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West 8 withdraws as developer for Middle Branch project after blackface photo surfaces

A Netherlands-based architecture firm withdrew from being the lead contractor for the Middle Branch Waterfront redevelopment after a photo surfaced showing a blackface Dutch tradition.

West 8, a landscape architecture firm based in Rotterdam, submitted a letter of resignation to Baltimore City and local community leaders on July 3.

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“We immediately thought this is not good for the project, this will cause potential stress and undermine the dignity and values of the city and communities and we decided to voluntarily resign,” West 8 founder Adriaan Geuze said in an interview with The Sun.

West 8 won a design competition last year to lead the project for the 11-mile shoreline of the Middle Branch, which wraps along Port Covington, Westport, Cherry Hill, Riverside and Brooklyn, where the Patapsco River enters the harbor. The communities are a mix of industrial areas and residential neighborhoods that often feel isolated from the rest of the city.

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Parks & People Foundation President and CEO Frank Lance and South Baltimore Gateway Partnership Executive Director Brad Rogers said they received an anonymous email on June 29 with the image of a former West 8 employee and his three children dressed in blackface.

A spokesman for the city did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Geuze said the photo was taken at a St. Nicholas party at the company’s office in 2012. He condemned the photo and said that it has no place in society in today and that the employee left the company several years ago, never working in America.

Black Pete, known in Dutch as Zwarte Piet, is a “helper” to St. Nick and is usually portrayed with red lipstick, curly hair and a blackface. Calls to abolish the folklore tradition have been held consistently over the past decade and have been renewed amid George Floyd’s death in police custody.

“We are not a part of this tradition,” Geuze said. “It’s a colonial, racist character and it does not fit in our society, especially in the realm of children.”

Rogers said that both he and Lance are working with the city to find a new contractor to replace West 8 but that the project will continue to forge ahead. It’s unclear if this will put the project behind schedule, but Rogers said he hopes it won’t be the case.

“We’ve made a commitment to heal a wound where so many residents of South Baltimore haven’t had access to their waterfront, and we’re not going to let this stop us from delivery,” Rogers said. “We were working on this before West 8 came in and we are going to continue to without them.”

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