Our bridge collapsed.

It was named for slave owner and lawyer Francis Scott Key. After witnessing the British bombard Baltimore, he was so inspired by the city’s resistance that he wrote the four-verse poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” which, when set to music, became our national anthem.

From Sept. 12-14, 1814, the greatest military power in the world, after lighting Washington on fire the month before, tried to do the same to Baltimore, then the young United States’ third-biggest city. Baltimore’s volunteer militia sat high up on Hampstead Hill watching, waiting, girding for battle. Maj. George Armistead zealously guarded Fort McHenry. Baltimoreans blocked their harbor’s mouth with a massive chain and scuttled hulks. And, when the epic battle was over, unlike Washington, the city had held. The flag was still there.

Baltimoreans wouldn’t let the British destroy this precious place on the Patapsco River where the Piedmont Plateau meets the Atlantic Coastal Plain — the port furthest west on the Eastern Seaboard that bridged mid-Atlantic flour and textiles across the Atlantic, along with European manufactured goods. In time, the National Road, America’s first federal highway, and later the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, pulsed the city’s energy, its ingenuity, its spirit and its people westward.

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As an enslaved worker on Baltimore’s docks, Frederick Douglass was one of the people who made sure Baltimore’s clipper ships that transported the goods of a young nation to the furthest points of the globe were watertight and seaworthy. Then, he used the city as a launchpad to freedom.

Scottish, German, Irish, Jewish, Italian, Polish, Greek, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Russian and other European immigrants sewed the garments, cast the iron, shucked the oysters, canned the fruits and vegetables, and produced the fertilizer necessary for farmers out west to reproduce amber waves of grain to make into flour.

Where would Ohio and Indiana and Illinois and West Virginia and Kentucky and Missouri be without Baltimore? In the 20th century, Black and white Baltimoreans cranked out the ships necessary to rush supplies to Allied troops. What would have become of America without them?

America seemed to forget those who flocked to Baltimore for the stable jobs and the pride and freedom that went with them — those who burst into the city from the steps of ships and trains filled with hope and optimism.

The Key Bridge, a vital part of Baltimore’s economy, was a piece of the very transport system that helped facilitate the city’s mid-20th century economic and social implosion. Huge ships, made in Asia, like the one that destroyed the bridge, began onloading and offloading goods to and from massive marine terminals far away from the close-knit urban communities that formed the city’s core. Many of the foreign imports ended up on trucks that, until the bridge was lost, churned up the bridge’s ramps destined for places far and wide. In most cases, no longer do they export goods built by bare-handed Baltimoreans.

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High above, jets roar over Baltimore, transporting at 500 mph other life essentials that the city used to produce and process. Though Baltimore has an essential, thriving port, it resembles something different than the one Baltimore built, and that built Baltimore.

Steep competition from foreign producers devastated the city. In 1950, Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Mill was the largest plant of its kind in the world. It employed 30,000 people and produced more than 10,000 tons of steel per day. By the early 1970s, foreign competition had resulted in massive job losses. By the late 1980s, the mill, which had once produced the beams to hold up the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge, employed only 8,000 people. China, which produced just 3% of the world’s steel in 1967, produced 54% of it by 2022.

As the job losses intensified, those with means and the right skin color or ethnic or religious identities moved from Baltimore into the surrounding counties’ newly built suburban neighborhoods — a number of which specifically banned Blacks, Jews and sometimes Catholics. At the same time, banks used federal Home Owners’ Loan Corp. maps to determine whom they would and would not lend to. Baltimore has yet to recover from this structural earthquake. Will it ever?

Rather than acknowledging the forces behind the earthquake, many Americans have chosen to blame its victims. The attacks on Baltimore, and on American cities more generally, have been bad for a long time but have become grotesque during the past decade. In 2019, Donald Trump called the city a “disgusting rat- and rodent-infested mess,” and a “place no human being would want to live.” The term “Democrat-run city” has become a terribly derisive mainstay in right-wing circles.

The attacks on Baltimore’s mayor and the city since the bridge collapse are not in the spirit of the country our families have toiled to build. Yes, we have problems. No, people aren’t perfect. But most here — just like those in New Baltimore, Pennsylvania or Ohio or Michigan or New York — are trying to hold it together, to keep our dreams alive. Must we surrender to racism and xenophobia and fear and resentment that mask the real reasons many of us are experiencing such grief and pain?

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To the America that Baltimore helped build: Globalization has hit us all like a cargo ship. Deindustrialization has punched us all in the gut. We’re all in this together, aren’t we?

In one of the parts of Key’s poem that didn’t make the cut for the national anthem, he wrote:

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation! Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!

C’mon, hon … can we start there? We have at least six of our own to mourn. Then, we must rebuild our bridge, and America must do its part.

Eric S. Singer is a historian and an authority on the structural, political and cultural history of Baltimore. He is currently adapting Kai Bird’s and Martin J. Sherwin’s “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” for young readers. Publication is scheduled for summer 2025.

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