Three years after the death of Freddie Gray, the renowned Johns Hopkins medical school is transforming a vast 88-acre section of Baltimore out of what it calls ‘enlightened self-interest’. Will it work – and is it right?
The minivan is passing through a scene that typifies urban decay, Baltimore-style: blocks of modest rowhouses, where some dwellings are inhabited, others are boarded up or abandoned to the elements, and some blocks are entirely vacant, studded with empty lots.
“This was east Baltimore,” says Ron Daniels, an affable scholar of law and political science whose accent betrays his Canadian roots, and who since 2009 has been the president of Johns Hopkins University. “Block after block after block. It was either boarded-up vacant housing or just fields strewn with rubble.”
The van turns off Broadway, and reaches a kind of clearing in this landscape: an 88-acre zone that on the map has the shape of a grand piano. At the southern end – the piano’s keys – is a thicket of shiny new construction: offices, labs, a hotel, a tall apartment building. Then there is a townhouse complex set around a courtyard; a few rehabilitated rowhouses; and some decrepit ones that have so far escaped the bulldozer. And space: a lot of empty space, large open parcels of land, cleared and ready for action.
Many Baltimoreans who remember this area before it got almost totally levelled still call it by its old name: Middle East.
But in 2002, it became the East Baltimore Development Initiative (EBDI), one of the most aggressive urban redevelopment initiatives in the US in recent memory. Now, after 16 years, with many delays and controversies, it’s finally taking shape. “I think it’s fair to say that we’ve tipped this development,” Daniels says, with a measure of relief. “There’s enough here, and there’s a logic to what we are doing, so that it will continue.”
For the university, the EDBI has meant creating the space to expand its already-renowned medical campus into a full-fledged life-sciences hub, to rival those around Harvard, MIT, or Stanford and attract the top scientists, students and start-up entrepreneurs.
For east Baltimore – once a thriving blue-collar community hit by disinvestment, depopulation and the attendant decay and crime – the new project beckons new middle-income residents with its planned shops and amenities, public school (backed by the university), park, and the biggest economic infusion the area has seen in decades: jobs, commerce and $1.8bn of direct investment.
It’s a huge gamble by the largest private employer in Maryland: to drive a huge transformation of the urban landscape, tearing down most of a distressed neighbourhood, relocating about 740 families, and trying to combine a new biotech innovation hub with what it is hoped will be a sustainable mixed-income, mixed-race neighbourhood.
It’s a bet on symbiosis – between the university, a manufactured new residential community, and the existing neighbourhoods around it. It’s a bet to revitalise east Baltimore and set a model for anchor institutions in other cities. Above all, it’s a bet that the whole thing won’t turn out to be a cautionary tale.
For Johns Hopkins, the vast mobilisation of time and money has both ethical and business justifications, Daniels says. “You can make the moral case of why, given the bounty of resources that we have, it’s incumbent on us to share with the city. But the other thing is to make clear that this is an enlightened form of self-interest. It is inconceivable that Hopkins would remain a pre-eminent institution in a city that continues to suffer decline.”
But there are other views. “This is gentrification, a big institution pushing out a vulnerable community for its benefit,” says Lawrence Brown, a critical urbanist who teaches in the school of community health and policy at Morgan State, Baltimore’s historically black university.
Marisela Gomez, a physician and activist in the fight for fair treatment of displaced residents, is blunter. “Every community that’s black and brown and low-income in Baltimore is at risk.”
Too big a gamble?
Three years after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, and the explosion of pent-up community rage that followed, Baltimoreans tend to agree on one thing: now is a window of opportunity for more inclusive development. But they have different visions for what that means.
The partners in EBDI – Johns Hopkins, the City of Baltimore, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a major local philanthropic organisation – have been careful not to call it “urban renewal”.
That term is permanently tainted by the massive projects of the 1950s and 1960s that demolished whole neighbourhoods, often ramming highways through them, and primarily displaced black and other disadvantaged communities. Instead, EBDI’s backers speak of rejuvenation, or revitalisation.
Still, the venture is a bit of a throwback to the old slum-clearance days. It has involved tearing down 2,000 rowhouses, preserving only about 200. Most were vacant, but even so hundreds of homeowners and tenants were dispossessed. Only a few dozen have been able to stay within the EBDI zone. The vast majority have scattered.
For the better part of 15 years, EBDI’s clumsy execution and uncertain end-point have made for a vivid running theme in Baltimore civic life. In the business pages, the city’s boosters fretted. Had Hopkins gambled too big? Would the bad reputation of east Baltimore permanently deter investment and undermine the “eds and meds” formula – universities and health complexes attracting innovation and driving job growth – that had helped cities like Pittsburgh?
