By Doni Glover, Publisher
(BALTIMORE – November 2, 2023) – Originally, members of the faith leadership community in Sandtown came together to form Clergy United to Save Sandtown back in the 1990s. St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church’s Father Damien Nalepa, now deceased, was one of the founders. This was over 20 years ago when the Sandtown-Winchester Community was under the graces of then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. That was the first and last time this historic West Baltimore community saw any type of major investment by the City of Baltimore or foundations.
During the 90s, a plethora of nonprofit organizations were mostly on the same page under the umbrella of the Sandtown-Winchester Transformation Project named Community Building in Partnership. These various organizations, like the Sandtown-Winchester Community Development Corporation, Sandtown YouthBuild, and the Sandtown-Winchester Health Consortium worked with community partners like James Rouse and the Enterprise Foundation to help bring about much-needed change. It didn’t take long before the community was getting more investment than ever before in history.
Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) with the leadership of people like the late Bishop Doug Miles and Arnie Graf helped build over 350 new houses in Sandtown selling back then for about $60,000. Mostly in Sandtown, the housing development project did extend into Penn-North. In all, the Nehemiah Project was a welcomed affordable housing initiative in the community and still stands as the last most beautiful thing built in the community in recent decades.
New Song Church did a lot of work here in Sandtown, also. They brought with them Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, Eden’s Jobs, and New Song School. Chesapeake Habitat now runs the housing and Eden’s Jobs no longer exists. The school is now a part of Baltimore City Public Schools where students enter via a lottery. It was originally intended for Sandtown residents but is now open to youth across the city. The late founder, Alan Tibbels, and his wife, Susan, will forever be missed. Residents know the indelible impression they both made.
FREDDIE GRAY UNREST
And then, Freddie Gray happened, and Sandtown-Winchester – a 72-square-block swath of West Baltimore exploded into the epicenter of international media attention. Politicians who had not been in Sandtown in years were now showing up. Geraldo. CNN. Spanish TV. Sandtown’s Gilmor Homes is where Freddie Gray was arrested and injured. Sandtown is also home to the Western District police station, the site of multiple protests with hundreds of people proclaiming, “No justice, no peace!” That was in 2015.
It is important to note here that Sandtown is technically from North and Fulton to North and Carey down to Lafayette Avenue. This means Penn-North is not in Sandtown, but several blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue down to Fremont Avenue are in Sandtown. Winchester is from the west side of Fulton to the east side of Monroe from North Avenue down to Lafayette Avenue.
The two communities were ultimately combined for City Hall’s purposes of organization.
However, Sandtown has a distinct vibe and unique culture of its own, all by itself. In short, Sandtown is the larger part of Sandtown-Winchester by far.
Against that backdrop, the acronym CUTS was suddenly resurrected after nearly 15 years by another group of clergy in the form of a community development corporation. Clergy United to Save Sandtown morphed into Clergy United for the Transformation of Sandtown-Winchester (CUTS) Community Development Corporation after the Freddie Gray Unrest. The address listed for CUTS is in the Winchester community, for the record.
Some of its recent activities raise critical questions, however. For instance, on April 1 of this year, US Sen. Chris Van Hollen and US Sen. Ben Cardin announced $1.5 million for historic West Baltimore communities that had been historically underserved.
The announcement read as follows: “U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) will join local faith leaders and West Baltimore residents to highlight the delivery of three infusions of congressionally directed spending totaling $1.5 million to historically under-served communities. Gathering outside Baltimore City Public Schools Building 103, where a young Thurgood Marshall attended elementary school before rising to become the first Black American Supreme Court Justice, the senators and community leaders will celebrate the federal investments the senators secured for P.S. 103, the Bethel Empowerment and Wellness Center, and the Sandtown Center. The senators fought to ensure that these funds became part of the fiscal year omnibus funding package enacted on March 15.”
