Community center featuring “treatment on demand” not welcome on Historic Pennsylvania Avenue
(SANDTOWN – February 8, 2018) – I have been a community advocate in Sandtown since 1994; I served as the editor of the Sandtown-Winchester ViewPoint Newspaper which provided coverage of the entire 72-square blocks of this Historic West Baltimore community. In that time, I have met a litany of community advocates throughout Sandtown and virtually across the world.
Further, I – along with fellow Sandtown advocates – have seen a host of non-profits descend on this challenged community spewing all kinds of rhetoric that eventually materialized into very little substantively. Sandtown, despite all of the assistance from government, non-profits and private dollars, never became resident-driven or self-sustaining – and certainly not to the level of a Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, which, I might add, is still in business.
We have generally referred to the non-profit entities who have come to communities like Sandtown as “poverty pimps.” Truth is, we have seen most every kind of non-profit imaginable – both large and small – come here with promises of empowerment and grandeur. However, at the end of the day, when it is all said and done … we have seen “highly-trained” professionals who hail from some other part of the state and garner exorbitant salaries while the residents of this community are typically allotted the equivalent of peanuts. Yes, some new houses were built back in the 90s. And true, dozens of houses were rehabbed, but it has been years since we have seen any meaningful developments.
Put bluntly, the Sandtown-Winchester Transformation Project (the umbrella organization over Sandtown that was actually called Community Building in Partnership, Inc.) essentially died when Martin O’Malley became mayor. The White House changed and so did the flow of federal money. Then came 9-11.
Yet, dried-up funding has never stopped those of us who love this community from staying involved to the best of our abilities. Sandtown advocates like Marsha Bannerman, Channelle Cooper, Jerry Cross, Lucky Crosby, Marshall Cullens and Marvin Hayes have continued to work on behalf of the community by any means necessary, including using their own personal resources.
We simply learned how to do more with less.
Historically, the work in Sandtown and surrounding communities has included teaching our young people career and life skills, providing employment services and entrepreneurial resources, ensuring substance abuse awareness and treatment, and making sure our seniors received necessary services. Sandtown and other community advocates, to the best of their abilities, also provided youth sports and recreation opportunities, like football. Another population we have continued to serve is the ex-offenders/returning citizens.
There is no doubt in my mind that had our community center not been closed at 1114 North Mount Street and turned into a shelter, we’d still be helping 16-24 year olds earn their GEDs, encouraging voter empowerment, and helping first-time home buyers.
This is not a totally sad story. It should be noted that while programs like Baltimore’s Empowerment Zone, Sandtown YouthBuild and AmeriCorps eventually faded away, many of us have seen plenty of bountiful fruits of our efforts over the years. Many of those young adult graduates we helped from back in the 90s have gone on to become gainfully employed parents and grandparents, homeowners, and ultimately productive citizens.
I would be remiss to not mention that Sandtown-Winchester’s last major advocates were the Rouse Family and former Mayor Kurt Schmoke. That ended in 1999, for the most part, when Schmoke left office.
Once the O’Malley era began – and was extended into the tenure of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and beyond, what we have seen is a benign neglect of our community. Politics changed and so did the level of influence of Sandtown residents. Further, many of our leaders – like Mrs. Margaret Ruffin in Gilmor Homes – passed on. And so, without the proper funding, without a community center, without political will and without “hell-raisers”/leaders like Tina Thompson who were not afraid to speak up … Sandtown has become a shell of what it once was in the sense of community progress.
While Sandtown was once “the crown jewel of neighborhood transformation” nationally where visitors came to tour our streets from all over Europe and Asia, now – we can barely get anything for this otherwise beautiful swath of land with a beautiful collection of people.
Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) that used to help fund our programs were shifted by O’Malley elsewhere, and, thus, a large mass of land in West Baltimore began to lose momentum. Consequently, not only did Sandtown suffer, but so did Penn-North and Harlem Park. Druid Heights, truth be told, has remained that one dominant institution that has continued to be a beacon of light in an otherwise forsaken part of the world. They were smarter than the rest of the surrounding communities, if you ask me, because they sought out funding the rest of us did not.
Upton Planning Committee, as of late, has also been pushing a community agenda.
Despite this massive divestment in much of West Baltimore by the O’Malley/Stephanie Rawlings-Blake eras, these communities do still have a sense of pride. Despite all of the negative imagery, including HBO’s “The Wire”, we still know our rich and precious history as a people in the evolution of this city and we still know who we are and whose we are. Further, we seek no validation from external forces of any form.
For instance, I have come to believe that many politicians tend to think that this majority-African American community doesn’t vote and additionally lacks the ability to effectively articulate our concerns in one unified voice or at least the semblance thereof. Au contraire!
