When we reported on Elliot Plack’s map of Baltimore city’s vacant properties—the map that plots the nearly 16,000 vacants cataloged in the OpenBaltimore data portal—the blogger behind Baltimore Slumlord Watch insisted that figure was too low.
She has reason to think that. For almost four years, Carol Ott—who, until her profile in Baltimore magazine this month, maintained her anonymity online—has traversed the city, taking photos of more than 600 blighted houses and listing them, along with addresses, on her Slumlord Watch blog.
As Baltimore magazine wrote, the mother of two had been attending neighborhood meetings in Pigtown, where she lives, discussing a “shuttered shopping center at the intersection of Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevards” that had become a haven for drug-dealing. Tired of going to meeting after meeting, and just talking about vacant properties, Ott assumed the role of vigilante and published online information on who owned the shopping center, the beginnings of Baltimore Slumlord Watch.
“At one point I had some grand idea that I was just going to catalog every single vacant structure in Baltimore city,” says Ott, who has been in the city 12 years and lives in Pigtown. “And then I realized how many of them there really are. There’s no way.”
Ott says she sees herself as an advocate for people who have to live near what she calls ‘slum’ properties, and for citizens at large in Baltimore who want action—not just another community meeting—when it comes to urban blight.
Technically Baltimore spoke with Ott about her WordPress-fueled crusade.
TB: You’ve been documenting derelict properties for four years. Have people come to expect more from you than just a blog post?
CO: Yes. Yes. Very much so. I get a lot of e-mails. And a lot of it is—can you please do this? Or can you come and speak here? I’m more than happy to do it. It’s not like people are demanding and rude. Because I think I’ve also been sort of open about some of my real life. … But yeah it is kind of weird when you have people wanting your help on things that—it’s like, why isn’t the city doing this for you? They have a whole government at their disposal. They have all this money, and all these resources, and these huge staffs. Why aren’t they doing this for you? I’m just one person.
TB: So, people have built you up into something you’re not?
CO: All of this attention … sometimes it’s a little disconcerting, because it seems like other people have this view of me that I don’t necessarily share. I just didn’t want people to be disappointed.
TB: It seems like Slumlord Watch is a way for people to see that their frustrations are at least heard somewhere.
CO: Yeah, definitely. … One of the things that the blog and the Twitter and the Facebook and my half-assed attempt at mapping things has allowed me to do, it’s allowed me to reach the people who are causing this problem. And it’s also, on the flip side, allowed me to reach the people who are being horrifically affected by this.
TB: You’ve seen the OpenBaltimore data on vacants. Why even try to tackle a problem that seems far too daunting?
CO: I ask myself that all the time and I get asked that by other people all the time and … basically the only thing that I really know how to do and do well is write and communicate. This is how I deal with whatever it is that’s going on in the world around me. I write about it. … In my mind I’m thinking, ‘What else am I going to do? Am I going to call 311? What’s that going to do?’ If 311 worked, then there wouldn’t be a problem.
TB: Not expecting much from the city government, huh?
CO: Who am I going to talk to? Am I going to talk to my city councilman? Am I going to call my state delegate? Clearly if anybody had been paying attention the problem wouldn’t have gotten this bad in the first place.
TB: Well, what about elected officials? Have they shown interest in this blog? Or, conversely, asked you to stop publishing?
CO: Nobody’s ever asked me to stop. There’s one city councilperson who’s expressed concern, but it’s more for my own safety and well being, not so much, ‘stop this.’ They may not admit it publicly, but I think there are a quite a few elected officials who are sort of silently cheering me on, which is kind of nice. … I maintain cordial, if not sometimes prickly, relationships with some elected officials.
TB: Are you a journalist or an activist?
CO: I think it would be crass and I think offensive for me to consider myself or call myself a journalist because I don’t fit the criteria. … I’ve never worked for a newspaper in my life. I did not go to journalism school. And I don’t particularly care for the word activist either. I consider myself an advocate.
TB: And the difference is, in your mind?
CO: An advocate is the one who’s willing to do the dirty work to get something done. I’m the one who’s willing to sit down and talk to people. … I go into neighborhoods where I would venture a guess most of the city would not want to go in the day, let alone at night time. … Nobody loves a martyr, least of all me. … I just sort of fill this role that I’m not sure I ever really wanted but I don’t mind having now that I have it.
TB: When does this—cataloging blighted properties—become discouraging for you?
CO: Every day. Just about every day I think, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ … I’ve thought about giving up several times over the past couple years, but then I think, it would just be one more person who gave up on a city that perhaps needs as much help as it can possibly get.