The reaction in the community was no better. The EBDI’s methods were peremptory: at the outset, in 2002, residents only learned of the imminent destruction of their homes in news reports. Activists had to agitate for fair compensation and relocation terms, and to ensure the demolitions were safe and did not stir up contaminants. There were standoffs that led to arrests. For years, the area was a dead zone – empty land, vacated buildings, parking lots – and the Great Recession of 2008 further delayed investment and construction.
Community activists bridled at the costs. Homeowners, who made up half of the displaced, had traded houses valued at $30,000 or less for packages to purchase homes elsewhere for five times that amount – but which led to tax and mortgage burdens they could not afford. Renters, who made up about half of the displaced, were more vulnerable still. Meanwhile, each new construction project presented fresh questions about lack of inclusion. First, in 2012, came a tall apartment building on Wolfe Street, with 321 rentals for Hopkins graduate students only.
Then the public school, Henderson-Hopkins, moved into its swanky facilities in 2014. A public school, it had partnerships with Johns Hopkins to support curriculum and family services, a state of the art early-childhood centre, and admission by lottery. But it gave priority to children of residents within the EBDI footprint, and there were very few of these. It took another round of fights with community activists to allocate more spots to the children of surrounding working-class areas.
And when the first batch of fifty homes went up for sale – a set of renovated rowhouses, and a townhome complex built around a central courtyard – Hopkins offered its employees a hefty subsidy of $36,000, raising concerns. In principle, it would improve access to the new homes for lower-income Hopkins employees, including those who already lived in east Baltimore. In practice, would it not mostly benefit the more privileged biotech professionals the university was aiming to attract?
Beneath all this lurked a question of cultural loss. For 30 years, the EBDI area had been known as Middle East, following a community campaign in the 1970s to repair properties. Now those properties were coming down, and taking the neighbourhood name with it. Middle East, in the Baltimore context, connoted crime and dereliction. Consultants led a rebranding exercise to name the new green space, settling on on Eager Park. The name was not entirely random – John Eager Howard was a revolutionary war figure and early governor of Maryland, and Eager Street runs through the neighbourhood – but it is certainly market-friendly, with its suggestion of freshness, brightness, anticipation. Perhaps inevitably, the whole EBDI area is now referred to as Eager Park.
A fortress no longer
The sense of critical mass is relatively recent. First, in late 2016, a six-storey office and laboratory building opened on Ashland Avenue. It is home to FastForward, the university’s start-up incubator. Companies get advice, work and meeting facilities, lab space with shared equipment, and access to Hopkins scientists. “The ecosystem is developing quite nicely,” says Sebastian Seiguer, co-founder of Emocha, which uses video technology to ensure patients take their medication. With 14 employees, Emocha is outgrowing the incubator space, and will soon move – but within the city. “I’m a Baltimore native,” Seiguer says. “This incubator is an effort to make Baltimore a place where people stay.”
A Starbucks opened on the ground floor in February 2017 – the classic harbinger of gentrification, perhaps, but also one of the chain’s “opportunity cafés,” which incorporate jobs, youth training, and minority contracting components. These have opened in other low-income neighbourhoods, including Ferguson, Missouri, and Chicago’s South Side.
In May 2017, the park opened, with an inaugural ceremony that included Daniels and the mayor, Catherine Pugh. It is a long rectangular strip of 5.5 acres that stretches across three blocks, and shows the thoughtful features of contemporary urban design: a tasteful mix of concrete and wood-plank footpaths, a breezy glass-and-steel pavilion, a community garden. Private security guards sit in booths that are conspicuously placed around the park’s perimeter. On a chilly afternoon, the park was almost empty; but summertime promises vegetables, concerts, children splashing in the fountain, yoga in the grass.
Then, in October, the hotel opened: a Marriott Residence Inn, facing the park’s southern end, filling out a block where forty rowhouses once stood. It has 194 suites catering to longer-stay guests – such as families of hospital patients – plus retail space and a top-floor restaurant with a sweeping view. That’s when Daniels, the son of a Toronto real estate developer, began to exhale. “Now there’s a sense that there’s a steady march forward.”
The energy here certainly differs from the main hospital buildings, which present a fortress-style face. With fences, skywalks and forbidding facades broken by loading docks, the medical campus sent hostile signals to its surroundings, and got hostility in return. Assault and theft were common; beggars set up at traffic lights. “Fundamentally it was a hunker-down strategy,” Daniels says. “The traditional thinking was that the best way to protect the university was to ensure that its perimeters were effectively controlled, and that you were creating safe zones within them.”
