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Cruel Neighborhood Displacement: An Antidote at Last?

Neal Peirce / Jun 26 2010

For Release Sunday, June 27, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceBALTIMORE — Forced “displacement,” “removal,” “resettlement” of peoples. Can it be made less painful?

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is working on a cure in the East Baltimore neighborhood beside the already huge and growing Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Maryland’s largest single employer.

There’s no doubt that forcing the breakup of neighborhoods is a global problem, whether triggered by civil wars, floods, fires, or just to clear prime city real estate for Olympic and World Cup-like events.

Yet for humans, displacement from their known settings may be exceedingly painful — a process Jane Jacobs highlighted in her 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Research psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove more recently underscored the point in her book, “Root Shock,” likening the psychological impact of forced removal from a familiar neighborhood to a plant being jerked from its native soil.

But holding neighborhoods static isn’t practical — they’re always in some flux, and spaces often do need to be found to accommodate job-creating industries, university expansions or creation of new parks.

The question is: Can we Americans be more sensitive than we were after World War II, when we countenanced “urban renewal” practices that forced inner-city residents — mostly black — to abandon their poor but socially cohesive neighborhoods? The prime public excuse back then was to “eradicate blight.”

But the uses of the lost neighborhood land often told a different tale: flashy public projects, real estate opportunities for private developers, and clearance for massive freeways plowing through low-income and minority areas.

Notwithstanding the redevelopment around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, much of its inner city was a poster child for deindustrialization (loss of port, shipmaking, steelworking jobs). It experienced race riots in the 1960s, massive middle class exodus, waves of drugs, crime, property “flippers” and slumlords.

The Casey Foundation was initially skeptical when Baltimore’s then-Mayor (now Maryland Gov.) Martin O’Malley asked it to help out with a $1-billion-plus plan to acquire and demolish hundreds of homes in the Middle East neighborhood immediately north of the Johns Hopkins campus, with the goal of creating an 88-acre community for life sciences research facilities, retail development and market-rate housing.

But Casey reasoned that with its mission of supporting children and poor families, it might prevent great harm by participating. It agreed if — but only if — the city and Johns Hopkins would make a primary objective of improving lives for the neighborhood’s families. They did, East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI) was then formed.

The challenge was formidable: this was Baltimore’s second poorest neighborhood, suffering serious physical decay, housing abandonment and high crime rates. Yet with 35 percent homeownership, it had a resident core with commitment to place.

Consulting with residents about relocation, EBDI first encountered strong anger. But in well over 300 community meetings the tenor changed, especially as relocation counselors and family advocates were assigned to work for months with each of the 630 families to be moved, before, during, and up to three years after relocation.

Plus, millions of Casey dollars were invested in the neighborhood, including a new public community school with charter-like autonomy and funding, encouraging development of a community grocery store, new parks and open space, job training and some 1,000 new job placements, child care, credit counseling and health care.

The EBDI partners also responded to residents’ legitimate fears of a environmental health nightmare from the lead, asbestos and rat droppings that would be released in the atmosphere by a wrecking ball. A new safety protocol was developed — and embraced by Baltimore for regular future use.

Net result: Notwithstanding the more than 630 families moved, there’s not been a single law suit, and post-relocation surveys of residents moved show 8.5 satisfaction on a 1 (worst) to 10 (best) scale.

And a solid mixed-income neighborhood — ranging from low to higher income, literally the first of post-World War II Baltimore — is taking shape, complemented by a life sciences buildings, graduate student housing, a new state public health lab, a prospective commuter rail station, and more.

So it’s small wonder that Casey has announced it is now championing nationally its approach of “Responsible Redevelopment” — to build reconstructed neighborhoods based on robust resident engagement and technical assistance to help neighborhood leaders negotiate effectively with developers and city officials.

A key element of the new approach: “responsible relocation,” so that when residents are obliged to move out, they receive help finding quality replacement housing, legal and social services, job assistance, and “the right to return” to their revitalized community through purchase or rental of new or rehabbed affordable housing.