Yesterday, Dr. Tyrone Taborn shared a LinkedIn link highlighting how former school 103 where Thurgood Marshall went to school is being developed into a tech center by Rev. Al Hathaway and will feature the STEM CITY Metaverse. Dr. Taborn has been leading efforts to close the digital divide across Black and brown communities for four decades and has an impeccable reputation for his vision in the realm of digital technology.
This forces the question for residents of Sandtown: Given the $250,000 given by Senators Van Hollen and Cardin in the name of “under-served” communities, what exactly is the progress on the Sandtown Center? At last check, the building where the center was to be housed on Presstman Street (between Stricker and Calhoun, just behind Sharon Baptist Church) is bricked up in the front.
The Sandtown Center was proposed to be located at 1409 Presstman Street. The property is listed in the name of Al Stokes. According to City officials, no permits have been pulled for this property since 2021. There is a zoning notice on the front of the building from a January 25, 2022 hearing with William Hemby listed as the applicant.
Hemby and Stokes are both listed on CUTS’ website as board members.
CUTS Board includes Dr. Derrick Dewwit (Board Chairman, Sr. Pastor First Mt. Calvary Baptist Church), Fr. Ray Bomberger (Vice President), Elder C.W. Harris (Vice President), Dr. Albert Stokes (Treasurer), Rev. Amelia Harris (Board Secretary), Sister Wanda Ricks (Lively Community Church), Rev. William D. Hemby (Board Communications Officer), and Rev. Diane Marshall (Sr. Pastor, Church Of Deliverance).
While records show that “CLERGY UNITED FOR THE TRANSFORMATION OF SANDTOWN CDC” is current with the State of Maryland, its status has been revoked by the IRS. CUTS is on the auto-revocation list with the IRS, an IRS official record of organizations whose tax-exempt status has been automatically revoked because of a failure to file a required return or notice for three consecutive years. According to Guide Star: “This organization’s exempt status was automatically revoked by the IRS for failure to file a Form 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, or 990-PF for 3 consecutive years. Further investigation and due diligence are warranted.”
“Another example of the vultures who come out of the woodwork when the opportunity comes to get money off of Sandtown’s back,” said veteran Sandtown activist Jerry Cross when asked about the Sandtown Center.
Cross has zero faith in CUTS or its intentions. “CUTS doesn’t do much at all for Sandtown. How long have they been in the community? And how many community leaders and residents know them? Just another shyster move where people are looking to fatten their pockets.”
Marsha Bannerman, who worked for Community Building in Partnership with Jerry Cross in the 1990s, is a longtime homeowner in Sandtown. When asked about the lack of progress at 1409 Presstman, she replied, “Sounds like something undercover’s going on over there.”
Bannerman, who lives across from Western District, has toiled tirelessly in this community on behalf of the young and old alike. She is a well-known voice in the community who has a champion’s track record of service having helped hundreds of residents over the years.
She continued, “Everybody else is moving forward with their projects, so what’s the hold-up? A couple of leaders think Rev. Dewitt is so grandiose, but he’s not. They’re stealing in the name of the Lord. They’re not helping our people.”
She did say that she sees Rev. Dewitt giving away food and that community leaders like Roxanne Prettyman fix lunch for the people in the neighborhood, but overall, Bannerman is not impressed with CUTS’ Chairman. Dewitt’s church is on the west side of Fulton Avenue in the Winchester portion of Sandtown-Winchester. Residents question their authenticity when it comes to speaking on behalf of Sandtown residents. Of the board members, only Fr. Ray Bomberger is believed to live in Sandtown at St. Peter Claver. Stokes, Elder Harris, and his wife, Amelia, did once live in Sandtown. The Harrises live in neighboring Upton. Stokes lives in Ashburton. Dewitt’s grandmother used to live in Sandtown.
Sandtown-Winchester is nestled between Penn-North community in the northwest, Druid Heights immediately to the west, Upton to the southwest, and Harlem Park to the south.
CUTS’ website gives a stale, warped overview of Sandtown with a philanthropic oh-we’re-here-to-save-the-natives mentality because surely the residents are incapable of doing it for themselves. It was last updated in September 2022. Their Instagram was last updated in April when they got the check from the US Senators. The same with their Twitter and Facebook accounts.
