A roughshod remix of Rihanna's dancehall nag 'Work' blasts through the packed Red Room of the Crown in Station North as Joshua Harris navigates a cluster of partying club kids, hip-hop heads, and art school weirdos. Dressed in a sharp suit, the Green Party mayoral candidate is enjoying himself, soaking in a night of DJs and performers on the vanguard of Baltimore's music scene, all gathered for the wildly popular bimonthly party Kahlon. Occasionally, he passes out his business card but mostly he's here to hear the music.
"Just because I'm running for office doesn't mean I'm no longer a person," Harris says, a week or so later, at Terra Café as Donny Hathaway's 1972 album "Live" is cooing over the Charles Village cafe's speakers. "I got invited to Kahlon by a friend and I'm a huge hip-hop fan and music fan. You can love hip-hop and music and still speak educated and articulately about the issues. We don't do respectability politics."
Hip-hop and the arts frequently come up in conversation with Harris. The Chicago-born community activist, who currently resides in Southwest Baltimore near Hollins Market, mentions politically-engaged Chicago rappers Common, Lupe Fiasco, and Kanye West (though he's less sure of Kanye these days) along with current favorites J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar.
In Baltimore, Harris, who moved here in 2012, co-founded Hollins Creative Placemakers which offers an approach to the arts that is starkly different than the current Mayor's scheme for the arts of courting outsiders. He prefers "the arts for people that can afford those arts." (Harris has a way of delivering devastating critiques about the current state of affairs in Baltimore with a smile on his face.) His goal with the arts is to "create urban revitalization and urban renewal using arts as a catalyst while minimizing culture displacement," he says. "I understand the gentrification train that often comes through cities. We need to counter that with an inclusive process that creates an environment of belonging versus disbelonging."
There are plenty of parallels between Baltimore and his hometown of Chicago, Harris says, though there is one major difference: There's more potential for change in Baltimore.
"I believe that Baltimore is at a point where if we have the right leadership in place, and if we understand the value of investing in people first, we can prevent it from getting to the hopelessness we see in Chicago," he says. "Chicago is of course known for its violence and that's for a reason: There's been administration after administration isolating poverty and only investing in corporations and big business. So now you have entire neighborhoods that see no hope. If we can build and grow and develop people in Baltimore we can prevent that. What caused the uprising in April was a juxtaposition of massive amounts of wealth up against massive amounts of poverty."
If Chicago and Baltimore, with their courting of the wealthy and their tax breaks for big developers, are examples of what not to do, Harris also has an example of a city that works. In 2008, he spent time in Oslo, Norway playing basketball (basketball, which he played at Augsburg College and semi-professionally, taught him "accountability," he points out) and attending the University of Oslo International Summer School, which informed his policies. In Oslo, universal healthcare, energy efficiency, walk-able urbanism, and sustainability were proven effective and tangible. "Basketball has taken me all over. Between sports and living in Norway, how I viewed the world was reshaped," Harris says.
Last month, Harris, who was already a long-shot candidate, switched his affiliation from Democrat to Green (the Baltimore Green Party primary, between Harris, David Marriott, and Emanual McCray occurs on May 1). It's the sort of bold and maybe even unwise choice that illustrates Harris' maddening integrity, something that has made him the preferred candidate among many of the city's activists.
"It's already an uphill battle for me and this election is about education and awareness and getting people to pay attention to the issues, so I don't think I lose anything as a Green. I think I gain much more support as well," Harris says. "Baltimore's historically been a Democratic town despite the fact that its policies have really been Republican in nature, if you look at how communities have been neglected. And a large part of my values are of course social justice, which fits in with the Green Party and a large part of my platform is built around issues of sustainability, and clean energy and how we use them to create jobs and spur economic growth so the Green Party best fits where I stand."
Harris has spent the past year calling attention to a $17.5 million TIF (tax increment financing) given to UMD BioPark, which is just a block from the Poe Homes housing project, which Harris explains, "has some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city." Harris and other activists say the BioPark, Wexford, and the City Council excluded representatives of Poe Homes, who had requested a "community benefits agreement" that would have solidified investment in Poe Homes as well as the BioPark.
"Fourteen years of promises for jobs and none of it has been fulfilled, but our city has found it suiting to give this developer money that they don't need," Harris says. "Our requests would serve not only Poe homes but the entire city. Requests that would create jobs immediately, train people for the jobs that exist, and invest in our youth."
Now Harris is off, unpacking Poe Homes and this TIF and illustrating how it ties to so many things that he wants to change in the city: crime is caused by a lack of a living wage so the city needs more living wage jobs; it also needs proper plans for improvements to the city's infrastructure, which could be done by training the jobless and then giving the living wage jobs to those trainees to make those improvements; stronger relationships between the community and the police are necessary (he worked on body camera legislation as a legislative aide for Delegate Charles E. Sydnor, he points out); the staggering number of food deserts in the city must be fixed which he intends to do by establishing food distribution centers; via clean energy and solar energy, industry will return to Baltimore. And so on.
"Maybe I'm a dreamer," Harris says. "I don't think so. I think this is very pragmatic and do-able. I am the youth jobs and sustainability guy."
At a "Stop Stealing From Our Community" protest organized by the Committee of Concerned Citizens and led by Leo Burroughs earlier this month, 40 or so demonstrators' voices shouting "Jim Crow must go" and chanting about the millions handed to the BioPark echoed off the shiny glass UMD BioPark buildings on W. Baltimore St. and mixed with the pounding of the Christian Warrior Marching Band who came along to help call attention to habitual divesting in Poe Homes.
Harris was absent from the protest. He spoke before the protest at the Poe Homes Community Center, repeating his lines about the uprising and juxtaposition of wealth in the city, but had to return to his day job before the march got going. Later in the evening however, at a mayoral forum at MedChi, Harris mentioned Poe Homes and UMD BioPark's TIF.
"$17.5 million gifted to wealthy developers," he reminded the crowd of 50 or so.
At the forum, Harris wasn't soundtracked by a Barbadian pop goddess, a soul legend, or a fervid drumline—just the deafening silence of a dead serious 6 p.m. mayoral forum. Still, he was a compelling highlight of a rather tedious night.
"The outcome of this situation is one that will determine how we move forward as a city. This is not just a West Baltimore issue," Harris told the audience. "It will determine whether or not our institutions and elected leadership are serious about creating One Baltimore or will it forever be an elusive dream blocked by corporate interest only concerned with profit margins and institutional expansion."