Five years after the death of Freddie Gray, a wrecking crew is tearing down the six largest buildings of the Gilmor Homes, the troubled West Baltimore public housing project where the 25-year-old’s arrest hurtled the city into upheaval and placed it at the center of a national discussion about racism, policing and structural inequality.
More than 100 families moved last spring from the four-story “walk-up” apartment buildings being demolished, including the one on Bruce Court with the original, graffiti memorial to Gray painted on its brick exterior, where mourners gathered after his death and laid candles on his birthday.
As excavators razed her former home to a heap of rubble on a recent days, Palmelda Jackson smiled. She and other neighbors who live in the Gilmor Homes’ remaining town homes agreed with the city Housing Authority’s reasoning for the demolition — that the walk-ups had deteriorated into havens for drug dealing and violence over the years — and they came outside to bid them good riddance.
But the Gilmor Homes’ history underscores its flaws from the start. And five years after the protest marches through their neighborhood brought promises of investment in West Baltimore, neighbors have seen little change, and they want to know what will come after the wreckage is cleared.
“I’m glad that they’re gonna tear them down,” said Tia Shaw, 35, who has lived on Mountmor Court for the past five years. “But I would like them to replace them with something that would help us all.”
‘We want beautiful homes, too’
In the five years Jackson lived in the walk-up on Bruce Court, she never quite knew what she would find outside in the hallway when she opened her apartment door.
“When you wake up in the morning and open your front door, people [would be] sleeping in the hallways, doing drugs in the hallways,” she said.
Now in her adjacent Gilmor Homes townhome unit, the 66-year-old welcomed the sounds of the beeping construction vehicles, crunching gravel and crumbling brick. Other neighbors felt the same. “About time,” more than one said.
Rosa Mobley, who has spent the last five years in her unit in Bakbury Court, was glad to see them go. But she expressed concern that Baltimore isn’t adequately replacing all the public housing units it removes and isn’t providing enough places for its low-income residents to live.
Government officials need to invest more money into public housing, the 63-year-old woman said.
“Their job is to make sure the poor people stop living slummy," Mobley said. "We don’t want to live in these projects. We want beautiful homes, too. Make it cheap enough for us to afford to live comfortably.”
The elimination of 132 units on Spray, Vincent and Bruce courts eliminated more than 20% of the site’s capacity at a time when advocates are worried about affordable housing disappearing more quickly than it is being replaced in Baltimore and around the nation.
The Housing Authority paid the moving expenses for former Gilmor Homes residents who “have moved on to various parts of the city, county and country,” Housing Authority spokeswoman Ingrid Antonio said. She did not respond to further questions for this article, including how — or whether — the city is replacing the lost units of affordable housing.
The federal government in the 1990s stopped requiring housing authorities to replace each unit they removed, and Baltimore’s inventory of occupied units dwindled by 42% over the course of a 15-year period, amid cutbacks to the Housing Authority’s budget, according to an Abell Foundation study.
Baltimore is the nation’s 26th-largest city, but has the fifth-most public housing — more than 11,000 units, many of them deteriorating. Renovating or repairing all of them would cost $800 million, the Housing Authority estimates, and some are instead being sold to private developers to fix up.
About 25,000 people are on a closed waiting list for affordable housing or rental vouchers, and the list is likely to remain closed for at least 10 years, said Barbara Samuels, managing attorney of the ACLU of Maryland’s housing program. The surrounding counties have similar waiting lists, she said.
Samuels was the ACLU’s lead counsel on Thompson v. HUD, a landmark 1995 public housing desegregation case that required authorities to provide housing opportunities for more than 4,400 Baltimore City families in low-poverty and racially integrated neighborhoods.
“It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, to take units out from the bottom of the market because they deteriorate over time,” Samuels said. “But what is bad is not replacing those units at the bottom, not building new supply at the middle, not providing enough housing subsidies for people to be able to afford housing.""
‘Another hole in our history’
The problem-plagued buildings’ removal represents progress for the neighborhood but also leaves “another hole in our history” for Baltimoreans who lived in them, said Ray Kelly, a neighborhood activist and director of the Citizens Policing Project, which advocates for police reform.
“There are generations that knew nothing but Gilmor Homes, and now they will not be able to take their children and say, ‘This is where I grew up,’ because it’ll be gone,” Kelly said. “We definitely have to progress past Gilmor Homes. But we have to consider: This was at one time a vibrant black community, but now everybody’s ready to see it go. Why is that? What happened?”
The Gilmor Homes’ history — and even its name — underscores Baltimore’s racist past of forced housing segregation, the post-industrial erosion of well-paying jobs, and the substandard living conditions and other inequalities many of its black residents have confronted for generations.
Built during a World War II-era boom in public-housing construction for workers moving to the city for shipbuilding and steelworking jobs, it was the first public housing project designated for black defense workers and their families, The Baltimore Sun reported.
More than 1,500 black families, prohibited from living in white neighborhoods, applied to live in the 587-unit complex. Like the street, it was named for a Scottish merchant family whose scions included Harry Gilmor, a Confederate cavalry officer who later served as Baltimore police commissioner.
“Black life in the city during that period was still compressed within narrow boundaries," The Sun reported on the Gilmor Homes’ 30th anniversary. "People were afraid to travel in white neighborhoods unless they happened to work there as servants. More than one schoolboy risked beatings by white children if he had to pass through a white area on the way to the corner grocery store.”
In June 1942, when the first families moved in, The Sun’s headline read: “First Gilmor Project Tenants Find It Baltimore’s Best.” A year and a half later, more than two-thirds of the tenants petitioned the Housing Authority to address water seeping through the walls, cracking plaster falling from the ceilings, and inadequate hot water and heat, The Sun reported.
