, a 20% increase over last year, making it the city with the most murders in the nation.

 

The internet analysis firm 24/7 Wall Street labeled Baltimore the 23rd most dangerous city in the world.

Baltimore has nearly 17,000 abandoned houses. President Donald Trump has referred to Baltimore as a “rat and rodent infested mess.” (VOA/C. Presutti)

Blocks of vacancies

With an estimated population of 602,000, city officials claim numerous residents have fled the city, leaving behind abandoned homes. There are nearly 17,000 vacant houses in Baltimore, many have become breeding grounds for the opioid epidemic that plagues most large cities.

Tammy Hawley of the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development told VOA the agency plans to “reduce the number of vacant and boarded properties to below 15,000 by the end of fiscal year 2020 — the lowest number in over 15 years.”

It is not hard for people in what’s called “Charm City” to admit that Baltimore has a problem. A longtime resident, who would only identify himself by his first name, Rob, said, “Some of the things he (Trump) said are true,” adding that Baltimore needs to “clean up.”

Baltimore City’s Liberty Village Project Manager Kim Trueheart looks on as her summer programs keep children active. Trueheart says “Charm City” needs jobs. (VOA/C. Presutti)

The front lines

City activist Kim Trueheart appears to be on the front lines doing just that. Trueheart sports a singular dreadlock over one shoulder as she walks through the halls of a recreation center amid friendly hugs and children who want to say hi. Trueheart runs the Liberty Village Project in Cummings’ district. It’s a nonprofit program for youth.

Trueheart once ran for Baltimore City council president. She lost the election, but said it left her with a knowledge of how government works. She added, “I don’t expect the president of the United States to understand what our challenges are.” The African-American woman said that the key to the city’s rebirth is “jobs, first and foremost.”

Baltimore’s so-called “squeegee kids” help teenagers make money by washing car windshields as drivers wait at stoplights. (VOA/C. Presutti)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Baltimore’s unemployment rate at 4.9%, better than the 5.5% last year. But the U.S. unemployment rate is just more than 3%.

Putting on her hat of a one-time candidate, Trueheart said the president’s comments have nothing to do with Baltimore. She said it is “political retribution.”

Political retribution?

Cummings is the chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee. Now that the Democrats hold a majority in the House of Representatives, Cummings’ committee is free to investigate the Trump administration, the president’s emails, his family and his business dealings.

FILE - House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 12, 2019.

In a recent hearing, Cummings berated Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan over the conditions for migrant families at the U.S.- Mexico border.

When McAleenan responded to Cummings’ question saying the agency is “doing its best,” the congressman, in a rage, interrupted him.

“What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces, can’t take a shower? C’mon man. What’s that about? None of us would have our children in that position. They are human beings.”

Eight days later, Trump began his series of tweets, criticizing Baltimore and its 12-term congressman.