By contrast, the new office and lab buildings in the EBDI feel like they welcome – and want to generate – foot traffic. It is nothing fancy: ground floor retail, some steps and patios, small setbacks creating spaces to meet and gather. The Charm City Circulator – a free bus that augments Baltimore’s patchwork public transport system with links between the various university campuses and downtown – has put a terminus at the foot of Eager Park. On a weekday, the main streets here are quite busy with students and lab workers. There are two cafés, a Walgreens drugstore, and the first street-level restaurant, an Afghan establishment, has arrived. It’s just a start, but the promise is there.
But this mounting activity contrasts with the eerie feel that still prevails at the far end of Eager Park. Across from the park’s northern edge is a baleful row of vacant houses with their windows taken out, awaiting demolition. At the corner, a squat building with boarded-up doors still has a red awning announcing its former identity as a Baptist church. In other directions you see empty fields, low warehouses, commercial vans in a fenced lot. There is little foot traffic and not many cars.
This will change, of course. Almost every space is slated for construction: more biotech buildings on the southern side, a lot of housing in the north and middle of all types – apartment buildings, townhomes, and rowhouse restorations; sales and rentals; market-rate, affordable, low-income, reserved for workforce or seniors. There are more than 700 homes in the pipeline, with potentially many more to come.
In other words, it is too early to know what the future Eager Park community will look like, let alone its effects on east Baltimore. But everyone has a theory, and arguments to support it.
“Baltimore is the poster child for deindustrialisation in the United States,” says Rob English, lead organiser for BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development), part of a network of community groups that traces its origins to Saul Alinsky in 1940s Chicago. Although many American cities have hollowed out as manufacturing declined, English says that Baltimore has suffered particularly badly.
The east side bore much of the brunt. Its anchor for most of the 20th century was Bethlehem Steel, which had an enormous plant – at one time, the largest steel mill in the world – at Sparrows Point, or “the Point,” some 10 miles southeast of downtown on the Patapsco River. During the Great Migration, black migrants arriving from the south found good jobs in Baltimore’s manufacturing plants. Redlining and other racist practices drove them into certain areas east and west of downtown; many who worked at the Point lived in east Baltimore. “This was the blue-collar African-American neighbourhood,” English says. “East Baltimore was built because of Bethlehem Steel.”
At its peak in 1959, the mill employed about 35,000 workers. By the 1980s, it was down to 8,000. Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt in 2003. There were only 2,000 workers left at the mill when a successor firm shut it for good in 2012. As Bethlehem went, so did the rest of Baltimore industry. Depopulation – from job losses, white flight, and eventually black middle-class flight as well – reduced Baltimore City’s population (as distinct from suburban Baltimore County) from its mid-20th century peak of nearly one million to 615,000 in 2016.
But departures didn’t follow smooth patterns, even at the level of an individual block. The ubiquitous housing form in working-class and lower middle-class Baltimore is the rowhouse: two or three storeys with a distinctive low front stoop, narrow and tightly packed. Nowadays a block with, say, 20 rowhouses might have eight of them occupied and well-tended, seven vacant and boarded up – often with severe structural damage like a collapsed roof – and the rest derelict, inhabited by addicts or transients. And these might alternate irregularly along the block, making it hard to tear down a whole section without displacing someone.
The problem multiplies to the scale of the city. It establishes the vacancy rate as a main metric of neighbourhood distress, and the “vacant” as an iconic architectural mutant form (put to much use in The Wire) – but not in such a way that you could pronounce any section “empty” or bereft of community. “The neighbourhoods that have been decimated are not completely vacant,” says Tamara Woods, a senior planner in the city’s department of planning. “There are people still living there.”
Middle East, in 2002, was one such area, with some of the city’s worst indicators of distress. The vacancy rate was high – some said 70%, against the city average of 14%, though activists dispute the figure – and poverty, unemployment and violent crime was twice the citywide rate. The average household income was $28,464, one-third less than the Baltimore City mean. Perhaps all this primed Middle East, more than other areas, for a radical redevelopment solution. But for the “great east Baltimore raze-and-rebuild” of the EBDI, as an extensive 2013 article by Dax-Devlon Ross dubbed it, Johns Hopkins had to want to expand – and the city had to collaborate.
Since 2005, the planning department has placed every census block in one of eight categories. Broadway East, just north of the EBDI, and Milton-Monford just east, are almost entirely type H, the bottom category; Gay Street and Oliver, to the west and northwest, are a mix of types G and H. This means that all these neighbourhoods are “stressed” and require the most help, including “comprehensive housing market interventions … including site assembly, tax increment financing, and concentrated demolitions to create potential for greater public safety and new green amenities”.