When the Housing Authority finally replaced the original, faulty concrete roofing nearly 30 years later, construction workers with jackhammers punctured the ceilings of the building on Balmor Court, dropping chunks of concrete and dust inside three units, The Sun reported. Two months later, repairs were still incomplete.
In the ensuing decades, manufacturing declines led Bethlehem Steel and General Motors to lay off massive numbers of Baltimore factory workers, and Gilmor Homes residents faced more than just the unemployment line, said Marcus L. “Doc” Cheatham, a civil rights activist who lives a few blocks away and is president of the Matthew Henson Neighborhood Association.
“When we lost the employment, everything started disappearing," Cheatham said. “Economic exploitation, political degradation, cultural degradation — everything that’s racist and ugly began to raise its head... We’re still suffering from it today.”
By 2015, when Gray’s arrest and death drew national attention to the Gilmor Homes, the complex had a backlog of nearly 500 outstanding work orders for repairs, The Sun reported. The Housing Authority paid $8 million the same year to settle a lawsuit filed by women who claimed that maintenance workers demanded sexual favors for repairing gas leaks, exterminating roaches and other jobs.
Kelly, who grew up swimming in nearby MacAbee’s Pool on Laurence Street, sees in the Gilmor Homes the story of “an industrial boom in the country and the consequences of red-lining black people." He agreed it’s time for the walk-ups to fall, but he’s concerned that their history will be forgotten with them.
“There’s a lot of lineage, a lot of history, a lot of culture,” he said. “The Gilmor Homes has its own culture that goes down with those buildings.”
‘He should not have died like that’
When the excavators tear down Building 30 on Bruce Court — where police arrested Gray after a chase from North Avenue and loaded him into a police van — the first memorial to appear following the 25-year-old’s death, on the building’s wall, will be destroyed with it.
In the graffiti painting, Gray’s name is in a light blue cloud, flanked by angel wings and topped with a halo. His birth and death dates are in red letters on a white scroll below. Mourners gathered there after Gray’s death to pray and light candles, and protesters marched from the arrest site to the Western District Police Station demanding for answers and accountability after he died in police custody.
Just a few steps around the corner, a mural of Gray, flanked by marching protesters, by Baltimore street artist Nether, will remain. Far larger, it covers the entire side of Jaselle Coates’ corner row house.
Coates, 66, is a lifelong Sandtown resident who has lived for 20 years in the house facing Bakbury Court, where she grew up, she said. She remembers Gray from seeing him around the neighborhood.
“He always had manners and respect for me: ‘Good evening.’ ‘How you doin’, Mama?’” she said.
The mural on Coates’ house makes a statement, she said.
“He should not have died like he did," she said. “He shouldn’t have.”
It’s also a reminder, Coates said: "What happened to him can happen to any one of us to anybody else — and it has.”
The Gilmor Homes Community Center reopened in 2017 after being closed for at least 15 years, and the Housing Authority used a $2.5 million federal grant to launch a Jobs Plus program to help connect residents with education and employment.
But the neighborhood desperately needs more resources, said the Rev. Derrick DeWitt Sr., pastor of First Mount Calvary Baptist Church on Fulton Avenue three blocks away. He noted the $4.5 million upgrade to the Western District station.
“The only thing that has happened in Sandtown since Freddie Gray died was that the police, who killed him, got a new police station,” DeWitt said. “The system is broken. ... That’s how the 74 square blocks of Sandtown ended up with 109 establishments that sell alcohol, and no grocery store.”
DeWitt is president of Clergy United for the Transformation of Sandtown, a nonprofit that gives out food to neighbors, assists the elderly, hires ex-convicts to work in an organic garden and mentors young boys and girls, among other charity work. He would love to work with Habitat for Humanity to rehabilitate vacant homes, too.
“We’re willing to take on these projects, manage some of this stuff, if the city and government is willing to trust us with the funds to do it,” DeWitt said.
Holding out hope for ‘something positive’
When Joeann Spears and her 13-year-old son moved to the Gilmor Homes in 1978, flowers lined the gardens, custodians regularly cleaned out the courtyards between buildings and neighbors sat outside and talked into the evenings, she said.
Spears liked living on Vincent Court so much that she elected to move back to her unit after a renovation in the late 1980s, she said. She still decorates her front door for Easter every year.
“Everybody knew everybody at that time," the 70-year-old said. "Things have really changed.”
Four decades of systematic, institutional neglect and racism; deliberate disinvestment; and the subsequent influx of illegal drugs are to blame, DeWitt said. But eliminating public housing and removing people from the neighborhood will only further deplete the tax base and won’t get rid of the drugs and violence, the pastor said.
“It may be more visible, but it’s not going to reduce it,” he said.
Shaw, too, realizes the drugs and violence won’t just disappear. But it thrived in the walk-ups, which were rarely locked and often served as hideouts from the police, she and other neighbors said.
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“It’s gonna slow down the process a little bit, which is good,” she said. “We want the drugs and the killings to stop.”
Officials have said the demolition will create needed green space, and they plan to seek input from residents on other potential uses for the site. The neighborhood needs more job-placement centers, child care, children’s recreation offerings and other resources, Shaw said.
“I’m hoping that we can at least get something that’s gonna help get everyone up and out of the projects,” she said. “Maybe they can do something positive.”
Shanice Smith, 30, hopes to see a playground or an events space where she could see her son play from her front step without worrying about him disappearing from view behind a building.
Gilmor Homes has a long way to go, Smith said. But watching the wrecking crew work, she was optimistic.
"It’s a start,” she said.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.