The windows of Dena Robinson’s rowhome rattle and her bed and walls shake as trucks and buses speed along Orleans Street, making it hard for her to sleep. If there is a car crash — and there often is — Robinson hears it, loud and deafening.
She has lost count of how many accidents she has witnessed since moving to the CARE neighborhood in East Baltimore five years ago. Residents have for years raised concerns about pedestrian safety in the corridor because of reckless driving by motorists. Between 2015 and March of 2022, there were at least 567 car crashes on Orleans Street in the 13-block stretch between Central and North Patterson Park avenues. The Dunbar-Broadway and CARE neighborhoods, which are both located within those boundaries, have had the first and third highest accidents rates per resident when looking at the more densely populated parts of Baltimore.
“There’s nothing to stop them, there’s nothing to slow them down,” Robinson said of the speedy motorists.
Neighbors have lobbied the city for calming techniques, and won some changes, but say more needs to be done.
Orleans Street is a section of Route 40, one of the first federal highways that dates back to 1926. It crosses through several neighborhoods, including Oldtown, Dunbar-Broadway, Patterson Place, McElderry Park and Ellwood Park, many of them largely populated by Black and brown families.
Cynthia Gross is one of the residents who has reached out to the city’s transportation department many times about the unsafe condition of the street. She and neighbors succeeded in getting a red light camera installed at Orleans and Patterson Park Avenue. But only after after they flooded the department with emails, sending a photo of every car crash.
She and other neighbors say that’s not enough. Cars still speed through several blocks and pass dozens of homes before hitting a traffic light at Orleans Street, Gross said. Some residents are calling for more speed cameras and traffic lights, while others would like to see speed bumps or a stop sign.
“A lot of people ask [the Department of Transportation] to really sit down and analyze, based on [their] knowledge and expertise, and offer recommendations,” said Gross, who is the president of the CARE neighborhood community association. “It seems like it’s very hard to get that from the DOT.”
In 2019, Del. Robbyn Lewis, who represents the 46th legislative district and lives two blocks from Orleans Street, started an advisory group on pedestrian safety in the corridor. It drew attention from residents from Butchers Hill to Ellwood Park, including Craig Collins-Young. He was part of a subgroup of the Livable Streets Coalition that focused on Orleans Street.
The pandemic slowed down some of the community efforts, such as workshops on street design and traffic calming, Collins-Young said, but neighbors are reorganizing. Some are sending more requests to the transportation department and also plan to complain to the City Council.
“Having [the city] at least acknowledge that people are really feeling very unsafe and looking for change will be a great first step,” Collins-Young said.
In the last five years, residents in the CARE neighborhood made more than 300 calls for service related to transportation on Orleans Street, detailing illegal sign removals, making parking and footway complaints and requesting street repairs.
Collins-Young said the city should follow with an outreach effort, where residents from surrounding neighborhoods can participate in a plan to make the street safer for pedestrians.
The city has addressed some traffic safety concerns along the street, according to a statement from the Department of Transportation. Over the past year, the city repaired “traffic signal structural issues,” upgraded signs, and refreshed pavement markings at the intersection of Orleans with Patterson Park Avenue.
The department of transportation is also working on improving visibility on the street, according to the statement, and is evaluating traffic calming measures near North Castle Street.
Robinson wonders if the street design was deliberate, a vestige of redlining and segregation. Keshia Pollack Porter, the chair of the department of health, policy and management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it is likely, stemming from decades of disinvestment in Black neighborhoods. She researches how to design safe and healthy environments with a focus on advancing equity.
“We know that generations of economic and demographic shifts — really facilitated by public policies like redlining — have produced hyper-segregated areas where we have residential segregation. Where it’s possible to geographically target as well as withhold resources from communities of color,” Pollack Porter said.
The federal government expanded Route 40 into the east side of the city in 1936, building a viaduct at Orleans Street.
Before the completion of the viaduct, the street started next to a majority Black neighborhood near present-day Pleasant View Gardens, according to census tracts from 1930. It followed east, where there was a substantial European immigrant community with a small Black population, together surpassing the amount of white American residents.
In 1937, the federal government flagged both neighborhoods as part of its redlining practice, a discriminatory policy that denied financial and often social services to regions considered risky for investment. The red areas were Black neighborhoods, like the west side of Orleans up to North Montford Avenue. Areas in yellow were noted to be “declining,” from North Patterson Park Avenue to North East Avenue, due to an increase in Black and immigrant populations.
These redlining maps often dictated what resources a neighborhood received, including proper infrastructure, and categorized Black and immigrant communities as unworthy of investment. In 2019, an analysis by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance found that Black neighborhoods received half the amount of funds white neighborhoods did.
Gross’ first home in the late 1960s was near the intersection of North Collington Avenue, and she has lived in different houses on Orleans Street ever since.
“It’s always been a busy street,” she said.
The neighborhoods surrounding Orleans also experienced white flight like much of the rest of Baltimore, which also influenced road design.
“Many decisions about road design and urban planning — starting in the 1950s and ’60s — in cities were often made to provide benefits to the people in the suburbs,” Joshua Clark Davis, a professor at the University of Baltimore who teaches the city’s history, said. “But that type of decision-making process wasn’t always good for the actual neighborhoods where those roads are.”
Community involvement with street design is fundamental for equity in pedestrian safety, Pollack Porter said. Residents not only can help to define the problem but should also provide input on solutions they want.
“Part of it is, how do we center community and make sure that we’re talking to people about what they want in their neighborhoods?” Pollack Porter said.
Walking affects whether people can get around safely, whether the children can play outside, whether they can walk to a grocery store, a pharmacy or a laundromat — and whether these amenities even exist in the neighborhood, she said. The lack of these anchor institutions in communities with no walkability and pedestrian safety issues is not surprising.
The safety of Orleans Street was brought up as part of the Southeast Complete Streets plan in 2012 when concerns were raised about high-speed traffic and the need for traffic calming measures. Orleans was not in the plan’s implementation schedule, which prioritized areas in Fells Point, Canton, Harbor East, Highlandtown-Greektown and Bayview.
The city’s department of planning has proposed at least $6.6 million for the 2027 and 2028 operating budgets to rehabilitate a section of Orleans Street from North Washington to North Ellwood Avenue, including new sidewalks, with ADA compliant ramps and driveways and signal reconstruction. The department also proposed $5 million for neighborhood traffic calming, and at least $18.7 million to restore the Orleans Street bridge between 2023 and 2028.
Even though Orleans Street is a highway, with all the rowhomes it’s not much different than any residential street in the city, and should be treated as such, said Ernest Scalabrin, who lives less than a block away from Orleans. He can hear the cars speeding by and says they often seem to be moving over the limit.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of economic incentive to have people commute in and out of the city,” he said. “But at a certain point, you don’t have a city anymore. It’s all just these huge roads without people living there.”
Data reporter Ryan Little contributed to this story.