Archive for the 'journalism' Category



22
May
09

Father and Son play their cajun hearts out

Loren and Jim Pettijohn find that cajun music fit in with the streets of Fells Point, probably because Fells Point could easily fit along the levees of the great Delta City of New Orleans. In the early 1800s, Fells Point grabbed the world’s attention for perfecting the Clipper Ship and privateering (legalized plundering of the high seas) only to incite the wrath of the British, which led to the War of 1812. Later the Point helped bring the Chesapeake famous seafood industry to the nation with its canneries and railroad link up in the late 19th Century. And like New Orleans, Fells Point is heavy with bars. But unlike New Orleans, Baltimore’s street music scene is pretty pathetic. These guys may be the best we got to offer. I met them several months ago and swore I’d come back upon a second spotting with a camera. Finally I got my chance.

The music seems to hit all walks of people in a city that tends to segregate itself. Recently Fells Point has emerged as one of the more integrated night scenes in the city. True many of the bars are still white, but the street is increasingly mixed, something that couldn’t be said just two years ago.
The Pettijohns have a way of engaging people. If you watch carefully you can see that Loren’s a gifted guitar picker, particularly between songs when he’s flying up and down the neck. And as a father, I’m sure he’s enjoying these  moments with his son at a time when parental ties get frayed. It shows in their music which    grafts so well with Fells Point  lost seafaring history —  more vibe than fact on the street, but a powerful thing vibe at that. People  pull dollars from their pockets, break out in dance, stop and stare. Sometimes the poorest of folk are the most generous myself went home and grabbed my guitar and harmonica and played with them. It’s that pumping accordion and how it hits the night. That’s why to watch Jim nimble fingers I was shocked to find that he has MS.  He talks sometimes how his fingers get  numb and it seems he lashes out  against his ailment with his fierce play. Stay tuned for more dispatches.

13
Jan
09

Eastside Residents Face Displacement, Live among Demolition and Unfulfilled Promises

Biotech Developers Hampered by Economy

“Any  Construction that is happening right now is an accomplishment,” Andy Frank, Baltimore’s Deputy Mayor

Donald Grisham pleads for the powerful Biotech Developers to keep their word to residents facing condemnation

Donald Grisham pleads for the Biotech Developers to keep their word to residents facing condemnation

 

 

 

The Chairman of the East Baltimore Biotech Development Corporation, played the moment well. After absorbing more than an hour of scathing annotates from residents facing forcible removal from their neighborhoods to make way for a new utopian bio-tech village, Joseph Haskins stood up.

This moment has been two year in the making for these residents who bothered to organize themselves into an activist group that lobbies for rights and benefits from the developers of this $1.8 Billion biotech. While they have met with EBDI officials, they have never made their case before the board, composed of city officials ranging from the Deputy Mayor to the Director of Housing. 

EBDI, a quasi-non profit, is creating blocks of shiny new homes, cafes stores and big biotech buildings with nice jobs in what is now a bulldozed neighborhood that served as the bleak set for The Wire. Remember Hampsterdam — That was East Baltimore, some of which has been slated or is already demolished and all at the

at the footsteps of Johns Hopkins Hospital

On this Monday night, people had relayed tales of  abuse they received from otherwise esteemed organization, ranging from patronizing dismissals to unsafe demolition practices.

 

“EBDI has not done anything for this community, I don’t care what it looks like, they haven’t done anything,” said one woman, who said she had her day care service shut down because of demolition around her. The biotech lab is not going to benefit us. Be real. It’s not going to benefit us. I’ve said time and time again  50 people in this community will not get a job in that lab.”

Despite the acrimony the room went quiet when Haskins faced the crowd much a way as a prodigal son faces his congregation.

Haskins, the president of Harbor Bank, an organization started in response to racist treatment from banking world, spoke with humility and disdain, but asked to delay major questions being put to him.  Instead he asked for a follow up meeting so he can investigate what he heard that night.

“I’m insulted,” he said. “I’m embarrassed and    hurt by the comments I heard. It was never the intension to make this community a victim.” The whole thing was tactics. Residents wondered whether Haskins was actually surprised by tales of   ineptitude by EBDI and its director, Jack Shannon.

