Black Water Relic
2022
red clay bricks, street detritus


Black Water Relic is an artifact resurrected–a trauma remembered. In a conversation with author, community activist, and Baltimorean Marisela B. Gomez, she described a flood event that took place outside her front door in Middle East Baltimore.

Middle East Baltimore is a heavily gentrified area. The historically Black community first faced threats of encroachment from Johns Hopkins University in the 1960s. This threat came to life in 2001 at the initiative of Johns Hopkins University when they made moves to transform the neighborhood into ‘Eager Park.’ Ironically, per a Johns Hopkins student newsletter this rebrand displaced about 800 black residents: a pattern that shows up frequently on Johns Hopkins resume.

Throughout Middle East Baltimore’s history, redlining which leads to poor funding and infrastructure sabotaged the lives of the residents. The flood event referenced in this artwork was the result of failing sewage infrastructure.

Baltimore’s sanitary sewer system is old; it was first built in the early 20th century after the Great Baltimore Fire. These pipes often crack and leak sewage, which was the case for those running under Chase street in Middle East Baltimore. The leaking pipe gushed raw sewage onto the streets. As residents moved their cars and tried to leave their homes they had to wade through, often unknowingly, black water.
Black water is sewage. It carries human excrement. As we stood on the corner of Chase and Rutland in Middle East Baltimore, Gomez described a river of human shit flowing down the street. Most people can testify to the precarities that come with flood events, but a black water flood is of a different genre. It contains life-threatening bacteria. The event is relatively undocumented and returns blank webpages when searched for in local Baltimore news. All of these aspects should surprise no one, however. Of course black neighborhoods have dangerous, violent infrastructure. Of course a black water flood event would be allowed to happen in Black neighborhoods. Of course it would be forgotten about.

The installed work is a relic from this flood event. The bricks, a common vernacular for Baltimorean architecture, were sourced from local sites. They are weathered and broken with history–decaying into dust. The brick path is littered with debris: wet toilet paper, old news articles, dirt, and plant matter. The work is meant to recall the story of the black water flood on Chase Street and to accentuate the criticality of Baltimore’s lack of urgency pertaining to unsafe conditions in black neighborhoods.

This work, as does much of my work, deals with the relationship between humans and the environment. While I use my art practice to highlight the impending climate crisis and advocate for a radical reimagining of the land, I also spend an equal amount of energy drawing comparisons between the treatment of the land and marginalized bodies. Black, queer, and female bodies are commodified, neglected, and forgotten about. They are only celebrated when they are able to provide goods and services and fall through the cracks when they don’t fit the white mold. The same is true for the Earth. That black water ended in the Chesapeake Bay watershed–furthering the damage onto the lives of the other Chesapeake Bay critters.

We live in a culture of selfish extraction. All of these entities have expectations of production and are repudiated and abused when they don’t perform, such as a black water river outside one’s front door. I am grateful for the story that Marisela Gomez shared with me that day and for the opportunity to speak about this violence in a public way.

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