Left Behind in Sandtown

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There wasn’t an empty parking space for blocks around Gilmor Elementary School the night Mayor Kurt Schmoke visited Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood last June. Braving the summer rain, 400 people packed the auditorium to meet the man who was trying to turn their community into a national model of urban rebirth.

Schmoke had every reason to believe this would be his finest hour. After decades of neglect by white mayors–whose economic strategies revolved around reviving the city’s crumbling Inner Harbor and cultivating tourism–Sandtown had captured Schmoke’s attention even before his 1987 election. Working closely with the nonprofit Enterprise Foundation, Schmoke helped funnel more than $60 million into Sandtown, a 72-square-block cluster of rowhouses and rubble-strewn lots that for decades had been one of the nation’s poorest communities.

Thanks to the massive reinvestment in Sandtown, crime and infant mortality rates had declined. Chronically unemployed people had found work. Hundreds of boarded-up rowhouses had been rehabbed or replaced. And politicians, including President Clinton, had come by to ooh and ahh. But the residents who filled the Gilmor auditorium that evening didn’t come to praise the mayor. Instead, after years of silence, scores of men and women were there to vent.

“They were very disappointed at the way the transformation of Sandtown was going,” remembers one resident who attended the meeting. “They didn’t feel like a whole lot of progress had been made, and they didn’t feel like the residents had been included in the decision-making. It really caught people like the mayor off guard. People were angry and frustrated.”

Residents mentioned specific problems, like the ever-present drug dealers and inadequate city trash removal, but the underlying complaint went deeper: Many people who live in Sandtown didn’t feel that they had any more power over the direction of their community than they had when the renewal efforts first began.

Seven years into one of the nation’s most widely touted experiments in rebuilding an inner-city neighborhood, the results are full of such contradictions. Some blocks sport beautiful new houses; others are lined with burnt-out shells. Some residents have left the drug culture, thanks to new social programs; others don’t even know the programs exist. Because the majority of the investment has gone into bricks and mortar rather than into fostering a more activist community and more supportive neighborhood institutions, the revitalization of Sandtown has shored up the district’s facade–but left the interior structure still in serious need of repair.

“We hit the ground and started running–and left the neighborhood behind,” says Norman Yancey, a Sandtown resident who works for Community Building in Partnership, the organization that coordinates the city’s effort to transform Sandtown.

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The dream that spawned Sandtown’s transformation was summed up a decade ago in a fiery prayer delivered at the Baltimore Palladium. The occasion was the 1987 convention of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a church-based coalition affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a nationwide umbrella organization of community action groups founded by organizing guru Saul Alinsky in 1940. At the convention’s pulpit, the Reverend Grady Yeargin brought 2,000 delegates to their feet with a stirring promise.

“One day it will be said that in the city of Baltimore in the last quarter of the 20th century, strange and unusual things began to happen,” preached Yeargin, a Baptist minister. “The upper crust began to meet with the middle crust and with those who have no crust at all. It was a peculiar people: a strange and unusual coalition that negotiated and fought and worked together.”

Those weren’t just lofty words. Earlier that year, BUILD had rallied the city’s two mayoral candidates behind an intensive push to increase homeownership. The “Sandtown-Winchester 600”–abandoned brick and formstone rowhouses boarded up with plywood–were spread like a cancer throughout the neighborhood. On some blocks, the few houses that weren’t vacant displayed their inhabitants’ stubborn pride with fresh paint and window boxes full of silk flowers.

This West Baltimore community of 10,000 people–all but a few dozen of them African American–wasn’t always back on its heels. Early in the century it was a working-class black residential neighborhood, where Cab Calloway grew up and Thurgood Marshall went to high school. But by the 1980s, half of Sandtown’s households had incomes of less than $11,000 a year, and nearly half the working-age population was unemployed or working only on occasional jobs. The infant mortality rate was four times the national average. And drug deals and violent crime left residents wary of walking certain streets, even in broad daylight.

For its inspiration, BUILD looked to its sister IAF organization, East Brooklyn Congregations in New York, which had begun building more than 3,000 new single-family homes in mostly abandoned blocks of land in Brownsville and East New York through its Nehemiah project. Like their Brooklyn counterparts, BUILD’s leaders believed that creating a critical mass of new owner-occupied houses was key to community revitalization.

Although both of Baltimore’s mayoral candidates visited East Brooklyn, Schmoke was the one who fully embraced the Nehemiah strategy. In the two years after he became Baltimore’s first black mayor, he and BUILD raised almost $20 million in federal, city, state and church funds for the Nehemiah project. They chose the site of an abandoned commercial bakery in Sandtown for several hundred new rowhouses, while another, smaller Nehemiah project was slated for an adjacent neighborhood.

