I never quite knew how to describe where I grew up in Baltimore County. From age 4 to age 13, I lived in Essex, an unincorporated community in Baltimore County. After I moved away, first to Central Pennsylvania, then to Philly and South Carolina, when I told people where I’d lived in Baltimore, they would respond, “Oh, the suburbs.” And I would say, kind of. To me “the suburbs” connotated the kind of postwar developments that surround Philadelphia or the expansive McMansions that cover Virginia Beach, where my dad lives. I know that there is growing poverty and drug abuse in the suburbs, especially as wealthy white people move back into the city. But that still didn’t fully explain Essex and neighboring Dundalk. It was more complicated than that.
For most of my childhood, I lived in a single family home in Cedar Beach. It was a tiny, tiny house, just two bedrooms when we moved in. But my parents added an addition when I was in the 4th grade, and suddenly I lived in a six bedroom, two bathroom house. It still needed work, and the old part has long since been gutted by a flipper. But my parents owned that house, because my granny owned that house, a direct result of the GI bill. I went to a primarily white elementary school and got a pretty standard education there. But something weird started happening in 5th grade. Lots of my friends were applying to magnet schools for technical studies or art. Others were enrolling in Catholic middle schools or fancy private schools in the city. My parents offered to send me to Catholic school, but I hated uniforms and loved my best friends, so I passed. I had no idea what was happening, but I soon found out.
I was naive, even by the standards of suburban white children (I believed in Santa Claus until the 5th grade). I had negative interest in anything rated higher than PG. I learned about sex when my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Priestley, told the class. And I somehow convinced myself that I was special and would never get my period (which led to my lack of preparation when I finally got it—during the circus, no less).
But middle school was a crash course in something different. I couldn’t be naïve there. The school was overwhelmingly African American even though Essex wasn’t, a direct result of magnet and Catholic schools (segregation is real, y’all). I still remember my shocked exclamation to my best friend that kids cussed there. So I started cussing too (a habit that has only gotten worse with time, I’m afraid). I was still a goody-goody inside, but being “bad” was cool there.
One of my close friends got a reputation for giving blow jobs in the bathroom in the sixth grade. My best friend’s boyfriend used to hide weed in the bathroom soap dispenser. My big crush of 7th grade lost his virginity on the tennis courts. I was out of my depth.
I still carried a novel to school everyday and loved English and History classes. I wouldn’t even kiss anyone until I was 16. But I constantly got detention for chewing gum, failed Band (how?) and almost got jumped by a girl in my class. Instead of telling an adult, I recruited two of my friends who “knew how to fight” to walk home with me every day for months. I never did get jumped.
I hung out with the neighborhood kids until the streetlights came on, and there was an incident with a cuss word-laden note my English teacher found that I try to forget. My English teacher called my parents, in the middle of class, telling them about my note. I was pissed. Kids did way worse, right in front of her, every single day. After class, she took me aside and said “I did that because I’m not going to let you fall off track. A lot of these kids don’t but you still have a chance.” In retrospect, this was horribly classist and racist. Most of the kids in my class were low-income people of color. But at the time, it was a transcendent moment for me. I gradually started trying in school again, As coming more naturally to me than Fs. I stopped sending dramatic notes and getting detention. But I still cussed, hung out with kids who would eventually land in prison, and pretended I was cool. I wasn’t.
In the 8th grade, we moved to a house much closer to my middle school. We were renting, a stop-gap after selling our house and before moving to Pennsylvania to be closer to family. The house was tiny, surrounded by apartment complexes, and full of ants. I’m not talking a few ants. I’m talking my Easter basket, full of unopened candy, became literally filled to the brim with ants after a few days. All of our food had to be kept in the refrigerator. I regularly vacuumed out the ants before I went to bed. To this day, people ask me why I’m more afraid of ants than cockroaches, and that is the answer.
One day my friend walked home from school with me. We decided to go visit some of our friends in the apartment buildings surrounding my house in “East Rock.” They all led to one another, and we got lost on the way home. I will never forget hearing a gunshot and running to my house, only to be blocked by the complex’s fence. We, quite obviously, made it out, the worst stereotypes of scared little white girls that day.
For years, I wondered how all this happened. How a place like Essex came to be. I knew that in the 80s, Baltimore blew up “the projects” and everyone moved to Essex. I knew I was somehow privileged, growing up in a single family home with a yard. I knew that the wealthier people in the area generally went to magnet or private schools, which is why the middle and high school were demographically low-income people of color. But recently I found out, thanks to an amazing piece of investigative reporting by the The New York Times Magazine, that East Rock, the neighborhood I got lost in, is owned by Jared Kushner, son-in-law to Donald Trump. So, in fact, is the neighborhood that backs up to my elementary school and all of the apartment complexes that my middle school friends lived in. These complexes aren’t public housing (we blew that up) but are the private response to the lack thereof. We always “knew” that. But we didn’t know how to explain Essex because there was no “real” public housing, and it wasn’t in the city, and it was primarily white.
So, yes, I am from a Baltimore suburb. But one full of substandard housing owned by Jared Kushner. Alec MacGillis wrote that “all but two of the complexes are in suburban Baltimore County, but they are only ‘suburban’ in the most literal sense. They sit along arterial shopping strips or highways, yet they are easy to miss — the Highland Village complex, for example, is beside the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, but the tall sound barriers dividing it from the six-lane highway render its more than 1,000 units invisible to the thousands traveling that route every day.”
I am only suburban in “the most literal sense.”