19 Mar Baltimore’s Ghost Town
Jill and I took a field trip to Baltimore’s most toxic industrial area, Wagner’s Point. This was Jill’s idea. She is fascinated with gross things, dangerous places, and old buildings. I share this fascination. Wagner’s Point is one of several muddy stretches of marshland extending like flattened fingers from Baltimore’s harbor shoreline. This one happens to contain a ghost town. In the late 1990s, Baltimore City started buying out the Wagner’s Point residents–ostensibly for the expansion of the Patapsco waste water treatment. In actuality, these people were suffering from cancer rates and other diseases far exceeding the national average.
The hundred-year-old neighborhood—270 residents in a six-block area—was a pocket of houses in the midst of a smelly, smoky, oily industrial waste land, which is home to 10 chemical plants, several oil refineries and storage depots, scrap metal dump sites, and industrial waste recycling outfits, among others things. Many of the residents didn’t want to move but the City declared imminent domain, no doubt to spare itself future lawsuits. It was much cheaper to buy out the residents than pay their future medical bills.
The residents didn’t get a bad deal. They received above-market value for their houses, a relocation fee, and a guaranteed low mortgage on any house elsewhere. So, it was a happy ending, more or less. Jill and I found the neighborhood. The City leveled it. You’d never know there had been a neighborhood here. Here’s a link to a City Paper article about the last inhabitants before they were pushed out: Wagner’s Point
We drove lots of places we weren’t supposed to drive, including the CSX , where a bulldozer was bucketing batches of coal into a processor for train shipping. The freight-container derricks looked like towering monsters from War of the Worlds. A security guard drove up to us in his pickup and asked what we were doing. I had my camera aimed at the mountain of coal. I said, “We’re just tourists taking pictures.” He told us to leave. Jill spied a black limo farther down the muddy road, next to the warehouse. “Russian mafia,” she joked. Who would drive a limo to a coal processing site?
Among the other things we saw in the farthest reaches of Baltimore’s industrial shoreline: a mountain of salt for winter roadways, orange and black hills of chewed up scrap metals, a medical wastes dump whose trucks announce, “chemotheraputic infectious waste,” streets named “Chemical Road” and “Quarantine Road,” and the sky-scraper tall incinerator stack of the BGE plant. We tried to get into the city landfill but the guy at the gate wouldn’t let us. “I just want a photo,” I said. He said, “No photos allowed.”
Don’t tell me not to take a photo of property my hard-earned tax dollars pay for. No, sir. Jill and I drove around back and took some photos from a rise behind the chainlink fence, which was topped with razor wire. Landills, you should know, are lined with heavy black plastic so that all that toxic rot doesn’t leach into the soil. Landfills start as huge bowls scooped from a hillside and lined with what looks like one big black garbage bag. A landfill is also a gull’s paradise. And the gulls lend the landfill a decorous whitewash, waves of them winging up and down across the garbage as they avoid the oncoming bulldozers.