The Grand Prix: Not For Their Neighborhood

The Grand Prix: Not For Their Neighborhood

The Grand Prix. Photo By: Tier 10 Marketing
The Grand Prix. Photo By: Tier 10 Marketing

French for Grand Prize, the motor racing sport began in 1906 by the Automobile Club of France in the City of Le Mans. Now, the Grand Prix has matured into a uniquely American experience. The American-based IndyCar Series has come to define the city of Indianapolis, Indiana; making it known for its world-famous speedway. Though Indianapolis has received a lot of the racing glory and prestige, IndyCar racetracks span from Bay Lake, Florida to Long Beach, California. In 2011, a new circuit arrived in Baltimore, Maryland.

At a press conference in the summer of 2010, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake boasted of Baltimore’s great sporting events from the O’s at Camden Yards, to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, to the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. “And now we are home to Indy Racing,” she announced.

Race On LLC, led by J.P. Grant of Grant Capital Management and Greg O’Neill of BMW Construction Specialists, Inc., partnered with Andretti Sports Marketing to organize and promote this year’s event. However, there was one major obstacle. They brokered the new agreement with the City with merely 100 days before the opening day of the race. Doubt filled the air and expectations were anything but high, considering the financial debacles and inconsistencies that characterized prior agreements.

Last year, Baltimore Racing Development failed to pay back $1.5 million in taxes and fees, forcing the city to terminate the agreement and find a more responsible partner. A new contract was forged between the City and Downforce Racing. However, the group quickly failed to meet requirements and the contract was flushed down the drain. This year, Race On and Andretti faced an uphill battle with limited time to prepare. Yet, on August 31st they invited all to “see the stars and cars of the IZOD IndyCar Series and the American Le Mans Series on a 12-turn course that snakes through the heart of downtown Baltimore and along the Inner Harbor.” The group succeeded in organizing and financing the event. Now, as the last gates are being dismantled and the Harbor returns to its usual appearance, every one wants to know the outcome.

Problems regarding finances and attendance at the event remain obstacles to the ambitious and lofty claims made by city officials who touted the Grand Prix as the economic powerhouse needed to push Baltimore forward. The Mayor stated that in over five years the Grand Prix would bring $11 million in direct tax revenue, $250 million in spending to invest back into the local economy, and 2,000 full-time jobs. Will this money make it past the Downtown enclave? Local Baltimore media outlets have criticized the Grand Prix heavily, but few have expressed a concern on the effect of Baltimore’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods.

This is how I see it:

I am not opposed to the Grand Prix as a racing event. In fact, I'm truly fascinated by not only the skill it takes to drive such powerful vehicles, but also the unique body kits and sublime paint jobs. It’s a rare treat to see such an assortment of vehicles. Where my opposition lies is the manner in which the Grand Prix is being used as a vehicle (seriously, no pun intended) for aggressive development and urban renewal projects that serve to benefit a select few within Baltimore City. This article is not about the Grand Prix. The race is but a microcosm of trends in Downtown Baltimore that contribute to uneven development and serves to quicken the divide between those who have and those who have-not.

Over the past few years, development and renewal initiatives have been pushed to maximize use of vacant and inefficient buildings, create safer and more welcoming spaces, increase connectivity between entertainment venues, and to create a more lucrative environment for businesses with tax incentives. This economic prowess, similar to our national economic policies, relies on private businesses to generate capital, create jobs, raise property values, and essentially become a magnet for investment and revitalization. The goal of city government is to facilitate this economic growth, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has stood firm in offering tax breaks for “growing businesses.” These international corporations are attracted to cities where they have more liberties and control, and tax incentives offer just that.

The money accumulated is concentrated and controlled by international corporations in the Harbor and surrounding regions, instead of being distributed and allocated towards the under-served neighborhoods in Baltimore. And while many corporations may donate thousands of dollars in the name of philanthropy, it is not nearly enough to bring about sustainable change. One might respond, “Why does this money need to be redistributed and reallocated beyond Downtown Baltimore? Maybe some of these poverty-stricken neighborhoods are beyond saving.” An article by Business Insider earlier this year suggests just that: Baltimore has decided some neighborhoods just aren’t worth saving.

I’m no economist and I didn’t major in law, yet it is overwhelmingly easy to see that there is a different plan in mind for the other side of Baltimore. These under-served neighborhoods are characterized by a staggering number of vacant row homes, failing public schools, a lack of recreation centers and extracurricular programs, increasing unemployment, and generally a lower quality of life. Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance’s Vital Signs report states, “the City in general is safer, healthier and more sustainable,” but at the same time, “overall City improvements hide the fact that not all of the City’s neighborhoods have benefited equally.”

Russia Today, a progressive news network, produced a short video report titled “A tale of two Baltimores.”  Leonard Gray and Luis Larin appeared as members of the United Workers arguing that the Inner Harbor’s beauty and entertainment comes at a high cost to the low-income and minority employees who work for corporate hotels, restaurants, and attractions on the waterfront. In many cases these same workers can’t even afford to buy the services that they provide or the food that they cook. The same can be said for the Grand Prix where many residents attended the race not as fans but as service workers, construction workers, and sanitation crews.

Downtown may gradually be pulling out of the 2008 recession but the other side of Baltimore has been sliding down for years, with continuing misfortunes and empty promises. From 2000 to 2010, Baltimore's population has dropped from 651,154 to 620,961 -- a 4.6% decline. Vacant properties have increased by 2.6% with a higher concentration in areas like Broadway East, Midtown-Edmondson, and Harlem Park. There are seventeen communities where at least three-out-of-ten families with children live in poverty. And it’s no surprise that these are are largely black communities.

In the Mayor’s State of the City Address, she announced a goal to bring 10,000 new families to Baltimore within the next ten years. In an interview with NPR, Rawlings-Blake explains that she hopes to attract a large immigrant population to facilitate this ambitious growth. Yet, she says nothing about improving the lives of current Baltimore residents.

When one reads the Mayor’s press releases, flips through pages of various task force initiatives, and listens to her countless speeches, Rawlings-Blake seldom makes any mention of racialized poverty. That is to say, although she acknowledges impoverished areas and crumbling infrastructure, the conversation never goes far enough to mention that these are areas where black people live. The Mayor is highly aware of it but chooses not to publicly confront the reality. So, what do we make of these invisible people?

As I said before, this article is not about the Grand Prix. I speak about The Grand Prix to draw attention to the apparent divide between two different Baltimores. One is held at center stage, on display, for the world to see, while the other is hidden behind the backstage curtain, ushered not to make too much noise. So the next time you hear someone criticize the Grand Prix, it’s because the race doesn’t address the many social problems that lay brewing in the invisible and ignored parts of Baltimore.

Glenn Daniels Jr is a senior at Towson University majoring in Anthropology and Cultural Studies. His interests include audiovisual and multimedia production, visual anthropology, social movements, tackling issues of race, and "organizing and agitating." He can be reached at glenndanielsjr[at]gmail.com and on Twitter @lemonsandkiwi.