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From 'Middle East' to 'Eager Park,' a community is rebranded

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Hundreds of residents have been relocated and dozens of homes cleared from Baltimore's Middle East neighborhood in recent years. Now the area just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital may be losing something more: its name.

As an ambitious redevelopment project with biotech research labs, corporate offices and homes reshapes the neighborhood, the area is being marketed around the yet-to-be-built Eager Park — a strategy that upsets some longtime residents.

"They want it to sound like there's no history here until they got here," said Donald Gresham, a leader of the now-defunct Save Middle East Action Committee, created more than a decade ago to oppose the displacement of residents. "Eager Park is just another slap in the face. Nobody cares about what this community represented. It's all about the glamour."

East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit behind the sprawling revitalization, says the Eager Park name will attract more new residents and businesses than Middle East, a label with "unhelpful associations." Already, Eager Park has been highlighted in brochures, a website and colorful flags surrounding the area.

The battle over changing a name that has been used for more than three decades is the latest example of the continuing tensions surrounding the 88-acre redevelopment — which EBDI describes as the largest in Baltimore history — and similar projects around the Hopkins medical campus.

It also illustrates a conflict that has played out nationwide as older cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington revitalize. Experts say market-driven name changes are likely to become more common in Baltimore as neighborhoods get more savvy about luring residents and developers gain influence over large city tracts.

Neighborhood names and borders are constantly shifting, said Christopher Leinberger, professor and director of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. "It happens all of the time, and it's happening with increasing velocity. … This is just the beginning in Baltimore."

The name Middle East calls to mind a conflict-ridden region of the globe, said Scott Levitan, development director for Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership, the company contracted to renew the neighborhood. That isn't marketable, he said.

Chris Shea, president of EBDI, added, "Developers want … interesting but noncontroversial names for things."

Genesis of a name

The official names of some Baltimore neighborhoods, like Ridgely's Delight and Fells Point, go back centuries. Middle East is not one of those.

The name was applied in 1978, as residents of the decaying blocks — then a largely black, lower-income community — joined to ask the city for money to repair deteriorating properties.

At the time, there were 200 vacant homes in the neighborhood, according to a contemporary news report. The city allocated $800,000 in federal grant funding over a three-year period, but even then, the housing department estimated that it would take $120,000 to improve just three homes.

Community organizers set neighborhood boundaries across a large swath north and west of the Hopkins complex. (The western portion started its own community group in 2004 and is now called C.A.R.E. — Cleaning, Active, Restoring, Efforts.) They also created a group to oversee the money: the Middle East Community Organization.

In 1982, Lucille Gorham, then director of the organization, described the community's naming to The Baltimore Sun. The "51-year-old widowed mother of eight" instructed a young man who was headed to the city's grant hearing: "We have the Northeast Community Organization on one side and the Southeast on the other. So tell them you're from the Middle East Community Organization, because you're right in the middle of everything.'"

"There was no long, drawn-out [naming] process. It was real simple," said the Rev. Rick Mosley, 61, the "young man" who started the organization with Gorham. He was a 26-year-old Vietnam veteran and not yet a minister. He threw himself into community organizing to stay occupied, he said.

Mosley recalls that there was discomfort with the name from the start, because it was declared months after the Camp David accords, the framework for a treaty to end warfare between Israel and Egypt.

Middle East was a handy identifier for use in city politics, a way for residents to demarcate their area. But the name never quite caught on. When residents introduced themselves to someone from West Baltimore, they used nearby landmarks, mainly the hospital, to describe where they lived.

"What do we call the neighborhood? To my knowledge, nothing," said Maxine Clark, who has lived on East Chase Street for decades. William Evans, who has been on East Chase for 20 years, tells people he lives in Collington Square, after the park a few blocks away.

Of course, there are not many people left in Middle East who would remember it by that name.

Over the past decade, hundreds of households have been displaced for redevelopment. Clark and Evans live in the northeast corner of the square of roughly 35 city blocks that is Middle East. Their portion of the neighborhood is on the northeast side of the railroad tracks, the only section of Middle East not in the redevelopment zone.

"Most of the people originally from that neighborhood, they are not there now," said Josephine Gilliam, 85, who has lived in the middle of East Baltimore since she was a girl. Growing up, the neighborhood was nicknamed "the Hog's Eye"; she doesn't know why.

Gorham remained a pillar of her community until 2008, when, after being compensated, she was forced to move from her home in the 1900 block of E. Chase St. Through it all, she asked the developers to keep the name Middle East in use.

Gorham's children say she was heartbroken at leaving the neighborhood where she'd worked to have new housing built, fostered community gardens and led an urban chapter of 4-H. She was moved to a home in Northeast Baltimore, off Belair Road, and the spot where her East Chase home stood is now a modern apartment and townhouse community called Chapel Green.

Gorham, who told The Sun in 2007 that receiving the relocation notice "was like sticking a knife in my chest," died of cancer in November at age 81.

Now her children are dismayed that part of her legacy — the Middle East name — is threatened. One of her daughters, Sallie Gorham, said, "It's like they threw her under the rug. Like she ain't nobody."

Marketing challenges

As cities revitalize neighborhoods, branding has become a crucial tactic to lure residents, shoppers and visitors.

