In a vacant rowhouse down the street from where Freddie Gray was arrested five years ago, in the wake of the rioting that erupted after his death of injuries suffered in police custody, Tubman House was born.
Meant to provide a gathering space and fresh produce for its Sandtown-Winchester neighbors, it was among a host of initiatives large and small, governmental and community-based, that emerged in response to the unrest like the green shoots now poking through the soil of the house’s garden.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted to address what they saw as the root causes of the fury — from issues of policing and criminal justice to inequities in education and jobs to the grinding poverty that underlies it all.
“People rushed in, only to leave a short time later,” said Dominique Conway, who founded the house.
“Freddie Gray was a moment for a lot of people. But here in the community, he was a real individual. He was a son of the community.”
In years past, the house hosted an annual event to commemorate Gray’s death April 19, 2015, but not this year due to the continuing ban on gatherings that might spread the coronavirus.
And in fact, the pandemic has further highlighted the inequities brought to the forefront five years ago. COVID-19 has taken an outsize toll on African American neighborhoods like Sandtown, where many residents have existing medical conditions, lack regular health care, live in crowded housing or work in service jobs that make social distancing impossible.
“It’s just illuminating the needs again,” said Ashiah Parker, CEO of the No Boundaries Coalition, an alliance of West Baltimore community groups. “Now that the kids can’t go to school, we’re finding out how many of them don’t have access to computers or the internet. Now we’re finding out that the people keeping society going are the lowest-paid people.”
Those who sought to address the problems raised by the rioting can point to some successes in recent years, even as they say much remains to be done.
About $110 million flowed into the city in new federal funding to address employment, education, public safety and infrastructure needs. Foundations, community groups and individuals similarly sought to heal and repair a broken city.
The efforts ranged widely, to address problems from food deserts to access to health care to chronic incarceration — issues that were resonant both then and now.
Open Society Institute-Baltimore, for example, launched a program to divert low-level drug offenders from arrest and jail — among the places where the coronavirus is spreading today — and toward treatment and mental health support.
“With the current health crisis," said Scott Nolen, director of OSI-Baltimore’s addiction and health equity program, "that has even more meaning now.”
While there have been individual successes, they, of course, come against a backdrop of Baltimore’s persistent woes — the unyielding homicide rate, the vacant houses that scar neighborhoods, the revolving door at City Hall that has seen three mayors and five police commissioners in the past five years.
For those trying to address Baltimore’s many problems, it is often a dance of two steps forward and one back.
The Tubman House, for example, doesn’t even have a house anymore: Conway and other activists had seized a vacant, city-owned rowhouse at 1618 Presbury St. that was slated for demolition, making a statement of community ownership and self-determination. Eventually the city razed the property. But the garden has expanded into growing fruit trees and raising chickens that provide eggs for nearby residents.
“As things get worse,” Conway said, “the need is going to get bigger.”
Training, and a career
Many recovery efforts engendered a huge response, such as job training targeting disadvantaged young black adults that received $5 million from the U.S. Department of Labor.
“It basically saved my life,” said Dominic Redmen, now 28 years old and living in the Edmondson Village area. “All I needed was an opportunity.”
After graduating from high school, Redmen said, he went from one low-paying job to the next, at warehouses, a golf course, a mechanics shop and the airport, never making more than $9 an hour. And even those were hard to find and keep, especially when transportation was a problem.
“It was hard getting a job good enough to save up for a car,” Redmen said.
About three years ago, out of work and newly a father, he heard about Civic Works’ job training program.
The nonprofit, which offers job and skills training, was one of 12 groups to receive a share of the Labor Department grant given to the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development.
The groups, which included Catholic Charities, Vehicles for Change and the Jane Addams Resource Corp. in Park Heights, provided job training, but perhaps as importantly, assistance in breaking down previous barriers to employment, such as having a criminal record, child care needs or no transportation.
“Many of the quality jobs are located outside the transit system,” said Eli Allen, who directs Civic Works’ Center for Sustainable Careers. “People may not have a car, or their license had been revoked.
“These larger systemic inequities are often the root of why people are unemployed,” he said.
Allen said the grant helped Civic Works branch into a new, and booming, sector: solar panel installation and maintenance. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that is currently the fastest-growing job category.
Redmen said solar installation appealed to his hands-on, mechanical skills, and says he’s finally found an actual career.
After a six-month training course, which included on-the-job experience, he graduated in October 2017 and was quickly hired by Lumina Solar. Since then, he has advanced from assisting a crew that maintains solar panels to learning recently that he would soon head his own installation crew.
He now makes $23 an hour.
Redmen said he believes job-training programs “directly address” some of the problems underlying the 2015 unrest, specifically the access to good, well-paying jobs.
Now he’s trying to spread the wealth.
“I’ve gotten people into Civic Works,” he said. “My friends would say, ‘How did you get a job like that?’ ”
A safe zone, for a time
Ericka Alston Buck swore she wouldn’t be one of “those” people who “come into a community and make promises and leave."
Today, though, she is living in Harford County and working as a public relations consultant, often for political candidates — a far cry from when she opened and ran the Kids Safe Zone in the immediate aftermath of the unrest. Kids did yoga, enjoyed summer camp, took field trips and ate ice cream brought by visiting police officers.