Maybe Haskins was just delaying making commitments in the same fashion that EBDI has employed for years as residents live limbo as resident John Hammonds put it, in condemned homes wondering what’s to become of them.

Meanwhile they watch new streets being paved, street signs being install even their cars mistakenly towed. And shining new building come up that would fit in perfectly with Bethesda, some suburban PUD, but still looks odd popping up in the middle of the old brick.

But there were also tactics being played by on the residents, who as the group Save Middle East Action Coalition, had honed questions about why the project had found money even in this sickly economy to build senior housing, work force housing, two biotech buildings, but somehow haven’t been able to find funding for residents looking to stay in a promising community that potentially could give this teetering city an economic shove into a whole new vibrancy.

 

True Baltimore’s waterfront bristled with development – in fact a mini city arouses out of parking lots – now known as Inner Harbor East. But all these growth hinged on real estate, condo sales, grocery stores, hostels, potential jobs yes, but not an industry that can carry a city.

But the biotech community planned on 80 acres north of Johns Hopkins is seen as “game changer” — High-end jobs working on projects that if successful could transform medicine and the world. After all who could questions the location, — next to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, the 2nd highest recipient of federal research funding, which oddly had no nearby facilities where professors could take their hot ideas and incubate them for the market place.

The only thing that stood in their way were the residents and renters who slugged it out for decades in a drug invested rowhouse blocks known as Zombie Land.

The thinking was that anything was better-battered blocks of abandonment. Even without the murder and drugs, just drive through the main arteries is to view a stunning display of dilapidation. It’s not just the boarded up houses that fly by like picket fences. But it’s the stores, which now also have the plywood over the windows. It’s the patchwork of pastel painted brick with rotting ornate porches standing slanted on a hill, standing conjuring questions about its heyday. They seem so stark that it hold a kinds of deteriorating beauty – the kind of thing that attracts good photographers who put these works in galleries — an elitist point, but still powerful.

So city planners must have been surprised when they saw maybe twenty people walking a tenuous picket line, asking for “a house for a house,” back in 2002. Indeed, despite the brutal crime, there were residents living there, homeowners, who have told me numerous times, that yes there are hoodlums around, but they knew them

Many loved that fact they were so central located to all points downtown Baltimore and have their network of friends. Being relocated was essentially an exile.

Suddenly networks of childcare, neighbors looking after kids, rides to the store, trusting eyes watching their house, local knowledge of the neighborhood would vanish as they tried to figure out a new life.

For the next eight years, there became an intense haggling process. In stepped The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which became board members, and helped sweetened the relocation package adding counseling for two years after the move as well as millions to ensure that residents find decent replacement housing in what surely would be more expensive neighborhoods.

Although Casey has a policy of fighting gentrification, looking for organizations nationwide that help empower locals in distressed neighborhoods, The Foundation’s President Doug Nelson saw an opportunity of being a player within a massive development.

As he put it, “harness the economic engine.”

That is instead of only helping an organization try to fight the environs, Casey could help guide the change, and most importantly ensure that the residents would benefit.

 

Already more than 800 families have been moved out by 2005 with much wrangling over benefits from residential group known as SMEAC. Save Middle East Action Coalition, is a name that harkens back to when residents first organization to actually save the area. But this moved happen when Real Estate was booming and it just seemed as easy as plugging in numbers and the developers will line. Bio Technology was not seen as a business venture, but some kind of civic project, the way people build hospitals. But much has changed for the folks in phase II. Real Estate is tough to sell around the Harbor and developers can’t even think of building affordable housing for a biotech park that still hasn’t started bustling with jobs.

According to an Article in the Baltimore Business Journal, the developers Forest City Science + Technology Group, out of Cleveland won’t move on the second of six biotech buildings until they secure tenants first and that could take two years.

And yet the residents not only watch as other construction projects move ahead with no news on replacement housing, but they live amongst debris, rumbling equipment and at the very least isolated as blocks around them have been surreally clear cut with bulldozers. In their wake are massive patches of grass under glowing under security lights.

 

“Many of these people who left their homes and you supplemented their housing for 47 months or whatever, they will become homeless. This bothers me, because I think of myself as being retired as one step from being homeless as I see all these people, making all this money loosing their homes,” said Joseph Gladden, a resident of East Baltimore for 67 years.

