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September 22, 2023

Former health commissioner talks urban health

By ALEX DRAGONE | March 5, 2015

Dr. Peter Beilenson, public health professor and former Baltimore City Health Commissioner, spoke in Hackerman Hall on Wednesday night about issues related to race, class segregation and violence in Baltimore.

The event, titled “Ferguson, Urban Dynamics, and Public Health,” was sponsored by Charles St. News.

“The biggest issue we have in this country is a lack of mixing of socioeconomic classes,” Beilenson said. “We just have a concentration of impoverished groups.”

Beilenson served as Baltimore City Health Commissioner for 13 years. He currently teaches Public Health, Policy and Politics: A Primer after five years of teaching the popular Baltimore and The Wire course.

Beilenson’s talk primarily focused on his thesis, in which he argues that socioeconomic segregation is a major problem, both nationally and in Baltimore. He used his class trips to Baltimore neighborhoods to illustrate his point.

“One of the thought papers that we do in our class is a visit to two communities in Baltimore,” he said. “There are two pairs of communities. One is Middle East... Anybody want to tell me four words about Middle East?”

Some of the characteristics that students cited included boarded-up houses, public housing, fast food restaurants and lack of green spaces.

Beilenson then contrasted the image of Middle East with Roland Park.

“[There are] private schools all over the place,” he said. “When you’re there in the middle of the day, unless it’s a day like today when there is freezing cold rain, there are people walking around.”

Beilenson also talked about how the racial makeup of the city police force impacts its work.

“Something like 80 percent of Baltimore police officers are from out of state,” Beilenson said. “Fifteen percent are from Maryland but outside the city, and only six or 10 percent are from the city. That’s a problem because people from outside of the state, generally Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia... and Harford County and Northern Maryland, which is not exactly a diverse area, pick up subtle cues. And because they have not had exposure to folks living in these communities, there’s just a natural disconnect. And people come in with pre-judged prejudices.”

Beilenson also addressed the effects of rising college tuition and the accessibility of education.

“So that’s a significant problem. Just to be partisan, the more that Republicans control Congress and control the funding, there’s going to be less financial aid... One of the great levelers is education,” he said.

Beilenson stressed that mixing socioeconomic classes and races is imperative to fostering positive race relations.

“People say horrible things about all sorts of people, and they have a really hard time saying it if they know people... We’re better as a country in some ways than we were 20 years ago... By exposing people to people and by having diverse neighborhoods [in terms of] socioeconomics and race, it makes it much harder to demonize someone.”

Marysol Encarnación, the events chair for Charles St. News, learned a lot about Baltimore’s problems from Beilenson’s talk.

“I lived nearby, and I had never really experienced the Baltimore City aspect of life as far as violence, gun violence, drug use, anything like that,” Encarnación said. “Bringing it as close to home as possible, literally a mile away from my house, I feel really put it into perspective.”

Dan Adler, president of Charles St. News, said that Beilenson’s talk exposed him to a different side of Baltimore.

“[The most interesting element] for me was trying to have a more realistic picture of the Baltimore community,” Adler said. “I feel disconnected at Hopkins sometimes; we say ‘Hopkins bubble.’”

Junior Travis Schmauss said he was most interested by the differences Beilenson spoke about between Baltimore and other cities.

“The difference in the drug trade, Baltimore versus Los Angeles, is [the] neighborhoods [in Baltimore],” Schmauss said. “You have drug dealers that are encroaching on each other’s territory. You have a lot more violence that way.”

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