Once it had secured the land, BUILD and the city needed one more partner: a nonprofit developer. They turned to James Rouse. A pioneer of the indoor shopping mall and the neo-traditional suburb, Rouse is best known for creating Baltimore’s Harborplace and Boston’s Faneuil Hall Market on those city’s once-dilapidated waterfronts. After making his fortune, Rouse turned his attentions to urban poverty, and in 1982, he founded the Enterprise Foundation to provide decent low-income housing in cities across the nation.

“The main job now isn’t the center of cities, but the desperately poor neighborhoods,” he told the Baltimore Sun in 1994, two years before his death. “We want some simple answer, but there isn’t any.” Sandtown-Winchester was to become the Enterprise Foundation’s showpiece: an effort to prove that the poorest of neighborhoods could be turned around with skillful development teams. For Rouse, it would be the culmination of his life’s work.

The collaboration officially started in 1990 with the Nehemiah project. Two hundred and twenty-seven brick rowhouses, most of them prefabricated, sold for $37,000 each. The dwellings were heavily subsidized; each cost $83,000 to build. Still, says Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel Henson III, “they provide an island of stability in the center of Sandtown.” To bolster this stability, an adjacent site has been designated a federal Homeownership Zone, and another 300 new units will be built with public money.

Other parts of the neighborhood have seen physical improvements, too. Habitat for Humanity turned an entire city block into renovated rowhouses painted in pastel lavenders and yellows. The Sandtown Winchester Community Development Corporation turned another block into a showcase of historically sensitive rehabilitation and new construction, where homes sport front porches and knee-high picket fences. And several hundred other houses and apartments have been rehabilitated with government funds.

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On a gray November afternoon on Leslie Street, a dozen future homeowners clean up mud, sweep half-built hallways and load lumber into what will be their living rooms. From a boom box a gospel group sings of renewal and salvation. The music is fitting: Where once stood some of the city’s most dilapidated housing, Habitat for Humanity is putting up 27 homes that will belong to neighborhood residents–yet another affordable housing program underway in Sandtown.

“When I was in school, I used to be teased a lot, because no one believed anyone lived on the block,” says 30-year-old Bubby Crosby, who grew up on Leslie Street. Now Crosby oversees the construction, and he’ll be moving into one of the corner houses this spring. He and his neighbors will pay no interest on their $40,000, three-bedroom units–all told, the monthly payments will average about $250. “This is just one step in the transformation of our community,” says Crosby, breaking into a dreamy smile. “When people see this block, they’re going to stop and take a doubletake. They’ll probably drive through to see if it’s real.”

But some wonder how real the transformation is. The Sandtown-Winchester 600, which Mayor Schmoke once promised to eliminate by 1994, have not yet disappeared. Some houses have been rehabbed or replaced, but many others have gone vacant. “We created some moving around, as opposed to increases in the population,” says Maryland Housing and Community Development Secretary Patricia Payne, whose agency has contributed $28 million to the effort.

Critics say it’s because there’s been very little big-picture planning. Among the collaboration’s partners–particularly the city and the Enterprise Foundation–there was a sense of wanting to rebuild everything. They acquired vacant houses as they became available, then renovated or replaced them. Nobody, however, was looking at demographic trends to see if they could fill 600 additional units of housing.

The Sandtown partners were essentially ignoring a phenomenon that plagues Baltimore and other cities, something planners call “undercrowding.” Simply stated, Baltimore was built for almost a million people at its industrial peak, but now only 700,000 live inside the city limits. The population continues to shrink, leaving upwards of 50,000 dwellings vacant at any given time.

“You can’t build your way out of a housing surplus,” explains Doug Rae, a Yale University management professor and an expert on undercrowding. Yet many cities try to do just that, increasing the housing stock by rehabbing abandoned buildings–and hoping somehow an increasing population will fill the new units. In places with hot real estate markets, developers are often able to lure people into previously decimated neighborhoods; witness the South Bronx’s recent resurgence. But even the most vehement promoters of urban living concede this won’t work in a seriously undercrowded city like Baltimore. “That is often like pouring gasoline on a fire, because it competes with the remaining units and causes them to go blank,” Rae says.

Sandtown’s partners now acknowledge the undercrowding problem and say they are planning strategies for accommodating lower densities in the neighborhood. But Rae says downsizing Sandtown will be more complicated than the collaborators anticipate. “A community planning process would have to be at the very center of this,” he says. Residents would have to help develop a plan where entire rows of 10 to 25 houses are torn down to be replaced by parks and plazas while new development is concentrated in certain areas. A barter system would have to be developed so that residents could move easily from one part of the neighborhood to another. And beyond that, there’s a whole set of design issues, like how to stitch together all of Baltimore’s reconceived neighborhoods.

