Reckoning Risk on Baltimore's Toxic Periphery


My current project explores the historical and embodied dimensions of risk from the perspective of Curtis Bay, a community in south Baltimore. Curtis Bay has managed multiple forms of risk since the 19th century, from quarantining lepers and smallpox victims during the great wave of immigration to supporting nuclear deterrence with its Cold War chemical arsenal. Today, residents there are fighting the construction of a trash-burning incinerator by drawing attention to its "cumulative effects." From a biomedical perspective, this phrase draws attention to the compounded health impacts that locals – whose bodies already bear the imprints of sustained environmental harm – will suffer as a result of increased toxicity. But I suggest that cumulative effects can also be understood historically: residents situate the imposition of the incinerator against their community's industrial past to draw attention to the human consequences of over two centuries of exposure. In other words, they argue that Curtis Bay has had enough – enough risk, enough exposure, enough injury.

Many scholars of "risk" insist that the topic is an issue of futurity – one that encompasses unknown threats, invites anticipatory interventions, and transforms the future into an object of governance. But cumulative effects have multiple temporal inflections. They are rooted in an additive past, implicate the present, and affect the kinds of futures that are possible. Building on this idea, my research uses the fight to stop the incinerator as a prism through which to understand cumulative effects as both a condition of risk experience and a metaphor for the modes of social and historical consciousness that inform collective action.

Climate Crisis and the Unpeopling of Baltimore

My next project extends my current research on risk, intervention, and urban history by taking up the problem of climate adaptation in Baltimore City. Briefly, climate adaptation describes a program of updating infrastructure to support “resilience” and reduce the city’s “susceptibility” to extreme weather events associated with global warming. As a mode of urban governance, it troubles relationships between the past and the future, the chronic and the acute, manmade and natural hazards, history and novelty. Indeed, history has become increasingly irrelevant to city planners scrambling to prepare for conditions associated with climate change, deemed “far beyond the scope of previous experiences.” Within this program, my emerging work explores the resignification of vacant homes and crumbling infrastructure – long considered symbols of protracted disinvestment – as “systemic vulnerabilities.” Specifically, I ask how strategies of intervention, methods of governance, and models of responsibility shift when signs of chronic neglect become, in the context of climate change, a case for acting urgently.