By Jack Combs
The J. Van Story Branch Sr. Apartment building is a dominating structure in the Central Baltimore skyline. This mass of living space is twenty-stories tall with a brickwork body and shadow-filled balconies that look like eyes from afar. The building is broad, and it meets in the middle as if two buildings were shoved together and blended at the spine. It towers in relative isolation above the businesses and midtown apartment buildings that surround it. Located between Charles Street and Maryland Avenue just north of North Avenue, the building opened to residents in 1973, and is named in honor of the former director of Baltimore’s public housing, J. Van Story Branch Sr. Mr. Branch was director during a growth in racial integration in 1965, and served through an increase in public housing until his retirement in 1983.
Today, the Branch Sr. Apartment building houses a mixed population of Baltimore residents in lower Charles Village, people of varying backgrounds and ages. Every floor has approximately eighteen units. The apartments have brightly painted walls and pale tile floors–their heavy coats of polish make them slippery for the residents in the right conditions. A thick strip of black rubber lines the bottom of the walls like a border separating where white paint meets pale tile. On the far wall from the entryway are patios leading out to the north or south depending on the side of the building that the apartment is located: clear sliding glass doors give way to a brick engulfed balconies overlooking the snaking capillaries of Baltimore City. Past the sliding doors is the master bedroom, which blends seamlessly with the rest of the pale living space. The lone bathroom per unit is just big enough for one person, and by the time the kitchen was added down a small hallway to the left of the front door, there wasn't enough room left to install the surface space necessary to cook supper for a large family.
The Branch building residents are a diverse sampling of the people that make up Baltimore. There are elderly-widows and recovering drug addicts, workers who have fallen victim to the economy and lone parents trying to support their unexpected predicaments, single mothers like Eden Davis. A mother for nearly two years, Eden is a young woman with a long, thin torso, and a lower body that's short and thick around the legs. Her eyes are predominantly green, but around the pupil is a small encircling shell of yellow. Her nose has a slight slant upward and her lips look like two thin strips of sun-bleached plum skin. Eden works at a Rite-Aid south of the Branch building, and is raising her daughter Eve in apartment 412. When she goes to work, Eden leaves her daughter with the Hall family who live on the same floor.
The Halls are a close family of three when their schedules allow it. Cheryl has worked at various grocery and restaurant chains since moving into the Branch Apartment building in 1998 with her two small infants; Tyrone and Michelle have since grown into their teenage years. Tyrone Hall, 13, has a physically striking presence. He's already hit the 6-foot mark, yet he still hopes to add inches in the coming years for his impending career playing high school basketball. He doesn't resemble his father like Cheryl assumed he would by this age, rather he more resembles her: Tyrone has wide eyes and a face more long at the jaw than full around the cheeks. His shoulders are broad and straight at the base of his neck, like the top of a refrigerator, and his ribs protrude from tight fitting shirts. Michelle has been calling Tyrone “string bean” for as long as she can remember, but recently he's begun to build muscle in his upper body–she's beginning to contemplate possible alternatives. Tyrone's best friend is Garrett Blackstone, who lives with his grandparents a few blocks away on Barclay Street. Garrett is much shorter than Tyrone, but his face looks older in contrast. His teeth are straight and equal in size. Garrett has a long nose and thick eyebrows, and his braids whip at his well defined cheeks when running after Tyrone.
Michelle Hall, 15, doesn't have the same look as Tyrone. She has the shorter build of her father, and her skin is slightly darker than her brother's. She shares his eyes though, even from across a room you can see the roundness of her pupils and the gleam of the white on either side. She has curved hips and small, high-arched feet. Her stomach is trim and her chin has a slight dimple. Michelle is an uncommonly pretty girl, she's one of the most popular at her school. Michelle is a straight-A student that thinks often about her future. She's decided in recent years that she never wants to find herself working at a grocery or restaurant chain, or living in a building like this.
A few weeks ago Michelle saw an old man in the elevator she didn't recognize. He wore thick-rimmed glasses and pants that hiked up to show his socks when he was just standing there staring at the glowing numbered buttons. The man had little buds of white on the sides of his head, and there were fat blemishes on the top of his scalp. His shirt was tight, as if he had worn it for too long, and tattoos showed on various plots of his body. Michelle noticed the words ”No Trespassing” stamped along the veiny seams of his forearm as he gripped a wad of plastic bags filled with canned goods. The elevator doors opened and Michelle was startled to see this gentlemen exit at the same floor as her. He lived on the opposite end of the level, yet she was observing him for what she thought was the first time. He didn't glance at her or acknowledge her in anyway, and it was with the realization of this that she hated this city–hated the people and the weather, hated the streets and the public transportation. She didn't understand why someone would stay here, what would compel them to choke down the smell of these hallways and the nauseating flicker of the ceiling lights and the blinding glare of the white paint and pale tile floors. She wondered, for the first time, how anyone could stand it.
Michelle's feelings are common sentiments around 20th street. Even Cheryl shared the same feelings when she first moved her kids into the Branch building. As the downtown buildings loom tall and bright over the dark, decaying buildings of North Avenue, it's hard not to feel a slight bit of resentment for the college brats with their hundreds of dollars worth of books, and the suburbanites that venture up MLK for their date nights, both of whom roam the midtown streets while others are struggling just to stay afloat in the tallest building in the neighborhood. Cheryl resented them for many years, but then she saw her kids growing up in the very place she used to be ashamed of living, and suddenly where the white walls met the pale tile didn't seem so homely anymore.
She doesn't wonder anymore–she doesn't even notice.