In other parts of the city, this kind of analysis is well recognized. Baltimore’s Citizens Planning and Housing Association, a 56-year-old organization that tackles citywide neighborhood issues, has been working with residents and neighborhood organizations to solve common problems, focusing on closing drug markets, training future community leaders and brainstorming solutions to undercrowding. But Sandtown hasn’t been an active part of that effort, and some leaders from other neighborhoods say Sandtown’s lone cowboy approach has already harmed their communities.

Across town, in the more integrated Waverly neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University, Jackie MacMillan pulls her winter coat tight against her chest as she walks down the 900 block of Montpelier Street. Two of the rowhouses that dominate the block are boarded up, a house across the street is gutted by fire and the commercial building on the corner sits empty.

“With neighborhoods like this, the city seems to think, ‘Well, they’ll take care of it,’” says MacMillan, who co-chairs the Waverly Housing Committee. The problem, she says, is that neighborhoods like hers–not dilapidated but facing decline–need outside assistance to keep from deteriorating further. And that money isn’t available, she says, because so much funding goes to Sandtown.

“There are neighborhoods like mine where there’s been a real surge in vacant houses in the last two, three years. If you can pick up a vacant house, renovate it and sell it to a first-time homeowner, you can stabilize that block,” MacMillan says. “Some neighborhood activists have been frustrated because the city has leveraged an incredible amount of [federal community development] money for Sandtown instead of disbursing it throughout the city. It’s supposed to be a model, but it’s sucking up a huge amount of resources.”

Others agree. “City neighborhoods are dying because of a lack of government investment,” says Ed Rutkowski, director of the East Fayette Street Community Development Corporation, which serves a working-class neighborhood on the east side of town. “All the money that’s coming into Sandtown is coming at the expense of other neighborhoods.”

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At the start of Sandtown’s transformation, community-building meant exactly that–construction and renovation. “Housing is what Mr. Rouse did as a trade,” says Joan Thompson, director of neighborhood transformation for the Enterprise Foundation. “Only after he put up houses did people come up and say to him, ‘This house is very nice, but I have no job.’”

It took several years for the partners to develop a comprehensive program, but in 1993 Community Building in Partnership (CBP), the nonprofit organization that coordinates Sandtown’s revitalization, was born. CBP now runs programs dealing with youth leadership, parenting, job readiness, community gardening, health care and recreation. In addition, through a compact with the city school system, it’s working on curriculum improvements, computer technology, adult education and parental involvement in three neighborhood schools.

“We’re looking at all the dysfunctional systems and trying to fix them at about the same time,” Thompson says. All told, $8 million has been spent on these “soft” programs, she says, compared to $53 million for housing development and rehabilitation.

CBP operates out of a former school building set up on a hill overlooking one of Sandtown’s most rundown blocks. On a Friday morning, the headquarters buzzes with activity. In a third-floor classroom, Craig Jernigan leads a group of teenagers and young adults through a rambunctious role-playing exercise. Members of the Sandtown-Winchester Urban Youth Corps are pretending to be drug dealers, cops and FBI agents. Jernigan, a lanky, bearded 24-year-old, is taking his charges down a simulation of the drug trade’s dead-end road.

Shantaya Huntley, a slender 20-year-old with hair pulled into a homemade tuck, plays the part of the Queen Mama, the leader of the local drug ring. The “police” bust Queen Mama and bring her to trial, where she faces 50 years in prison. Jernigan offers her a way out: “You’re about to be sentenced in 15 minutes. But if you can give us one name, you can walk free.” Huntley is stubborn–and loyal to her friends. “I’m not saying,” she says.

“Check it out,” Jernigan tells the group. “She got 50.”

This drama is all too familiar to Huntley. Three years ago, she says, “I went into selling drugs and just doing the complete opposite of what my mother told me to do. All my friends were doing it. I saw the fast money and how fast they got it.” Huntley wasn’t so lucky: She was shot once and locked up twice. Now, in the Youth Corps, she works for the Baltimore Public Works Department, cleaning alleys and doing clerical work. Fridays are devoted to group-building activities like the drug drama. She says it’s a relief to be off the streets.

When the drama winds down, Jernigan gives his rap a bout resisting those who complacently accept their lives in the drug trade. The room falls silent. “Many of you are fighting friends, families, loved ones,” he says. “Being amongst people who are complacent is a direct threat on your life. It’s like the Grim Reaper sneaking up in the night, taking you out. You don’t see him coming. But in the middle of the night, you wake up dead.”