For some observers, the combination of an expansionist Hopkins and vulnerable neighbourhoods adjacent to Eager Park means the writing is on the wall. Large-scale demolition and forced relocations seem generally off the table—an apparent lesson of the EBDI experience—but in the view of Brown, piecemeal dislocation is on the cards anyway.
Brown doesn’t begrudge Hopkins for pursuing its long-term interest. “This is a protracted planning operation,” he says. “They’re doing this for the next 100 years, to secure the best research scientists, the best students.” The bigger picture, to his mind, is the flood of government-backed developer money about to wash over east Baltimore. There is a plan to turn Old Town Mall (a derelict shopping centre) into a complex of offices and 1,200 units of housing. Also on the cards is redevelopment of the Perkins Homes, a public housing project with 1,400 residents that is located a few blocks from the harbour – a newly desirable site that the city hopes to turn into a mixed-income community.
All told, the development money flowing towards east Baltimore may soon reach $4bn, Brown says. There are similar dynamics in parts of west Baltimore, which has the other large concentration of poor black people. “It’s hard to fight that level of capital that wants to occupy, build, and expand,” Brown says. “And I don’t know if it’s already too far gone. This is a city that caters very strongly to developers. I’ve seen enough to know that the city will squash and build over low-income black communities by any means necessary.”
Lawrence Grandpre, research director of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, which describes itself as a “grassroots think-tank” on issues affecting black Baltimoreans, is sceptical too.
“The theory of economic development here essentially locks a lot of working-class black folks into service economy jobs,” he says, which means low pay, disruptive hours, no union representation, and slender job security. In his view, having the city and community hew to Hopkins’ priorities shows a failure of imagination. “It operates to the exclusion of investing in indigenous talent, and even of understanding what indigenous talent could be.”
Daniels sees it differently, of course, rejecting the zero-sum opposition of Hopkins’ interests and those of the community. He points to a range of initiatives. In 2015, for instance, after the upheaval that followed the death of Freddie Gray, the university and health system set themselves targets for hiring employees from the most disadvantaged neighbouring communities, and contracting with female and minority-owned businesses.
The health system has made hires, too, through Turnaround Tuesday, a program that helps people returning from incarceration or who have other major challenges in seeking employment. And around its main Homewood campus, on the north side of Baltimore, Hopkins has partnered with local groups in 10 neighbourhoods to identify investments that address community needs. “This is very much about Hopkins doing whatever it can, within the context of its educational and research mission, to be able to change the trajectory of the city,” Daniels says.
‘I believe Johns Hopkins is coming off their island’
“There used to be a time where if you worked at Hopkins they would tell you, ‘Don’t wait around at 5 o’clock, get in your car and go home,’” says Shannon Sneed, who represents District 13 in Baltimore’s City Council. “Now you have a president with vision, and he says that’s not what they want to do.”
Sneed was one of eight new members elected to the 15-member council in 2016, most of them, like her, in their thirties. Her district includes a sliver of the EBDI and stretches out to the east. Constituents greet her as she walks on Monument Street, away from the hospital, towards the Milton-Monfort neighbourhood. This is a shopping drag: working-class and unfancy, but busy. Northeast Market, one of Baltimore’s network of indoor markets, is only ten minutes’ walk from the hospital complex, and some Hopkins staff venture this way to get their lunch. There should be many more, Sneed says. “I believe they’re coming off their island, and encouraging their employees to do the same.”
The threat of displacement isn’t a concern she hears from many constituents, she says. “There are more urgent priorities with quality of life issues. I get sent pictures of someone passed out on the front steps. Homes broken into. Living next to an abandoned home, and it rains into my basement – that type of issue.” Sneed knows full well the ups and downs of EBDI. “We’ve all read the stories,” she says. “My hope and goal is that we never forget the stories, but we move on.”
Just west of EBDI, in the Oliver neighbourhood, another approach to revival is at work, following very different principles.
Parts of this neighbourhood also suffered extreme blight (serving as the location for the deserted blocks in the “Hamsterdam” scenes in The Wire). But much of the area is displaying a new vitality, with a key difference.
“There hasn’t been a single relocation,” says Sean Closkey, who runs ReBuild Metro, a non-profit development business. “It’s very hard to build relationships when the community is gone.”
The model here is to rehabilitate existing houses, as well as to take smaller actions, such as fixing up a corner garden, or clearing an overgrown field. All this is of a piece – and built around organising – with residents taking charge of consulting neighbours, identifying needs, and mobilising resources with support from local institutions and philanthropies. English, the BUILD organiser, leads the effort. “They’re going top-down at EBDI, and we’re going up,” he says.
