Tracey Halvorsen’s Baltimore: Part 1 – “Smalltimore”

Getting Started

Tracey Halvorsen’s recent article  “Baltimore City You’re Breaking My Heart” has caused quite a bit of controversy.

I have been doing a tremendous amount of thinking about her article and the reaction it has generated. It has helped me to focus intensely on some of the questions I have had since I came back to Baltimore in 2005. At that time I was hired as one of the two Middle School Program Coordinators at the Baltimore Urban Debate League. My job took me to schools and neighborhoods all over the city, but black people were the vast majority in most of these places.

Like most white people in America, I had never lived or worked in a majority-black place. I was forced to challenge learned understandings and expand existing definitions of “diversity.” I eventually parted ways with the debate league, but I stayed very involved in building institutions and organizations that help the young people of Baltimore to have access to the kind of social capital that is needed to change their communities and the city.

In 2010 when no longer able to sustain myself on the income that kind of work brought me, I took a job in Columbia with a large research company. I still work there and I make a good living. It is really only in these last 3+ years that I have started to experience what many people call Smalltimore. I understand the attraction. I like Woodberry Kitchen and I think Patterson Park is amazing. I love Craft Beer and walking to the Orioles game from my “North of North” apartment. I get it.

I am a data and project analyst by profession, so let me say a word about methodology. My words and my work are absolutely my own.  I will present a lot of data and charts in these two articles. It is all open source public information that I have transformed, analyzed and visualized. I have blended studies, neighborhood definitions, and measures in a way which makes me slightly uncomfortable, because I know the Census definition may not be your definition, but this is often an inevitability with the publicly available information sets. I will provide sources for each of the source data points, and I will share a link to the Tableau Public workbook that has the visualizations and the underlying data.

I will surely make errors that impact the precision of the calculations. This does not invalidate the clear facts that a variety of sources will lay out. I am open to suggestions to make it better, but I will not be terribly interested in quibbling about a percentage point here and there.

Points of Agreement

I think nearly everybody can agree with the basic premise suggested by Halvorsen’s article. I will paraphrase that premise as:

It is tragic and frustrating when our neighbors, friends, or coworkers are the victims of violent crimes. Violent crime is too frequent in Baltimore. Something needs to be done to decrease that crime.

Beyond that, I think we see Baltimore differently.

Baltimore City

Source for this section is V2012 data for Cities and Towns 


Baltimore City is a majority Black city. This should come as no surprise to anyone who lives here or knows anything about the city (even if that knowledge only comes from “The Wire”).

It is however worth discussing for a bit, because as such it is a relative anomaly among cities its size.

I think there is a common perception that goes something like, “Sure there are a lot of African Americans in Baltimore but that is most cities.”

I think it is important to understand how unique Baltimore is among American cities in this regard, because majority Black political entities are rare in the United States. Even more rare in large cities.

Among all cities in the US with over 100,000 population Baltimore ranks 21st in size with ~620,000 residents. It Ranks 7th in Total African American or Black Population with ~399,000 residents.


Of 216 US cities with populations over 100,000 people, 20 of them, like Baltimore have a majority Black population.*


* I have included Hampton VA here because at 49.95% It statistically belongs there, as it does culturally and historically.

This is not a new phenomenon in Baltimore. This city has a long history as a central location for Black life on the east coast and in America. There are plenty of places to learn about this history and how it relates to the present, but two good places to start are “Black Baltimore: A New Theory of Community” by Harold Mcdougall and ”Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City” by Antero Pietila.

Both of these books take on the issue of Black people trying to build safe and prosperous homes and communities in Baltimore. To a differing degree they both also describe the way that White people have tried to do the same thing and how these interests almost always compete.

To me these books are an entry point, not an end point, but as such they serve well as a framework for understanding a more complete history of the City.

I could construct a list of “Amazing Aspects of Black Baltimore History,” but that is not the focus of this discussion and would risk over- and under-including. I am not trying to narrate the complete story of Baltimore as a Black city; rather I am trying to establish very clearly what should be obvious to any resident of this city: Baltimore is a city that is inseparably connected to its Black residents, their communities, and lives. It is functionally impossible and fundamentally undemocratic to tell an “authentic” Baltimore story without recognizing these obvious realities.


Unless otherwise noted data for this section comes from  Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance-Jacob France Institute (BNIA-JFI) analysis of the 2010 census data available on Open Baltimore,  available here.

“People jokingly call it “Smalltimore”, and it’s a huge part of its appeal.” –Tracey Halvorsen

I have always had an uneasy reaction to the term “Smalltimore” when used by white folks who moved here as adults (like myself). That being said, I have somewhat embraced some of the potential meanings. Thinking about this in response to Halvorsen’s article has really helped me to understand why it has always made me uneasy.

Halvorsen’s “Smalltimore” is a place of “memorable restaurants” where “some of the brightest minds come to this city every day” (emphasis added) to embrace diverse neighborhoods, amazing educational opportunities, and harbor front communities. All in a small setting where you can almost always run into people you know.
“Smalltimore” is also a place where Halvorsen owns a home and runs a business that serves Baltimore businesses and employs Baltimore residents.

