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Newsmaker

How a chance encounter at a demolition site on Mother’s Day led to fighting blight in West Baltimore

Nneka N’namdi was driving home in Baltimore’s Upton and Harlem Park neighborhoods on Mother’s Day in 2016 when she came across a situation she thought could turn into a tragedy.

Driving down Fremont Avenue, she caught a glimpse of a group of children riding their bikes on the sidewalk where four brownstones were being demolished at Lafayette Street.

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Nneka N’namdi, COO of Fight Blight Bmore, an organization she founded in 2016, surveys the 500 block of North Carrollton Avenue in Harlem Park, where there are many abandoned rowhouses.

“I noticed some kids were on foot. I think two on foot, two on bikes. And it was a huge demolition site. But it didn’t have no gates, no signs that say ‘stay out’ — nothing,” N’namdi said. “Just huge mounds of debris, where the houses used to be.”

There were Caterpillar machines and gaping holes about six feet deep, which used to be the basements, she said, but no barricades or workers in sight.

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This made her angry.

“And I’m like, what happens if one of these kids loses control of their bikes or decides — because there’s no playground, there’s no real playground space in our neighborhood — that they will just play there. What would the outcome of that be?” N’namdi said. “So I started researching what safe demolition should look like.”

Her research lead her from one topic to the next. Studying why those houses had to be demolished turned into learning why there are so many vacant, abandoned properties in Baltimore, she said.

She started documenting, reporting and tracking environmental hazards created in part by the demolition sites in the city. This culminated in the formation of Fight Blight Bmore, an organization made up of a handful of people who want to reduce blight in Baltimore.

The group aims to inform people about the impact of blight and support the development of properties in places that will be owned by residents living in those communities.

“I think Fight Blight Bmore and the work that they’re doing in terms of looking at addressing blight within our communities is extremely important,” Baltimore Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy said. “Giving voice and awareness to the conditions within community, advocating for communities to reduce blight is extremely important.”

Blight is a tough issue to tackle because it isn’t defined by one thing, Kennedy said. Blight, for example, can be abandoned or vacant properties, it can include litter and have a crime component, she said.

“But it definitely, altogether points to communities that have been negatively impacted by not just disinvestment, but what that disinvestment brings — historic, racist housing policies and other policies that contribute to blight,” she said.

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One of the major contributors to blight is vacant properties, of which there are more than 14,000 in Baltimore, Kennedy said, with the bulk of them privately owned. She added that Westport and Harlem Park are some of the areas with concentrations of blight.

“It’s extremely difficult for residents that are living in blighted neighborhoods. It impacts our residents’ everyday lives, whether or not you’re an adult, or a child that has to walk past vacant properties on the way to school,” she said. “There’s a lot of stress, a lot of fear that is experienced living in these communities.”

The city is trying to address blight, Kennedy said, and programs like Housing Upgrades to Benefit Seniors, which assists with home repairs, is meant to help reduce it.

“One of the things that we have been doing is increasing our investment in our communities,” Kennedy said. “We’ve worked with communities within the impact investment areas to create block-level planning, where we’re literally looking at block by block, how to transform not just the vacant properties ... but creating different and thriving communities.”

Short-term improvements could include boarding up vacant houses, installing more streetlights, limiting alley access and removing debris. And for longer-term solutions, renovating or demolishing blighted buildings is key, officials said.

The first step is often securing blighted buildings so people can’t get inside while city officials pursue the necessary legal proceedings, which can result in the property changing hands — and getting rehabilitated or repurposed — or being demolished.

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The message is clear, N’namdi said: “A blighted Baltimore is, a bleeding Baltimore.”

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Fight Blight Bmore wants to reduce blight throughout the city, but the bulk of its focus is on Old West Baltimore, Sandtown-Winchester, Druid Heights, Marble Hill, Penn North and Upton, where N’namdi lives with her two sons.

Seeing the children juxtaposed with the demolition site all those years ago made her think of her boys.

“This was not cool. Like this is dangerous. They put gates up when they do demos in other parts of the city. Why is it, no gates are up here by people who live here?” she said. “And so, it [the initiative] really just grew from that.”

N’namdi founded Fight Blight Bmore in 2016 so residents could identify, report and track blight in the city. The group recently launched a pilot version of their app “Fight Blight Bmore” that allows people to document blight.

During the pilot phase, the group will go into neighborhoods to do door-to-door surveys of life, N’namdi said. The data will then be compiled and made available through the app to members of the community.

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“Baltimore City has a myriad of issues...” she said. “But at the end of the day, as a taxpayer — I don’t care about none of that, you’re not going to endanger our community in this way. And not think that at least I and other people are not going to bring attention to it.”

This article is part of our Newsmaker series, which profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities and, starting today, runs every other week. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at khigh@baltsun.com.


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