For Release Sunday, June 27, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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