But what is “Smalltimore”? Why does it feel so small?


The map above is a snapshot taken from the Social Explorer website (free version). It shows the percent of residents in each census block group that is included in the “White Alone” census category based on the 5 Year American Community Survey data set from 2012. The darker the color, the higher percentage  of white people that live in that block group. Two notes here: 1) block group is a very granular measurement. You can change the level of zoom in to a neighborhood and explore here:   2) I changed the default cut points in the color scheme because I wanted to show the places where white people are a statistical majority. Even so I put a cut point at 30% to show block groups where white people constitute ~ the 30% citywide average.

In “Smalltimore,” not only do a large majority of white people live in communities with a larger percentage of white people than the city-wide average, but in fact most live in communities where white people are the majority.

There are 55 neighborhoods in Baltimore. 31 of those neighborhoods have a percentage of African American population higher than the citywide average. These neighborhoods have a total population of 360,000.They are on average 89% black, 8% white, 2% Hispanic, and 1% Asian.

The other 24 neighborhoods, with a percentage of black population below the city average, comprise a total population of  256,000 people. This grouping of neighborhoods is on average 28% black, 60% white, 5%Asian, 8% Hispanic, 1% Native American, and 2% other.

Assuming that ALL of those 24 neighborhoods were considered “Smalltimore,” it would likely knock Plano, Texas off of the “72nd Largest City in America” podium. There is no wonder, then, that “Smalltimore” seems so small.


The last time Baltimore was as small as “Smalltimore”  was between the 1860 and 1870 Census. Even then, Baltimore had the largest free Black population in the nation.

Then as now, “Smalltimore” is not a monolith, it is a place of “diverse neighborhoods.” 24, to be exact.

The 24 neighborhoods that make up “Smalltimore” can be further grouped by their percentage of African American or Black Population compared to the Maryland and US percentage. There are 11 neighborhoods with a higher percentage of African Americans than MD but lower than Baltimore City. There are 4 neighborhoods with a percentage lower than MD but higher than the US percentage. Finally, there are 9 neighborhoods with a lower percentage of African Americans than the US percentage. The table below shows more demographic and population information. The bottom three categories make up “Smalltimore.”


Diverse Neighborhoods

“Smalltimore” is much more diverse than Baltimore City. Each “Smalltimore” neighborhood cluster outperforms the city in each non-black and non-white category (diversity) significantly. Diversity in “Smalltimore” means that there are 34% less black population and 50% more white population than the Baltimore City Average.

Using the Racial Diversity indicator in the BNIA dataset you can see this in a different way.


The vertical axis is the rank of the Racial Diversity index, the horizontal axis is the percentage the neighborhood is African American, size indicates neighborhood population, and color indicates whether the neighborhood is in the cluster of 24 “Smalltimore” neighborhoods.

Quite simply, Halvorsen’s diversity is an anti black concept that seeks to replace the majority population of the city with white notions of community and diversity.

In case you think I am making an argument that has nothing to do with Halvorsen’s article, the map below plots all the spaces and places mentioned in her article as well as each of the local businesses with an address, FastSpot website (since Halvorsen speaks to this as part of her connection to and experience with the city). The red push pins are places she speaks highly of; the green push pins are the things that she says people come here to do; the blue push pins are Fastspot clients. The neighborhoods she mentions are out lined in black Polygons. You can explore the interactive version here.

Wrapping up Part 1

I am not calling anyone a racist. I am trying to lay out a case for why race is an important component of understanding Baltimore. I am also trying to make the case that the construction of Smalltimore (in at least Halvorsen’s work) is based on establishing and defending a series of white spaces on top of a Black City. I find it stunning that the only use of the word “African-American” in her narration of the city is in a paragraph defining what she considers diversity. In that paragraph, being black (African American) in Baltimore is the same as being white, or crotchety, or gay.

I am not concerned about “real racists.” Surely there are people who hate black people, and while I don’t want them to come over for dinner, they really do not pose a significant or structural threat to Black people in Baltimore, or really anywhere, in a widespread way. Part of the reason this is true is that White people tend to define “real racism” as behavior exclusive of themselves and their friends. Thus for many white people the only kind of anti-black racism that exists is one of slurs, overt discrimination, and stand your ground style violence.

This mode of “opt-in white racism” is almost useless as an analytic tool for discussing issues in which race plays a role, but is very useful in distancing oneself from the necessity to engage those conversations.

What is more interesting to me is why white people find comfort in white spaces, seemingly without the ability to see those spaces as white. In part at least for Halvorsen, this is achieved by making black people disappear from her narration of Baltimore(though they are there if you read between the lines).

This is not to say that there can not be interest convergence, but if we want this conversation to move forward, we cannot do so without understanding the role race and whiteness play in shaping Baltimore’s past, present, and future.

I ultimately find it hard to believe that Tracey Halvorsen is not fully cognizant of these racial realities or how her article is situated in such a context. I wish she would say, “I am concerned about the threat that largely Black crime poses to my white neighbors and, frankly, myself, as a white woman”. Not saying it does not mean it is not loud and clear.

Source: BMoreConnected

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