After the meeting, Deputy Mayor Andy Frank, who sits on the board, said, “I think the time of talk has ended.”

He said the trouble is EBDI’s capabilities have been hamstrung by an economy where, “any construction that is happening right now is an accomplishment.”

Still EBDI needs to be clear with the residents what actually can be delivered.

The problem is the residents have heard this talk before.

 

 

 

02
Aug
08

Carlton Street, Baltimore A visit to the Arabber’s Stable

First thing’s first. The word Arabber is an old world name given to the group of people who make their living selling fruit and vegetables from horse and cart. There used to hundreds of stables working from back alley stables throughout Baltimore. Today, there’s only one working stable and one in a holding pattern literally in tents under a bridge in West Baltimore. 

In July I published a feature in the magazine, The Urbanite. It was the result of a year’s worth of work, some of which I filed with the Baltimore City Paper. You can check out the articles on http://www.citypaper.com and do a search or go to http://www.urbanitebaltimore.com and check out the 20 minutes in video, four stories I did.

There’s a rush you get or at least I get when a story gets published. I still get it and is probably why I’m still in this miserable profession despite having a wife and two kids and doing a terrible job as a provider. (More on that later).

Anyway, after you put out a story there’s this nagging  question what now? I established all this contact and got all this momentum, do I just drop it and go on. Sometimes, most of the times yes. But with the Arabbers, a sub-culture I have been writing about for ten years I don’t want to let it go. I’ve got a line on a story that goes beyond the quaint but sad narrative of people of old timers trying to make a living from horse and cart.

I want to go into their lives and work my way backwards, that is I want to write about their lives on the margins in Baltimore, dealing with poverty and their aspirations and then go oh by the way, he’s walking to his job which happens to be taking a horse out on the streets.

I believe I have this story with Dante, a nine-year old kid, who aspires to be an arabber. 

Today I went down there for the first time since the article came out. The reception was frosty and strange, but that’s what happens. The stable manager gave me grief for mentioning that I someone was smoking pot in the alley. Not an arabber mind you, but a resident who lived in one of Baltimore iconic alley homes, tiny homes built for B & O Railway workers back in the 19th Century. I told him wasn’t trying to besmirch the stables but rather show how the kid’s love of horses kept him away from the teenager offering him to join the party. The kid kept his attention on a horse rounding the corral that was build right there in the alley. It’s a wild sight watching these horse lapping around in the dirt knowing you’re right in the city. There’s a sense of serenity.

I went back there today and Dante had already gone out with a new arabber, a good sign that the culture isn’t quite dead and I hung out with Keith “Superstar” Brooks, his father Brock and “China” sharing some food. Nothing else but the re-affirmation that the story is rich and waiting for me to push on.  

Tony takes Rose, the horse out in the corral in downtown Baltimore

Tony takes Rose, the horse out in the corral in downtown Baltimore

02
Aug
08

Journalism Redux — A visit to the Arabber’s Stable

I have been a journalist for 23 years. I’ve worked for newspapers, dailies, weeklies and then as a freelancer.I have written for the New York Times. I have written for a small town paper.  I  still am a freelancer. But I always have been frustrated with how the news works. “All the News that is Fit to Print.” The funny thing is much of life isn’t fit to print and we’re not talking about decency. We’re talking about stories that don’t necessary follow the journalistic pyramid theme. I’m interested in the feel and the vibe of a story and have struggled many times unsuccessful to inject them in  the story. This is probably due to my limitations as a writer. Oh well. 

This blog is an attempt create a newswire service as well as window into the story making process. I want to share in the experience of piecing the story together rather than just offering a final product. I believe  there is a hunger for this kind perspective and is why blogs and documentaries have gotten so popular. (I also do documentaries, but I’ll get to that later). The world of Journalism is changing or falling apart. The daily newspaper is collapsing around  us and that’s going to have a profound impact on our  country. At the same time blogs and the web offers an even playing field, so I’m going to take a crack  at it.  I’m going to let you into my struggle as I stumble onto stories, most of them strange and a lot in the trenches of some social strife. Baltimore definitely will provide a lot of material.