sitting in plaza | car and blur

Sunday, September 11, 2011 | |

sitting in plaza

car and blur
I rode the bus into downtown Baltimore Friday morning from Hampdon, three miles north of the temporary street circuit that has been constructed for this weekend's Baltimore Grand Prix. The drivers I've worshipped, the cars I have adored are there this weekend, screaming down steel canyons and along Baltimore's beautiful waterfront. But riding through the districts north of downtown, on a bus route that serves poor, underprivileged, largely black neighborhoods gives you another perspective.

I had arrived on Thursday afternoon, the day before practice sessions began, and two days before any racing. The official name of the event, as known to race fans, is the Baltimore Grand Prix. But to the locals, it's just "the grand prix." The term conjures up a hell of a lot more than just an auto race—it's shorthand for an entire political fiasco that has divided the city. You couldn't miss hearing about "the Grand Prix." "Baltimore's first Grand Prix is coming!" said a prerecorded announcement on all buses; it went on to advise people to be aware of route diversions due to downtown being closed off. Although #BGP2011 is the official hashtag promoted by the organizers, at one point, #GrandPrix was the number two trending topic on Twitter worldwide—and it was entirely Baltimoreans complaining about the traffic headaches that GP-related road closures were causing.

On Thursday night, I rode the bus down to the inner harbor. I was the only non-black person on the bus. Although no one shared a seat, many of the riders were friendly, sharing the easy familiarity that arises from having laid down common roots in a close community. One man poured over the revised bus route diverted around the GP with another rider who was unfamiliar with the concept of a downtown street race. "We couldn't afford to go anyway," he sighed.

As I walked down the inner harbor, I met two middle-aged men—white, blue-collar workers. I told them I had flown in from Boston for the race. They seemed to be encouraged by that. "We are so psyched for this race," one of them said. Lifelong Baltimoreans, and proud ones that night. I asked them about the political situation. "It's been rough," the talkative one said. "It's been rough," waving his hands in the air. "But I'll tell you what: This city needs this race."

On Saturday morning, I saw some more of the debate. I was the only non-black person on the bus. One of the riders, a middle-aged, heavyset woman, was on a roll. "WIth everything we need, what are they doing with that money? What are they thinking, putting in race cars? Black man ain't got no car, let alone no race car!" Another woman nodded but disagreed politely with a smile on her face. "Well, I think it's nice. It's something else for people to come and see."