Securing the bag

PK Semler
Special to The Afro

Baltimore’s Hackers – the informal network of neighborhood drivers that serve seniors and others stranded in the city’s notorious food deserts – have been providing an essential community service long before the arrival of Silicon Valley-based rideshare concerns of Uber and Lyft. The neighborhood hacker can be seen outside almost every large grocery store, courteously offering to accompany a shopper to their homes.

One of the main definitions of a food desert, according to the seminal Johns Hopkins University study, is an area where residents live at least a quarter of mile from a grocery store and over 30% have no available access to a vehicle. “The hackers offer a service that no one can beat. They pick up the customer, drive them to their homes and carry up the groceries,” said one big chain manager. “The hackers and customers all know each other from the community.”

A 30-something hacker at the Shoppers Grocery Store at Mondawmin Mall in the Liberty Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore, said hacking was a 1960s civil rights era response to segregation and discrimination targeting the city’s Black neighborhoods. “We were a response to the boycott of our neighborhoods,” the hacker said.

In fact, every major U.S. city has or has had some form of hacking or gypsy cab business as most of the municipally licensed taxi for hire businesses in places like New York, Chicago or Washington, would refuse to serve African-American neighborhoods.

The rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft are in a way a legalization of the gypsy cab businesses of yore, allowing private individuals to use their private vehicles for hire for a 20% cut of the fare.

In fact, in 2019 Lyft offered subsidized rides to food desert residents but the initiative seemingly failed as Lyft’s cashless business model does not work as residents are more than likely not to have a credit card if they do not own a car.

Neither Robin Burns, Lyft representative, nor Uber head of government affairs, Justin Kintz, responded to requests for comment by AFRO deadline.

In fact, one could argue that the hackers’ model may in fact be on better legal ground than that of Uber and Lyft as the drivers do not ask for a fix fare but a donation for their services, therefore avoiding the legal and insurance companies’ definition of vehicle for hire.

Some 30 years ago, the author of this article used the same strategy with a used Chicago Checker cab while a college student on the South Side of Chicago. Frequently someone would jump into the Marathon cab sans medallion at a traffic light and bark out a destination, I would merely say it was not a taxi but I’ll drive you to your destination and you can pay me what you wish. I always received more money in hand than if I had been a legit Chicago cabbie.

But Baltimore hackers, who have been providing critical and essential services for decades, operate in semi-legality as the Baltimore City Council has yet to recognize their positive contribution and service to city residents.

Washington, D.C. solved the issue of hackers/riders by instituting a Courtesy Car system managed by a hacker appointed supervisor and overseen by a satellite office of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department at the Safeway grocery store in the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast DC.

Newly appointed Washington DC police chief, Robert J. Contee III, said the hacker/Safeway program is great and he remembers the service the hackers/riders provided while growing up in the nearby Carver Terrace neighborhood.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison said he would look at the D.C. model to see if his department could institute something similar.

This article is part of a multi-media series, “Securing the Bag,” focusing on Baltimore’s food deserts and food insecurity, funded by a grant from Solutions Journalism Network.

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