CUTS’ website paints a dismal picture of Sandtown: “Our History Sandtown is located within West Baltimore. According to the 2010 census, a total of 15,518 persons reside in the Sandown area. Ninety-Eight-point five percent (98.5%) of that population is African American, of which 45% are men and 55% are women. The residents of Sandtown suffer from a plethora of socio-economic disparities; 87% of the children are from single-parent households, the median household income is $24,578 ($17,445 below the Baltimore City median income), with an unemployment rate of 21% (7% higher than the City’s rate), 50% of families live in poverty (21% higher than the City’s rate). Sandtown also has significant environmental disparities. There are 7.4 liquor stores per 10,000 residents (there are 3.8 liquor stores per 10,000 Baltimore City residents), and there are 40 tobacco stores per 10,000 (there are 21 tobacco stores per 10,000 Baltimore City residents). There were 760 rat complaints per 10,000 residents (409 rat complaints per 10,000 Baltimore City residents). Sandtown also suffers from academic disparities in truancy, reading proficiency, readiness, and other educational benchmarks.”
It speaks nothing about Sandtown’s wins or its legacy, culture, and what that means not just to the city, but to the world.
Sure, we have issues. What community in Baltimore doesn’t? At the same time, I can take you to a part of Sandtown that reminds you of county living. I can take you to a park that is so immaculate it will blow your mind – right near Fulton and Laurens. I can also take you to an award-winning garden that most would never imagine in Sandtown. We have some of the most talented people anywhere, like actor and singer Richard Burton – right here in Sandtown, and guess what, many are not living anywhere near the poverty line. This is the home of Sharon Baptist Church, and the Odyssey, too. Sandtown softball teams. Home of the Freeloaders. They have families, new babies, businesses, jobs – well-paying jobs. But these positive attributes are not mentioned at all on this joke of a website. It’s very disappointing that people pretend to love this community but are seemingly all about themselves. It’s sickening. It’s tiring. It’s amateur. I think the biggest issue over the years is that there has yet to be a community-driven process. We’re working on it now. But historically, people who live elsewhere want to come here and tell us what to do and how to do it without ever talking to the people who live here. That takes a lot of gaul. At the end of the day, many of these people are here to make money off of what they see as poverty. And don’t get me wrong, we do have poverty. We have some of the worst socio-economic factors in the state. At the same time, we also have a lot of college-educated homeowners, some of whom own businesses, who raise their families here, and who love this community. Shouldn’t these voices be the ones speaking for our community?
We have convened over three dozen community meetings in Sandtown since the Freddie Gray Unrest. We’ve been making traction, especially of late. But what we don’t need are more poverty pimps.
The Sandtown-Winchester community in West Baltimore has a rich history of faith-based and community-engaged efforts – a few led by the community – to bring about positive change and development. Eric Stephenson, for instance, with his wife’s assistance, has built a world-class garden and has led efforts to remove blight in the southeast corner of Sandtown. While the 1990s saw a surge in investments from nonprofit organizations and foundations, the aftermath of the 2015 Freddie Gray incident brought renewed attention to the area, with politicians and organizations getting involved. Some are genuine, maybe. Residents are doubtful.
The importance of community-driven initiatives cannot be overstated and the need to involve residents in decision-making processes is more critical than ever. The recent allocation of $1.5 million for historically underserved communities, including the Sandtown Center, raises questions about the progress of these projects, especially when concerns are raised about the lack of visible progress and community involvement. Where is the accountability, the credibility, and the transparency? Furthermore, the last thing residents need is for outsiders to reiterate what’s wrong. It is long documented already. Instead of that, try telling the good. And try doing good.
The voices of those who live in the Sandtown community, including long-time residents and activists, deserve to be heard and valued in the ongoing development efforts. It is a reminder that while challenges persist, there is a resilient and educated community in Sandtown that deserves the opportunity to shape its future and not merely be subject to external decisions by self-serving individuals, Black or white.