Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Middle East Baltimore Stories

In June 2005, I had the opportunity to tour East Baltimore with leaders of Save Middle East Action Committee, SMEAC, a group challenging impoverishment of the neighborhood by development-induced displacement. At that time, the project, proposed by Johns Hopkins Medical Center and led by the East Baltimore Development Corporation, was preparing to level the first phase of the project, a 20-block area adjacent to the medical center. during the tour, I had the opportunity to see the project area, and to talk to some local children who were playing in a fire hydrant. "We're having fun," one boy assured me. SMEAC's approach was to fight for relocation benefits that would actually be sufficient to support relocation; the right to return to the area; and protection from environmental hazards during the demolition. It was a true David-and-Goliath story: Giant Johns Hopkins literally towered over the battered neighborhood, which had suffered grievously from disinvestment.

On a second visit a few years later, I drove by and the children's play area had been torn up and all the houses were gone.

On this visit, I had the opportunity to tour with Leslie Lewis, one of the displaced residents and a leader of SMEAC. Leslie explained the long fight SMEAC had waged, still struggling on issues identified years ago, but also confronting others that had come up in the course of the fight. For example, SMEAC was aware of environmental hazards of demolition, but had not been as cognizant of the effects nearby construction would have on old brick houses. As the displacement played out, SMEAC was becoming more and more aware of what was at stake: the costs of moving, the difficulty in maintaining connections, the problems people faced in getting established elsewhere, and the possibilities that existed in other neighborhoods.

The change in the area was dramatic. Some of the glossy new buildings had gone up in place of the old houses. A very large grassy area stood vacant. Signs were everywhere, proclaiming the "New East Baltimore" was a place of vitality and culture. I didn't know all that much about the neighborhood, but I thought the signs bordered on insulting the old East Baltimore -- wasn't THAT a place of vitality and culture? I was to discover the answer on East Monument Street.

Leslie, Pam -- another SMEAC activist and area residents -- and I stopped for lunch at Northeast Market there. This market has been rated the "best public market" by City Paper, which prized its genuine atmosphere. I was thrilled to tour the place with local peoplewho could explain the food and the scene. Pam said her mother, who lived in the neighborhood, had been in earlier that day. Northeast Market is a crossroads of the neighborhood, a place of good cheer and connection. Peopl were greeting friends and neighbors on all sides. It is sometimes difficult for an outsider to appreciate the reasons for clinging to a neighborhood that has suffered disinvestment as serious as that facing East Baltimore. I instantly understood that the marker, with its lively and humorous vibe, provided a better insight than anything else I had encountered. Who wouldn't want to live near there?

East Monument Street is one of the Main Streets in Baltimore's Main Street Program. It is festooned with Main Street Banners, and is a very lively shopping district. The Main Street website orients the visitor to think of that Main Street as connected to Johns Hopkins and the new biotech center. But the reality is that it is the thriving center of the black community that took root there 50 years ago and which today is still active and devoted to the area.

My sense of that local connection was deepened by the opportunity to attend the launch of the book, Middle East Baltimore Stories: Images and Words from a Displaced Community, a book created by Art on Purpose with support from the Annie E. Casy Foundation. This event, held in the beautiful Reginald F. Lewis of Maryland African American History, celebrated the lives of people whose homes lie in the redevelopment area. The 240 people who came to the event were deeply committed to affirming the vital history of their neighborhood. In a time of contested images, I appreciated Beth Barbush's photographs of people posed in vacant lots holding pictures of their houses which had once stood there. You can listen to an hour of the stories on Marc Steiner Show, WEAA-FM. You can order a copy of the book by sending a check for $20 per copy (shipping included) to: SMEAC, 2111 Ashland Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21205.

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