Skip to content Skip to footer

Port of Baltimore Endangered Black Communities Long Before Key Bridge Collapse

The historic Black neighborhood of Turner Station hopes its voice will finally be heard in the rebuilding process.

Part of the steel frame of the Francis Scott Key Bridge sits on top of the container ship Dali after the bridge collapsed in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 26, 2024.

Around 10 p.m., Eric Johnson left his church service in Turner Station and drove across the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore County. He didn’t know it’d be his last trip across the 47-year-old bridge that had defined much of his adult life, but he was certainly glad it was.

Just over three hours later, in the early morning of March 26, homes across his neighborhood began shaking violently. A few miles away, a massive cargo ship leaving the Port of Baltimore had just lost power and delivered a deadly blow to the bridge’s support beams. Almost instantly, most of the bridge collapsed into the Patapsco River.

As of the morning of March 27, six construction workers who were on the bridge when it collapsed are presumed dead, according to multiple news reports.

“It was really an eerie feeling,” said Johnson, the pastor at Union Baptist Church, which lies just beyond the bridge in Turner Station, a 150-year-old Black community. It was a reminder, he said, of just how short life is.

For Johnson, the tragedy taking place during Holy Week has allowed hope to flow through his heart and mind, but he’s acutely aware of its place in a deep history of adversity his community faces.

The bridge’s collapse fits into a long lineage of the port and other industries’ impact on Turner Station and the other Black neighborhoods surrounding Key Bridge, and residents believe the bridge’s collapse may lead to an increase in unemployment and a lack of mobility.

“Transportation is a big deal because not everybody has access to it, and we always see how these disasters especially impact our lower-income communities,” said Tasha Gresham-James, who is the director of Dundalk Renaissance, a nonprofit group working to revitalize the area’s port communities. Thirty-five thousand people depend on the bridge every day.

Gresham-James is also nervous about how the collapse will affect how hazardous chemicals are transported. Oil, gas, and other chemicals are not allowed to be brought through the region’s tunnels, leaving the bridge as the area’s main thoroughfare — now this means they might be trucked through more residential areas in the majority-Black city of Baltimore.

“It’s devastating,” she said, hoping that it doesn’t lead to any more disasters. It is just another reminder of the vulnerability of the nation’s infrastructure and supply chains, she said.

Still, resilience was the consistent word used to describe how Turner Station and the area’s other Black neighborhoods would get through the tragedy.

Starting at 5 a.m., just hours after the bridge collapse, Gresham-James began fielding calls from residents and activists in her area asking how they could help or where they could bring food for first responders.

But Gresham-James and Johnson said it’s been disheartening to support each other while the billion-dollar private companies and government entities around them fail to take their calls.

“We wouldn’t be here without our longtime legacy residents, who are also longtime community leaders, really pushing the needle to make sure that our needs are also addressed,” Gresham-James said.

A Difficult “Marriage”

Once a flourishing steel town, Turner Station now faces the same uncertain future as many other post-industrial towns across the United States.

Founded by Black Southerners, some of whom were born into slavery, Turner Station would go on to support a thriving steel industry in Baltimore for more than a century. It offered Black families a surefire way to enter the middle class, but took more from them than they could imagine. “Not only do individuals have health issues to this day, the environment has really suffered,” Johnson said.

The area surrounding Turner Station is home to two Superfund sites, a designation the federal government gives to the nation’s most toxic locations. The creeks around the community contain industrial waste, such as heavy metals, oil, and cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls.

Today, generations later and years removed from the steel plant’s closure, residents are still picking up the pieces. Attempts to maintain and revitalize the area, including a multimillion-dollar expansion of the Port of Baltimore, have only contributed to more pollution — and more tragedies.

Over the past several decades, as the steel industry has died off, the Port of Baltimore’s reach has steadily increased, but local communities feel its hand unevenly. For 13 straight years, the port has led the nation in importing and exporting cars and light trucks, as millions of tons of cargo worth billions of dollars move through its waters, and deadly smog and pollution waft through the air.

Since 2020, the port’s expansion has meant more massive ships like the one that hit the Key Bridge could trek through the river’s waters. The economic impact has been palpable; the port supports about 15,300 direct jobs, according to the state, and an additional 140,000 jobs are linked to activity at the port.

But when Gresham-James thinks of the port’s impact, she often thinks of her community’s health struggles, her father, who worked as a longshoreman for 30 years, and even her mom, who “washed his clothes daily, not realizing how the effects of asbestos caked in his shirts would impact her later in life.”

Outside of Turner Station and pockets of Dundalk, the community that borders the port, most of the region is white and wealthy — and home to the protections needed to keep their air and water clean. However, the Black communities have experienced increased noise and air pollution from truck traffic and seen their overall quality of life markedly decline.

In Turner Station, more than a quarter of residents live in poverty, and respiratory illnesses are reported at rates 35% higher than the U.S. average.

Less than 2 miles away, in an 80% white port community, just 7% of residents live in poverty, as the community’s respiratory illness rate is 30% less than Turner Station.

The disparities show that while the nearby port and industries provided some economic benefits, they also negatively impacted the community in many ways, similar to a difficult “marriage.”

“It’s been that kind of marriage [with the port] if you will, where some areas have really benefited, but at the same time, you know, a lot, like ours, that are really torn apart by it,” Johnson said.

Residents hope that as the bridge’s collapse slows down port traffic, Black communities’ opinions can finally be listened to in the rebuilding process, which is set to have national implications.

“What we need is a really concerted effort to come together to make sure that we’re all working in the same vein, to make sure that we are undoing the wrongs,” Gresham-James said.

“I mention this only because we’re by the water, but, you know, a rising tide really does lift all boats, and if we’re all working together, we can make those things happen.”

What’s Next and Other Key Facts

Are there any other similar collapses in U.S. cities?

  • This isn’t the first time a major bridge has collapsed in the U.S., nor is it the first time one has had disparate impacts on Black communities. From 1960 to 2015, there were 35 major bridge collapses globally due to ship or barge collisions, with a total of 342 people killed; half of those collapses happened in the U.S. The deadliest took place in majority-Black Mobile, Alabama, in 1993.

Was the collapse due to aging infrastructure?

Who will pay for the repairs?

  • President Joe Biden pledged Tuesday that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of rebuilding the Francis Scott Key Bridge. However, the timeline and price tag for rebuilding the bridge are unknown and will likely take time to figure out.

In the meantime, the Francis Scott Key Bridge’s collapse has major implications for regional and national supply chains, particularly in the agriculture and construction sectors.

  • Impact on Agriculture and Construction Equipment Shipments: Baltimore serves as a crucial entry point for large agricultural and construction equipment destined for the Midwest. The bridge’s collapse will disrupt shipments of tractors, farming combines, bulldozers, and heavy-duty trucks, affecting farmers and construction projects.
  • Timing of the Incident: The collapse happened as peak planting season hits the Midwest, when farmers rely on their new tractors and farming equipment. A backlog in equipment may impact crop production.
  • Potential Rerouting and Increased Costs: Companies may need to reroute their shipments to alternative ports, such as those in Georgia or Florida, to mitigate delays caused by the collapse. However, this alternative route may result in higher freight shipping costs due to increased distances and potential congestion at alternate ports.
Tired of reading the same old news from the same old sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake things up and bring you the stories and perspectives that often go untold in mainstream media. But being a radically, unapologetically independent news site isn’t easy (or cheap), and we rely on reader support to keep the lights on.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an investment: Invest in a nonprofit news site that’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and not afraid to tell it like it is.