East Baltimore Urban Renewal

Washington and Ashland Ave Batimore

The corner of Washington Ave. and Ashland Ave. in August 2011 (top) and September 2015 (bottom). Via Google Street View.

This was originally written in November 2014.

Johns Hopkins University Hospital sits directly next to a very poor East Baltimore community. The hospital campus faces inward with iron fences and private guards in kiosks surrounding the entrances. The subway system reaches the campus and goes no farther. In March 2014, The New York Times ran an article in the Arts & Design section about a redevelopment project in this neighborhood that included a new public school operated by Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and Morgan State University. Like most writing about poverty for an audience with no real interest in poverty, the article conveyed how difficult poverty is to solve, creating no expectations that what followed would solving anything, and served to bolster the reputation of a prestigious institution. JHU, described as a “great university,” was attempting a “grand urban experiment.”

The new K-8 school is one part of a greater redevelopment project and serves as the Arts & Design “hook,” since it contains supposedly innovative things like “a community center, library, auditorium, and gym” that are actually standard in properly funded public school facilities. Past these benefits (and buried in the article), is the price the community paid for this project:

Supported by federal, state, local and private money, the plan called for clearing dozens of acres.

That meant evicting 742 families.

This provoked a firestorm. Of those 742 families, 240 owned homes; the rest were renters. Homeowners, whose demolished houses were valued on average at $35,000, and some of the renters as well, upgraded to houses out of the neighborhood valued on average at $150,000. About 40 relocated homeowners and renters moved into rowhouses rehabilitated within the district as part of the plan. Another 40 renters moved into new, subsidized apartments also built within the district.

The redevelopment goal is for one-third of housing in the neighborhood to be permanently set aside for low-income residents. Anybody who moved out can also move back, if they choose. ‘Literally one-for-one replacement,’ is how Mr. Shea put it.

The neighborhood or “redevelopment zone” was demolished and almost 90 percent (662 of 742 families) of its residents were displaced. When homes are demolished first and the promised replacements come later, the result is mass displacement. This is a consistent criticism of HOPE VI projects, which this resembles, and from which Baltimore planners can draw direct experience and data. Homeowners within the neighborhood received a boost in home equity only after continued activism; they were initially only going to get $22,500. They also got a demonstration that being a homeowner doesn’t count for much if you’re poor.

The new public school is on a corner of the redevelopment zone and replaces “mostly empty rowhouses” (i.e. people were living there). It also replaces an existing public school in another part of the redevelopment zone. There is no mention of whether the new school, which is run by private entities, will operate under a collective bargaining agreement, pay equivalent wages, or have a similar function in the community. The Q&A page for the new school says that it will work closely with Teach for America. These teachers will receive a first year salary, ensuring that collective wages at the school will decrease.

The article also says that “the plan envisions more science facilities, a six-acre park, a hotel and retail space, with the goal of enticing workers at the Hopkins medical campus to settle in the district.” The school is located on one corner of the redevelopment, so it’s clear that the main focus of this all is to provide amenities for JHU employees who might want to live near their work. While it’s stated that the average JHU medical employee “is a single mother with two children who earns $45,000 a year,” there’s no mention of whether the new non-income-restricted housing units that account for two-thirds of all the housing will be affordable to this person. There’s also no explanation for why such a large institution pays its average worker only about 50 percent of median Maryland household income when adjusted for family size.

The article eventually mentions that JHU “has a long history of difficult community relations,” after which this project is described as “flip[ping] the usual urban imbalance of power.” There is nothing different or enlightened about the way the institution is behaving or unique about this project’s interaction with the community. JHU still chooses to use its resources to antagonize and displace people living in the surrounding neighborhoods. This is just a familiar story of an urban community of color that was driven away and will never be regained. The author of the article should have recognized this.

North Chester St

North Chester St. in November 2007, homes are occupied (top). August 2011, homes are vacant (middle). October 2014, school across from empty lot (bottom). Via Google Street View.

There should also be consequences for carrying out this project. The first is ensuring that displaced residents are adequately compensated for the disruption to their lives. One way would be calculating the total difference in current versus old home values and passing that along to the previous renters and homeowners. This would still be a fraction of the $1.8 billion that JHU is investing in the area and would at least have the benefit of appearing to adequately compensate people who were evicted. The second item is for the City of Baltimore to make sure that this type of redevelopment is never allowed again. The third is to levy fines against JHU and specifically those involved in the decision making that led to this project. They should face monetary and reputational penalties equal to what they inflicted on the former residents of the neighborhood and large enough to deter further socially destructive actions.

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