Despite notions of political apathy in the ‘hood, black people do vote, and in record numbers.
Some misinformed politicians, believe it or not, are ignorant to the fact that in 2008, 21217 residents were lined up at 7 am at precincts like Harlem Park and the former William Pinderhughes Elementary School (a building which is now the second homeless shelter in Sandtown ever since the “Tent City” debacle last summer in front of City Hall where homeless people pitched dozens of tents in an attempt to make a stand).
Yes! In Barack Obama’s first election, voter lines in Sandtown extended out the door and into the parking lot bright and early in the morning. Truth is, Sandtown has always been home to multiple voter empowerment forums and initiatives, including some pretty historic debates, including state Senator Clarence Mitchell, IV vs. Delegate Verna Jones at the then-Sandtown-Winchester Community Center at 1114 N. Mount Street in 2002.
Now, let’s fast forward to 2015 when Freddie Gray’s tragic and untimely death catapulted the broader West Baltimore community into a nightmare as well as the epicenter of international media attention. I, myself, appeared on national television and in media outlets as far away as Madrid, Spain. Clearly, a storyline I had covered for over 20 years was finally seeing the light of day. People were finally seeing what happens in the black community after decades of benign neglect by too many Democratic officials in a 9-to-1 Democratic town. Interestingly, it has been Republican Governor Larry Hogan who has made it his business to invest in changing the blight in Sandtown; Hogan’s “Project CORE”, designed to remove unsightly blight, is the first large-scale investment we have seen since 1999.
Clearly, something is fundamentally wrong when certain communities in Baltimore always get resources, but on the other hand you have some communities in East and West Baltimore that haven’t seen any development since the ’68 riots.
Since Freddie Gray, the broader Baltimore community people were finally realizing that Sandtown had been severely neglected and that a lot of the dollars invested had not translated into self-sufficiency. One school, Gilmor Elementary, did not even have a library; after the 2015 riots, Gilmor finally got books.
You see, although Sandtown was once the quintessential example of what transformative change can be, things changed dramatically since ‘99. Investment by Jim Rouse’s Enterprise Foundation along with a consistent federal funding stream nurtured by a strong relationship between Pres. Bill Clinton, Mayor Kurt Schmoke and Housing Commissioner Dan Henson was no more.
Long story short: While we were not surprised by the first riots in 47 years in Baltimore, many of us knew that they could have easily been avoided. The problem, I believe, was that we had people “in-charge” at City Hall and at Baltimore Police Headquarters who clearly had no idea about the people in the communities most disaffected like Historic West Baltimore and Historic East Baltimore nor how to quell the disdain people so vehemently held close.
People know when you are treating them right, and people know when you are doing them wrong, like arresting one in six citizens for petty and nuisance issues. People know the difference between investment in their community and O’Malley’s policy of “zero-tolerance”: Day and night!
Malcolm X said, “You cannot serve the people if you do not love the people.”
In my graduate work at Morgan State in International Affairs, a most important topic we discussed frequently was the nature of international relations. If you are going to do work – however noble – in a community you know nothing about, then there are some basic things you need to learn and know before proceeding. You need to take the time and get to know the lay of the land, the history and culture of the people you aim to serve, and how things work.
For example, no one in their right mind would offer pork to a Muslim no more than they would offer beef to a Hindu. But, if one isn’t aware of the culture of a people, it could turn out really ugly. And the thing is, it was avoidable.
Often, we take a privileged and ignorant position on a people without knowledge of the inner-workings of their community all for the sake of political expediency instead of the meaningful and holistic progress of a group of people already riddled with the worst socio-economic indicators in the State of Maryland. We seem pompous and uninterested in the people’s perspective. And that’s where the problem begins.
If you are going to go into a community and dictate to them what you think they need without getting their buy-in or feedback, then you have failed before you have even started.
Some people in high positions feel like their opinion is all that matters. Let me just say that this is the wrong attitude to take and such thinking will only fuel resentment and undermine whatever good was intended.
We all saw it in the movie “Avatar.” Having a colonizing mindset that you know what’s best for a group of indigenous people is pure suicide.
Let me also add that when politicians ignore a community because that community did not vote for them, that, too, is a slippery slope, i.e. the Case of Freddie Gray.
NO BOUNDARIES COALITION
During the week of the riots, clearly the worst time in Baltimore in a very long time, I recall seeing a flier by this group I had heard sparingly about over the years. They were known for giving a block party. I never paid much attention to the group otherwise. But, then, I saw this flier that was seemingly a clarion call. So, I called the number on the flier. It was the Law Office of Susan Berg. I later learned she was a part of the No Boundaries Coalition and that she was also interested in defending victims in police abuse cases.