Is this Baltimore-born approach unique? Yes, suggests author Roberta Brandes Gratz, a staunch defender of city neighborhoods and an expert on Jane Jacobs and her legacy: “There’s never before been an honest relocation effort where there was actual one-on-one dealings with the people being displaced. This sounds like a real breaking of the mold.”

Editor’s Note: Roberta Brandes Gratz, quoted in the column, is a Citistates Group Associate and author of the newly-published book, The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (Nation Books).

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp.,, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375,


  1. Brad
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    If only we in New Orleans would have been accorded such consideration. Instead developers, foundations, city, state and federal officials seized upon our Lower Mid-City neighborhood following Hurricane Katrina and decided upon internal displacement of residents and businesses before any public hearings were held. In its place proposed to rise a new LSU/VA Medical Center, while both entities abandon their original downtown campuses. Residents, preservationists and former patients of the now-closed Charity Hospital have been fighting to stop this, but to little avail. Capitalizing upon disaster is all too familiar and reprehensible.

  2. Neal Peirce
    Posted June 27, 2010 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Readers should note we ran a full column by Roberta Gratz on the New Orleans medical complex dispute —

  3. Posted June 27, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    The Baltimore case study is an interesting one. However, it begs the bigger question of whether large-scale displacement should even be acceptable anymore. In a low-income neighborhood with a 35% homeownership rate (or in communities like those in Philadelphia where I work with an even higher homeownership rates), displacement insures that homeowners receive “fair market” value and nothing more. On the other hand, if true reinvestment takes place, without displacement of homeowners, and the public sector makes it a priority to allow residents to afford to stay in their homes, property values will significantly increase above today’s fair market value. This means that down the line, these homeowners can either stay in an improved community or cash out with a much higher return — a return that could potentially remove their families from poverty on a permanent basis.

    Certainly, large-scale displacement can be done more sensitively. However, it will always be connected with the destruction of a community and the assurance that homeowners are receiving far less compensation than they would if their community saw reinvestment while protecting existing homeowners to enjoy and reap the financial and quality of life benefits.

  4. Phyllis Myers
    Posted June 27, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    A more recent trigger for this laudable effort than the 1960s bulldozing of black neighborhoods is likely e Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo decision. This involved a white home owner, Suzette Kelo, who challenged New London’ use of eminent domain to forcibly displace residents from a neighborhood labeled as blighted in order to clear the land for a large privately led redevelopment project. Although the court upheld New London, a firestorm of public criticism led to a tightening of most state eminent domain laws in most state legislatures (see Myers, Direct Democracy and Land Use: Eminent Domain and Big Box Development at the Ballot Box, Initiative and Referendum Institute, USC) The challenge to the city plan was led by a conservative think tank and while traditional urban, planning, and conservation groups were slow to pick up on abuses associated with the expansion of eminent domain beyond its traditional limits of public purpose. Progressives on the court supported te plan. What is unique in this Baltimore effort, if I’m reading the right tea leaves, is that wise city, foundation, and Hopkins officials saw that a fresh combination of top down leadership, bottoms up participation, and a solid social-equity sensitive redevelopment plan was essential for success in the post-Kelo era. For this, some thanks, however grudging, are due to Suzette Kelo’s determination to hold onto her little pink house.

  5. Posted July 6, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    But what happens to the homeowners who used the housing in this area as income, as well as homes for the families who once lived in East Baltimore? How does a deal like this affect us, and our businesses. The City has not stopped taxing, and assessing these properties. This is a reason why investors don’t want to bother. Then the City creates a land bank that no one even desires as an account. Our properties have been sitting around for 2 years now, for what will happen maybe in one more year. Can we afford that? Why come into the neighborhood and destroy & vacate it with no immediate result. It would be nice if they would send us something letting us know what they do and what they plan to do.