US economy

Amazon and the Breaking of Baltimore


A year later, I was back in Baltimore watching workers demolish rowhouses on the eastern edge of town. Some of the bricks were being salvaged by an organization called Details Deconstruction that cleaned them and, through a sister organization called Brick+Board, sold them for building projects, many of them down the road in Washington.

One day, I accompanied Brick+Board’s director, Max Pollock, as he inspected the installation of thousands of his bricks in a condo complex called Chapman Stables, situated in a previously derelict and now bustling corner of Washington. The developers were using the bricks to cultivate a faux-historic aura to entice buyers who would be spending up to $1 million for an apartment.

Standing before a brick wall in one corridor, Mr. Pollock acknowledged that it was discomfiting to see the building blocks of Baltimore’s glory years now being used to conjure a fantasy of authenticity for Washington’s hyper-prosperous present. “I have mixed feelings about it,” he said. “The part of it that is a little ridiculous is all the marketing around it. ‘Chapman Stables.’ It’s sort of like it’s ready-made to be ridiculed.”

He was so familiar with Baltimore bricks that he could identify which streets they had come from. The orange ones were from Chase Street. The oldest-looking ones were from Federal Street. The ones with vertical lines were from Fenwick Avenue.

These were streets in East Baltimore that were once home to block after block of working- and middle-class families, white and Black, including many who worked at Beth Steel. For the better part of a century, those jobs, and those homes, had sustained a stable existence for countless families and undergirded economic vitality for the city as a whole.

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Now, like Sparrows Point before it, that segment of Baltimore’s built landscape, and the history it represented, was slowly disappearing. And the dismantling of one town was being used to prop up another, with new residents — some of them likely arriving for high-paid jobs at Amazon’s HQ2 — blithely purchasing the facade of a false past.

Mr. Pollock knew that most everyone living in the complex would never guess that the bricks were from an entirely different city, just 40 miles up the road.

Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica, is the author of the forthcoming “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America.”

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