Archive for the 'Urban America' Category


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.





Martha Cooper’s Westside Beat

A friend distributes a flyer about a murdered friend. Around the corner we come across kids playing in the alley. This is how the horrific and the innocent idyllic come jumbled together out here in Southwest Baltimore

A woman distributes a flyer about a murdered friend. Around the corner we come across kids playing in the alley. This is how the horrific and the innocent idyllic come jumbled together out here in Southwest Baltimore


For decades Marty Cooper has been the eminent documentarian in the graffiti scene, being one of the first photographers to treat the New York subway chasers as artists back in the 70s. Her book Subway Art is considered a primer in the graf scene not to mention her subsequent books on New York. But for the last three years, Cooper has led a kind of second life as a trundling woman padding around with her cameras on one of Baltimore’s more dangerous, desolalate and strangely escentric neighborhoods known as SoWeBo (Southwest Baltimore). 

     Having grown up in Baltimore in a  leafy northwest neighborhood of Mount Washington, Cooper had returned to the city to document a neighborhood in transition, a neighborhood before it was discovered by investors and real estate gamblers, rehabbed and repackaged for its quaint genteelly charmed.  Marty was looking for was what she missed when she first went to New York and chased bombed trains, missing the strange oddness of those places like the Bronx, poor, abandoned by determined to create their own life and culture. It was no accident that the graf and the hip hop scene came from  these streets.  

 As far as she is concerned she missed her opportunity with New York’s borroughs, but she figured Baltimore now that’s a city despite its gold rush development still has neighborhoods out in the hinterlands of poverty.

The neighborhood that she picked actually got much drug dealing exposure in David Simon’s The Corner, the book, and then TV show and surely must have informed his follow-up The Wire.

But Cooper is interested in much more than well trodden prism of cops verses drug dealers, which Simon defty smashes by the way. Cooper takes a much more anthropological look, casting the broadest net as possible with her cameras. To do this Cooper bought a small house as a base of operation in the neighborhood and every three weeks or so she would wade out down the street, wearing her gear and just take pictures.  Then she would come back giving out photos establishing herself as the picture lady, someone who could be trusted.

The neighborhood that she picked was extronarily rich in architecture as it was marred in decay. Southwest Baltimore around Hollins Market and Union Square had been the neighborhood of Baltimore’s still most famous arthor H.L. Mencken. (“A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.“—- Mencken) The homes were regally built, three story affairs with all kinds of architectural garnishings like 2nd level porches with daylight windows, rooms that sort of  jut out of the rowhome like jewels. They had large bricked patios and gardens that backed up to Alley houses, small tiny two story rowhouses where the servants lived. These houses were also occupied by Irish railroad workers who had jobs at the nearby B & O rail yards and roundhouse just blocks south. In this way, poor and the well off lived side by side. It was Baltimore Gothic at its best, a funky aside to New Orlean’s more astir Garden District.  But the wealthy folk long left the city by mid-20th Century and the Baltimore’s decline just beat these kinds of neighborhood. But left in its wake were both poor white and black, making this swath one of the more racially mixed sections in a city which can  segregate like the best of ’em.

      To make the rounds with Marty Cooper cutting through alleys down once robust mercantile streets like Baltimore Street now mostly shuttered is to see the complex poor world invisible and left to rot by the healthy society just  blocks away adding towers to the skyline.  Just to the east stands University of Maryland’s burgeoning bio-tech park, the tourist trap that is Camden Yards Stadium and the glittering Inner Harbor. Before us stood a mixture of abject poverty and a kind of crabgrass beauty of humanity. It’s like steeping beyond a well tended garden into  the wilds. We came upon a privately made homeless park with an art piece constructed with spickets for showers for people who shun the conventional shelters. We met a woman giving out a flyer of her missing friend, murdered and in the morgue. She wanted to  warn other women of a suspected killer on the lose. We visited a second floor mosque that operated as a fast food joint on the first floor. We met a one man steel fabricator working out an ancient gas station. We came across kids and old  people sitting on steps more relaxed than any vacationer paying top dollar for their Victorian porches in Cape May N.J. There was the ever present sense of danger. Drug dealing is still a key industry and there were some harden faces walking about. I couldn’t help but recall  the time I was held up at gun point ten years ago just up the street and we were just  trying to get some pizza and some sweet potato fries.   


Although crabs are crazy expensive, between $45 to $70, they are beloved and a must have.
Although crabs are crazy expensive, between $45 to $70, they are beloved and a must have.


   Many that we met that day, Marty had previously photographed. She would hand them photographs, People studied them realizing these weren’t exactly snapshots.

Marty  approached them warmly  as if a former teacher happy to stumble onto former students. She asked if she could take their picture and without the fanfare of a photgrapher adjusting apature, checking the light meter etc …. she merely snapped a picture. But the results are devilishly more astute than what is found in the family album.  Marty somehow gets her people to relax, giving true smiles or just forget her altogether to  capture them digging into their lives. 



Her pictures become even more poignant when contrasted with what’s being covered in the mainstream press. Even noble exercises in journalism found in the New York Times, such as articles by Dan Barry for example, don’t capture the odd grafting of beauty and sadness or sometimes just painful, sometimes just inspiring, like those kids just going at those crabs, a Baltimore delacacy that now costs a fortune — A dozen crabs can run between $45 to $70. Notice the style of the Obama supporter, how blue his shirt and cap is, how the white of his undershirt matches the piping of his cap. So put together out there among the streets of peeling brick and boarded up windows. Yes there is a sense of resilency out here but there’s also a morbid foreshadowing.



Best Friends

Best Friends