According to CBP, programs like Urban Youth Corps have paid off. In a June 1997 progress report, the nonprofit noted that 33 Youth Corps graduates now work full time, with six in college. More than 300 people have been placed in jobs through a training program called Sandtown Works. Ninety-nine percent of the children in three local elementary schools have been immunized, partly through the efforts of the Vision for Health Consortium. And in December 1996, the renovated Avenue Market opened at the edge of Sandtown with more than 20 stalls selling clothing, fresh seafood and vegetables, and Caribbean and Chinese food.

But despite these successes, one thing remains missing in Sandtown: a sense of community ownership.

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While CBP’s board includes a number of people from the community, most neighborhood residents have been kept from any leadership role since the very beginning of the community renewal effort. And this has led to a schism between the original partners who put together the Sandtown project nearly a decade ago.

Early on, BUILD’s leaders argued that real transformation couldn’t happen unless residents were taught political organizing and leadership skills–a process they believed would empower the neighborhood faster than new social programs. For example, says BUILD’s lead organizer, Kathleen O’Toole, new homeowners in the neighborhood need the tools to fight politically for economic security if they want to hold on to their dwellings.

“The instability of low-wage and temp work was frankly going to threaten any Nehemiah work we’ve been doing,” she says.

But the Enterprise Foundation and the Schmoke administration had deeper pockets than BUILD, and their bricks-and-mortar-and-social-service vision won out. BUILD ducked out of its role as a Sandtown partner and refocused on organizing around economic issues, including its successful citywide campaign to demand a living wage for employees of city contractors. In Sandtown, BUILD has remained involved in the Homeownership Zone, but the organization’s name no longer appears on the joint project’s literature. O’Toole is diplomatic about the change, saying that since 1992 her group has taken “a different approach to the transformation.”

This left Enterprise as the leading private partner, and observers say the foundation let grassroots organizing fall by the wayside. The absence was noticed by many. “They’re developing relationships with banks, not with people,” charged an executive from another foundation in Harold McDougall’s 1993 book “Black Baltimore: A New Theory of Community.”

“They should be creating capacity in communities,” the executive continued. “Instead, they’re developing capacity in themselves, and the communities that they go into have to keep asking them to come back to do the work. The community people that they trot out look like window dressing.”

Even government officials who usually handle development issues worry about this. “Most of the gains made in public housing have happened because tenant leaders have sat down with their neighbors and mobilized them to buy into the process of revitalizing where they live,” says Yvonne Johnson, a housing official with the state of Maryland. “[Sandtown needs] leaders who can move effectively throughout those 72 blocks and make those communities’ concerns be heard by the partners. The absence of that type of grassroots coalition-building can delay the process, and I think that’s what’s happening.”

But political leaders wanted immediate results, and leadership development just isn’t as sexy. “Believe me, it’s not glamorous,” says Housing Secretary Payne. “No mayor is going to wait around for that.”

According to Emmanuel Price, Community Building in Partnership’s interim CEO, the people of Sandtown would have also grown impatient. “It’s no question that the community could have stood for more leadership development,” he says. But, he argues, housing had to come first. “I question whether the community could have waited. They were hungry, and they wanted to see something.”

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Now, seven years into the transformation, CBP is scrambling to make up for lost time. “We’ve begun the process of doing the grassroots outreach again,” says Price. Thirty AmeriCorps volunteers are organizing residents door-to-door around public safety issues. More importantly, CBP plans to bring in facilitators to train people who have been identified as community leaders–a process Price hopes will be underway by February.

The architects of Sandtown’s renewal hope strengthening CBP’s comprehensive community-building efforts, acknowledging the need to deal with undercrowding, and committing to grassroots empowerment will correct mistakes made in the past. “If this is used as the laboratory, then there are lessons to be learned here,” says the Enterprise Foundation’s Joan Thompson. “Some of the growing pains that we have, another neighborhood might not have to go through.”

Is Sandtown a model for the rest of the country? Some outsiders think not. Poverty persists here, despite the millions of dollars invested in development. And economic renewal has only made a dent.

“How do they see restoring a conventional marketplace there?” asks Joe McNeely, director of the Development Training Institute, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that provides technical assistance in the community development field. “Or do they see this as a continually subsidized low-income neighborhood with people on dependence programs?” He wonders what will happen when the government and the Enterprise Foundation pull out.

McNeely says that by pouring unprecedented amounts of money into the neighborhood, the partners have created a model that will never be replicated. The real goal, he says, should be to create a community that can sustain itself economically over the long haul.

But the leadership at CBP believes they’ve learned how to do this–and they say they’ve gathered resources to try to deal with the most important underlying issues of community building.

Their goal these days is to give Sandtown’s residents the resources to start their own businesses, build their own houses and advocate for themselves at City Hall. “Our job,” Price says, “is to work ourselves out of a job.”

Barry Yeoman is a senior staff writer at the Independent, an alternative weekly newspaper in Durham, North Carolina.

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