Gentrification threatens diversity of Baltimore neighborhoods

A report by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (BNIA) celebrates as “global neighborhoods” six city communities that are remarkably diverse in racial and ethnic composition. Their development is seen as challenging the assumption of Baltimore as a city segregated into predominantly black or white areas, taken by many as a positive sign. But gentrification, an often exclusionary form of urban development, threatens to reverse it all.

Since 2014, I have researched the role of immigrants in Baltimore’s urban development. For centuries, people from other countries have expanded the city’s labor force, enriched its cultural landscape, started new businesses, formed civic organizations and participated in politics. Old Bay seasoning, for instance, was the creation of Gustav Brunn, a German refugee who settled in Baltimore in 1939. Three of the six “global neighborhoods” identified in the BNIA report are actually old enclaves of Southern and Eastern European immigrants that have recently been revitalized by immigrants from Latin America: Orangeville/East Highlandtown, Patterson Park North and East, and Southeastern. In some of these areas, however, gentrification has threatened immigrant settlement and the cultural vibrancy it brings to neighborhoods.

A closer look at the BNIA indicators shows that over the past five years diversity has actually diminished in southeast Baltimore in comparison to the city as a whole. In 2010, the proportion of Latinos in the local population of Fells Point, Patterson Park North and East, and Highlandtown was, on average, 4.4 times larger than the same proportion for the city as a whole. By 2015, the difference had diminished to 3.4 times. Over the same period, the difference between the racial diversity index of those neighborhoods and of the city as a whole declined from 1.19 to 1.03. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the growth of the Latino population in southeast Baltimore has decreased in some neighborhoods and turned negative in others. Multiple factors could account for those changes, but evidence suggests an association with gentrification.

In 2010, the median household income in Fells Point, Patterson Park North and East, and Highlandtown was, on average, 49.3 percent higher than for Baltimore as a whole. By 2015, that difference had increased to 64.3 percent. The difference in median home prices grew from 79.7 percent to 89 percent. The proportion of owner-occupied homes, another indicator of gentrification, has also increased in those neighborhoods in comparison to Baltimore. The rehabilitation of homes for sale has fostered this process. In 2010-2015, the proportion of residential properties with rehab permits over $5,000 in Fells Point, Patterson Park North and East, and Highlandtown was, on average, 5.18 percent while the proportion for the city was 2.7 percent.

According to Zillow, the online real estate database, from November 2010 to November 2016, the difference between home rental values in Patterson Park, Highlandtown and Upper Fells Point and home rental values in Baltimore City as a whole increased from 11.2 percent to 17.9 percent.

As part of a study funded by UMBC and the Abell Foundation, I have conducted interviews with representatives of immigrant-serving organizations and focus groups with immigrants in southeast Baltimore. They have stressed how hard it is for immigrants to become homeowners. In a focus group with Latino immigrants, when I brought up the issue of housing, the perception of rising prices was unanimous. Several of them pointed out to Latinos moving away from those areas, including resettling in Baltimore County.

The city leadership has acknowledged the contribution of immigrants to Baltimore. The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, the Abell Foundation, the Southeast Development Corporation, the International Rescue Committee and the Open Societies Institute have all made efforts to facilitate the access of immigrants and refugees to housing. These efforts should be praised and reinforced to protect Baltimore’s “global neighborhoods” from the harmful effects of gentrification.

In southeast Baltimore, empty streets have been replaced by murals that celebrate diversity, restaurants that offer ethnic food and Latin American artistic groups that perform craft, dance and music. It would be a shame to see this cultural wealth evanesce.

Felipe A. Filomeno is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Global Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the Johns Hopkins University. His email is filomeno@umbc.edu.

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