“A lot of the kids were fearful of the police,” said Tonette Mcfadden, a friend who worked as the center’s program director. “We needed to counteract that.
“Our biggest goal was to make them feel safe," she said. “They know what happened. A lot of the children knew Freddie Gray, and a lot of them lived in Gilmor Homes where he did. We were always concerned about their state of mind. There was a lot of trauma in the community.”
The safe zone “organically” evolved to helping the children’s families as well in finding housing, jobs, food, health care and other basic needs, Mcfadden said.
But Alston Buck said she had to close in January 2018 because she couldn’t juggle both her work as CEO of the Penn North Recovery Center and the fundraising required to keep the Safe Zone going. And in part, she said, the kids’ program had its season, serving an immediate need in response to the unsettled atmosphere after the riot.
In its heyday, the center drew high-powered support, in part due to Alston Buck’s media savvy and her compelling backstory as a recovered drug addict.
Over time, though, she lost some kids to other programs that emerged in the neighborhood, sometimes fleetingly. It is a frequent lament among those who seek to address problems in disadvantaged communities, the silo effect of various groups working on their own rather than across self-created boundaries.
“Baltimore grassroots organizations would rather take a fraction of what’s available than collaborate,” Alston Buck said. “They’re fighting over the same dollars.”
The sometimes scattered efforts weren’t helped by the near-continual change in city leadership since 2015, observers said.
Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake came under fire for her handling of the riots and opted not to run for reelection. Catherine Pugh was elected, but has since been sentenced to three years in federal prison on fraud and tax evasion charges stemming from the sale of her “Healthy Holly” books to organizations that do business with the city.
Seema Iyer, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore, oversees a database monitoring the “vital signs” of the city’s neighborhoods. She says recovery from the riot has been spotty across town because of a lack of consistent leadership and long-term planning. West Baltimore’s Upton, for example, has benefited from strong community planning that has brought in new development projects, even as its neighbor Sandtown continues its long struggle, she said.
Strong leadership is needed citywide, not just in pockets, she and other advocates said.
“You need a visionary but also a visionary who knows how to hire people to implement the vision,” said Bronwyn Mayden, a veteran of the administrations of the former mayor and governor William Donald Schaefer. She’s now assistant dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, and heads Promise Heights, a massive effort to improve the lives of children in the Upton/Druid Heights neighborhood.
“You need someone in front of the troops,” Mayden said. “You need someone to say, ‘Look, we’re not going to let this fester.’ ”
Rising from the flames
While much of the rioting and damage was concentrated on the west side, a massive fire that engulfed a senior center under construction in the Broadway East neighborhood became one of the dominant images of a city in flames on April 27, 2015.
Exactly a year later, though, the Southern Baptist Church’s Mary Harvin Transformation Center celebrated its grand opening. It now houses about 120 residents, said the pastor, the Rev. Donte L. Hickman.
“It brought a lot of hope that things could be done in a community that has experienced so much disinvestment and neglect,” he said.
Today his church is working on other projects in the neighborhoods — more housing and a health and wellness center, a further boost to an area that also is home to the repurposed American Brewery, now headquarters of the Humanim nonprofit, which offers workforce development and other services, and the Hoen & Co. Lithograph building, home to the community development organization Strong City.
Whether that kind of energy can be duplicated across the city remains to be seen, Hickman said, particularly as the riot recedes further into the past and with it the motivation to respond to the issues it raised.
“It has a shelf life," he said. "The plan has to be sustainable. The passion has to be sustainable.”
‘Pay attention to us’
When Mayden thinks back to five years ago, she sees the unrest as a cry for help: “Pay attention to us. We are not getting a fair share.”
And she believes that the message got through, or is at least repeated by community groups that remain committed to change.
She and others point to successes that range from something as small as neighborhoods getting new playgrounds to larger-scale efforts such as HopkinsLocal, the university and health system’s wide-ranging program to hire, purchase and otherwise invest in people and businesses located in the area.
Hallie Atwater, who is Promise Heights’ coordinator at Renaissance Academy High School, says even if some of the programs created after the unrest were temporary, they had some lasting effects, such as simply the importance of listening to young people.
“What I remember most of all is the opportunities that were given to students to tell their own stories and use their own voices,” Atwater said. “Students were able to advocate for themselves, and they were noticed by people who could get them job offers or support for college.
“I keep going back to the central truth,” she said, “that building relationships is the way to make positive change.”
Lawrence T. Brown, until recently an assistant professor of community health at Morgan State University, said the uprising created strong activism that continues in many areas.
He points to how voters in 2016 overhauled their City Council, electing eight new representatives to the 15-member body, giving it a young, more activist cast.
“The political turnover and what came after that were some of the most powerful seeds planted. And given the time to grow, they can do a lot in the coming years,” said Brown, now at the University of Wisconsin.
Still, he said, Baltimore has a long way to go in rectifying decades of inequity in what he calls the white "L" and the black butterfly — the tendency for investment and attention to flow to the white neighborhoods that form an L going north of downtown and extending east along the waterfront, leaving behind the black “wings” of East and West Baltimore.
He doesn’t have much patience with the notion that these are long-standing historical problems, dating to redlining and beyond, and that they will take an equally long time to rectify,
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“If you can create policies to create the Baltimore apartheid,” Brown said, “you can create the policies to undo it.”