At the first No Boundaries meeting I attended, I recall asking Ray Kelly (their black leader in Sandtown) just who the organization was and what it represented. The next thing I know, Mr. Kelly was essentially attempting to quiet me in the meeting. I was simply asking basic questions: Who, what, when, where and why.
Granted, the Freddie Gray period was a horrible time and everybody was on edge.
I then attended a second meeting because, quite frankly, I became suspicious of No Boundaries and their intentions. The meeting was at St. Peter Claver’s Catholic Church and when I went inside, I was shocked to find 95% white folks – many of whom were from Bolton Hill – right here on Fremont Avenue. I can only say my mind was totally blown. I instantly wondered if their concerns about the police’s interactions with the black community were the same as ours.
Like some others during the time, No Boundaries and Mr. Kelly have attempted to be a voice for Sandtown and other nearby and neighboring communities.
According to their website, their member partners include:
Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, Booker T. Washington Middle School, Councilman Bill Cole’s office, Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, Eutaw Place Improvement Association, Eutaw Marshburn Elementary School # 11, Furman Templeton Preparatory Academy, The Garden Community Church, Jubilee Arts, Newborn Holisitic Ministries, Mount Royal Improvement Association, Midtown Community Benefits District, Memorial Episcopal Church, New Song Urban Ministries, OYO Traditions Cultural Arts and Wellness Institute, Promise Heights, Resident Action Committee, Reservoir Hill Improvement Council and The Samaritan Community.
And that is a very impressive lineup. Again, though, Sandtown is more than capable of speaking for itself.
I say this because what we have seen on the ground since “Freddie Gray” is a number of entities cashing-in on grants while claiming to be a blessing to Sandtown. We have witnessed non-profits claiming to serve Sandtown clock millions of dollars for projects. We have seen temporary projects put in place. We have seen photo opps. And we have witnessed WJZ TV 13 all through the riots collect money in the name of Freddie Gray for a major non-profit.
Despite what I counted to be millions of dollars in contributions and donations to offset the riots in places like Sandtown, the only new developments in Sandtown since the Freddie Gray Uprising is a renovated Western District Police Station (paid for by War Horse) and a second homeless shelter at the former Pinderhughes Elementary.
Down the street in Harlem Park, the only new development in recent years is a brand new funeral home.
Chew on that for a minute …
As for No Boundaries, they came up with a document which according to their interviews with Sandtown residents represented the sentiments of the community on a variety of issues. When I saw WBAL TV 11’s Lisa Robinson reporting on it, I had to inquire just who made No Boundaries our spokesman, especially when they were very rude in their introduction.
The problem is with so many people claiming to represent a community like Sandtown is that the people in this very same community have seen every kind of “dog and pony show” conceivable and know meddling interlopers and opportunists when we see them. We are not easily impressed. And, more than anything, we don’t care about what you say. We watch what you do.
So, if you say you are coming to Sandtown to make a difference, we watch how you operate. Frankly, that tells us everything we need to know.
Today, at issue, is No Boundaries’ interest in making the former Bank of America building on Pennsylvania near Laurens a sort of community empowerment center.
First, they never brought it before community leaders in Sandtown, Druid Heights, Upton, Harlem Park, or Penn-North. Unless I’ve been lied to, No Boundaries has indeed stepped across the line.
What’s most troubling about this sort of empowerment center is that they want to offer drug treatment in an area dubbed “Main Street”.
We are clear that No Boundaries, in and of itself, is no development guru. We are clear that they do not have a track record in economic development. And hence, we are clear that they know absolutely little about our beloved Historic Pennsylvania Avenue. If they truly understood “the Avenue,” they would understand that it is the economic corridor to multiple West Baltimore communities.
Further, if they truly understood the dynamics of the community, they would know that this is the wrong place to provide “Treatment on Demand”. After all, business owners have set up shop on Pennsylvania Avenue to make a profit, not to have their operations further challenged with illicit activities. Anybody knows that addicts who have to cross mounds of dealers in an attempt to reach a treatment center are being set-up to fail.
For those who do not know, a lot of dope is sold in this immediate vicinity. A person seeking recovery must face the dope man in order to get to treatment?
That’s not going to work, and neither is No Boundaries’ cavalier spirit of doing what they think is necessary without the buy-in and support of the very people who live and work here. No Boundaries must come to understand that when you are the new kid on the block, there are indeed boundaries and that these boundaries must be respected.
To ignore the wishes of a community one so profoundly claims to serve is nothing short of pure ignorance coupled with imperial arrogance. Historic Pennsylvania Avenue is the wrong place for a community center. It is the economic corridor and ought to be treated as such – especially by newcomers and outsiders who have failed to get the support of longtime indigenous leaders.