"There's no great science to this, but branding in America … is important to get people to value a place or a product," said Leinberger. Most community names spring from the mind of a developer or marketing professional.

In recent years, for example, Washington's NoMa — north of Massachusetts Avenue — has become defined near Capitol Hill. In South Philadelphia, part of the Point Breeze neighborhood started identifying itself as Newbold to encourage development. And in Toronto, the rough neighborhood of Jane and Finch is being rechristened University Heights.

Likewise, in Baltimore, Baltimore-Linwood became the Patterson Park Neighborhood a decade ago to increase its appeal to home buyers. A rebranding of Pigtown as Washington Village is still struggling to take hold.

"The idea of transition is not unusual," said Michael Anikeeff, director of the Edward St. John Real Estate Program at Johns Hopkins' Carey Business School. "That's how urban development takes place — you replace the old with the new."

Middle East's redevelopment began in 2001, when the city launched a campaign to "rebuild a neighborhood from the ground up," as then-Mayor Martin O'Malley put it. EBDI — controlled by city and state elected officials, leaders from Hopkins, local businesses and charities, and residents — was formed to lead the redevelopment.

The group selected Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership to take control of the site. Several residential complexes have been built, including an apartment tower designed primarily to house Hopkins graduate students. There's also a new life sciences research building and a parking garage.

Still, there's more work to be done. Vacant homes line some streets. In one alley, which will someday be a grassy part of Eager Park, a bottomless plastic Harrisburg Dairies milk crate is tied to a tree trunk — what used to qualify as a basketball hoop in Middle East.

A hotel is expected to open next year, a new public school is underway, and many more residential and commercial structures are planned. Last week, EBDI announced that two nonprofits, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development and The Reinvestment Fund, are partnering to restore 90 historic homes in the northwest corner of the site, beginning in 2014.

Plans show that in the middle of all this new development there will be a six-acre park spanning three blocks, with enhancements such as a garden and amphitheater. Eager Street will run through it.

"We want this to be the central park for this whole community," said Forest City's Levitan.

The park should be completed in the first half of 2015, he said. More than a dozen vacant homes must be razed before the full footprint is open land. EBDI expects the park to cost about $12 million. Its construction will partially be funded with public money.

After the developer-proposed name Beacon Park was rejected by residents, the partnership hired CO-OP Brand Partners, a New York-based marketing firm, and Baltimore's Adrian Harpool Associates, a communications strategy firm, to develop a plan for including the community in naming the park.

"This process, for us, was very personal, very human," said Simon Hunter, a member of CO-OP's management team.

The developers distributed eight criteria limiting the types of names that could be proposed. For example, the name had to "help marketing efforts," "allow easy communication" and have "website availability." It also could not have "unhelpful associations," meaning it had to avoid "connections to places, people or organizations with reputations that could damage or overshadow the positive associations we want to create — e.g. not Wire Park, Conflict Park, or Middle East Park."

The marketers solicited suggestions from the community, and through a website and paper "ballots," nearly 600 names were collected.

In public meetings last summer, the list was whittled down to three options: Eager Park, Heritage Park and East Baltimore Community Park. Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership and EBDI's board of directors made the final decision.

The developers say they are not trying to stamp out the name Middle East, which will remain on official city maps. So they are using the phrase "Around Eager Park" to describe the area on marketing materials and in an exhibition center staffed with real estate professionals.

Nevertheless, there are signs that the Middle East name could one day vanish.

Rowhouses being renovated by the Verde Development Group a block from the park's future location are being called "Eager Park West." Rather than "reinvent the wheel," Verde named its development as an extension of the park to alert potential home buyers to the amenity, said Martin Richardson, Verde's CEO.

There's no arguing with the power of real estate rebranding, GWU's Leinberger said. People adapt quickly, as long as there's a product to back up the marketing.

Eager Park's product — a community with everything needed for daily living — appears to be well on its way. On an average workday, the sidewalks are busy and park benches are occupied by people eating lunch.

There is proof — in the form of the research building and new residences — of the area "evolving dramatically," said Jamal Molin, a Hopkins graduate student who was considering buying a home in the development zone. He prefers the name Eager Park — it's fresh and doesn't carry the baggage of history, he said.

"I feel that when people hear 'Middle East,' immediately they think of a dangerous, crime-infested area," Molin said. "The new Eager Park name not only has no negativity attached to the name, it also even brings more interest because of the word 'park.' "

Eager Park, in the end, may be more historically relevant to Baltimore. John Eager Howard, the namesake to many local landmarks — including John, Eager and Howard streets — was a Revolutionary War hero, governor and U.S. senator.

And though the name Eager Park is new, some residents are beginning to accept it as part of the community's future.

"If it's for the betterment of the neighborhood, then it's OK," said Tim Parrish, head of the Middle East Truth and Reconciliation Council, a group formed to monitor the redevelopment. "The name is important, but it's the people that's most important."

Charlotte Johnson, 61, who lost her home to the Middle East redevelopment and moved into one of the area's new apartment buildings, is less convinced.

"There will be a lot of … whitewashing, but it will never be forgotten," Johnson said. "It will always be Middle East at heart."

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

steve.kilar@baltsun.com

twitter.com/stevekilar

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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