In 2002, the Oliver team began acquiring scattered properties, while collaborating with five local churches whose members raised $1.2m. The developers then started focusing on small areas where they knew, from economic data and community consultations, that rehabilitating a few vacant houses would produce the greatest effect. “If I work on a scale I can actually achieve, then I can connect those scales together, like a quilt,” Closkey says.
Despite their antipodal philosophies, ReBuild Metro and EBDI aren’t enemies – far from it. In fact, EBDI has invited ReBuild Metro to cross Broadway and take charge of the blocks at the northern end of the footprint, where by agreement with the state historic preservation agency several stands of rowhouses cannot be torn down. “We need Hopkins to succeed, because that’s the anchor institution in east Baltimore,” English says. “But in the world as it is, we’ve got to organise enough power to rebuild the rest of east Baltimore.”
A troubled past
There are many stories about east Baltimore. In the city’s proud but faded industrial history this was a factory town, where generations of black people escaping racial terror in the south came for a shot at becoming the middle class. In the more recent narratives, it is one of Baltimore’s distressed zones, the counterpart to Sandtown-Winchester in west Baltimore, where Freddie Gray lived and met his death. In The Wire, east Baltimore is home to Proposition Joe and his superior-quality heroin supply. Now there is a new story, of gentrification: one branch creeping up from Fells Point near the harbour, another from Station North, the hipster zone north of downtown, with Eager Park offering a sanitised convergence zone.
On a brisk Sunday afternoon, a man and his dog have the grassy terraces to themselves for their game of fetch. He and his wife were among the first new homeowners, he says – one of the fifty families who bought in the first batch. They are black professionals, from out-of-state. His wife is a Hopkins scientist. The neighbourhood is still sparsely built; there is no supermarket yet; but they are glad to have managed to get in early. The next homes will sell for much more.
Few former residents of Middle East get to enjoy this value appreciation. Only about 20 former homeowners and 35 renters are still around, says Marisela Gomez, who keeps up with as many as she can. A doctor and public health specialist, Gomez knew the neighbourhood from volunteer work and became involved in community resistance, serving as director of the Save Middle East Action Committee (SMEAC) which fought against displacement and for fair terms.
She says the EBDI failed to anticipate the trauma that comes from uprooting a community. “The whole understanding of grieving for a lost home was completely absent,” she says. “The root shock of it isn’t understood.” Some of the displaced former residents come back to Northeast Market on Saturdays, she says. “Or they look at funeral announcements, and they’ll go because that’s where they’ll see people they knew.”
Outside the market, Gomez recognizes a woman, greets her warmly and asks after her kids. Nancy (not her real name; she asked for anonymity) is one of the few who stayed. She kept informed, went to City Hall to look at documents, and was an organizer with SMEAC; when EBDI agreed to relocate some of the rowhouse residents into newly rehabilitated ones, Nancy was chosen. Her children attend Henderson-Hopkins. “It’s better than the school they came out of,” she says. “That one was falling apart.”
In another story that Johns Hopkins officials are proud of telling, the original Mr Johns Hopkins, whose bequest established the school and hospital in 1876, was an enlightened man: a philanthropist and abolitionist, whose family emancipated its slaves decades before the civil war.
But in east Baltimore, the story that sticks is of Henrietta Lacks, the black woman whose cancer cells were harvested without permission in 1951 in Johns Hopkins Hospital, producing a line that has fostered countless discoveries and lucrative patents. People also remember the lead paint study in the 1990s, when Hopkins researchers recruited families to live in apartments with varying lead concentrations, exposing poor, black children to lead poisoning. It is no surprise that legends still circulate. Some parents tell their children to stay away from the hospitals, lest they be snatched. Jobs and buildings are one thing; cultural trust is another, earned in a different currency.
There are inscriptions carved into the concrete tiers that form gentle terracing at the southern end of Eager Park. They summon the neighbourhood’s history yet keep it at bay, holding it off in the past tense:
We tended to the children, treated them as our own. We were the caregivers.
We laboured at Bethlehem Steel. We were the steelworkers.
We taught hundreds of neighbourhood kids at Dunbar High School. We were the teachers.
We kept watch over the patients. We were the nurses.
Above the park terraces rise the new Hopkins buildings, the start-up incubator, the hotel, the foot traffic on Ashland, the shuttle bus, the grad students, the lab workers in smocks, heading to the Starbucks. In the foreground is one more carved statement, this one in the present tense – as if that was all it took to make it real:
WE ARE ALL EAST BALTIMORE.
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