Fringe Economies in Baltimore

This thesis exhibition studies the visual characteristics and iconography of fringe economies in Baltimore, Maryland. The project began by looking at the massive local bail bonds industry and has expanded to include local pawn shops and check cashing outlets. These three categories are intrinsically related, as they all serve a cash-based or cash-only economy through the dispensing of short-term, collateral-based loans. Collateral can range from post-dated checks, jewelry, and electronic items to vehicle and property titles. Bail bonds, pawn shops, and check cashing outlets have many shared characteristics, and many of the customers they serve are in the same socio-economic demographic. They offer both legitimate service in time of need while carrying great financial risk. As our national economic crisis continues to deepen, more and more people are forced to turn to the fringe economy to survive.

For the purposes of this study, I define the fringe economy as legitimate businesses providing necessary financial services while utilizing predatory tactics with their customers. These tactics include but are not limited to exorbitant fees for service, extremely high interest rates on short term loans, potentially damaged credit rating, and substantial risk of losing personal property for short term economic gain. Often referred to as “neighborhood financial” centers, pawn shops and check cashing outlets serve a population that has little or no access to traditional banking services, but still require banking services. These businesses tend to bundle services in order to serve as a one- stop shopping destination, and the lines among services are blurring. In addition to cashing checks for a fee, check cashing outlets also offer Western Union service, money orders, bill and utility paying, and payday advance loans to their customers. It’s also becoming common for pawn brokers to offer check cashing services and payday loans in addition to services as a pawnbroker.

The fringe economy is a rapidly growing national trend, and it includes large corporate service providers as well as mom-and-pop neighborhood storefronts.

This thesis is a process-based visual research project. Throughout, it has involved recurring trips into the neighborhoods of inner city Baltimore to photograph and document storefronts, focusing on the iconography of the businesses. Many of the businesses are in severely distressed neighborhoods, which added its own challenge to the study. It has been a learning process, particularly as to how these businesses are run and accessed, and who frequents them and why. Many of my initial perceptions of the businesses have been confirmed through my research, but I’ve also been truly surprised by what I’ve discovered. While many people frequent pawn shops and check cashing outlets out of sheer necessity, there are also many customers who do so by choice, willfully bypassing traditional banking outlets that are available to them.

My goal has been to illuminate a little understood industry that serves a large section of the population in Baltimore. In addition to the visual exploration and documentation, I wanted to truly understand the process involved in each business. How do you post bail? Pawn personal merchandise? Cash a payroll or personal check without a bank account? Get a personal loan with bad or no credit? My research also led to bigger questions that I’m still trying to resolve. What is the true cost of the utilization of the fringe economy? How can we better serve all of our citizens and allow them to fairly access basic services without being unfairly taken advantage of?