Just last summer a scene in East Baltimore looked like an assembly line. A column of cars formed on a North Wolfe Street parking lot. East Baltimore neighborhoods were dealing with the pandemic and residents worried about what it would take to get food.
The line of cars soon delivered help kits — face masks, hand sanitizer and a substantial box of groceries and meats, enough to feed a family for a week.
Bishop Douglas Miles, who died this week at age 72, never sought credit for all this. It was typical of the man who accomplished so much and left his name out of the accomplishments.
He did not do it alone. He led a devoted army. He worked through organizations like the advocacy group BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, and the affiliated ReBUILD Metro.
He had the ability to find and attract people who shared his vision. He empowered them to come, work and follow in what would not be their normal comfort zone. He also attracted numerous supporters in the community who were happy to offer financial support for his efforts.
Friends said he had a genius for picking the right person for the right job.
For the food distribution program, Miles worked with Ron Daniels, the president of the Johns Hopkins University. Typical of Miles, he let the people who did the actual work get the credit.
The food chain was built on a 15-year foundation of community revitalization, including the conversion of over 500 abandoned properties and lots into healthy homes for more than 360 families.
One of the shabbiest parts of East Baltimore is now a thoroughly rebuilt community.
The East Baltimore neighborhoods that Miles targeted for help are not nearly so well known as say, Federal Hill or Mount Vernon. Places like Oliver and Johnston Square don’t attract tourists.
But people live there on blocks of classic Baltimore rowhouses. A dozen years ago these homes were falling apart and worth little. ReBUILD Metro moved in and immediately reclaimed some of the most depressing looking blocks along North Broadway.
Then it got to work on neighborhood thoroughfares like Oliver Street, East Preston and Gay streets.
There were no announcements or proclamations. It was hard work and the task of reconstructing an 1880 rowhouse is not an easy assignment. Construction crews worked house by abandoned house until they produced handsome results.
The metamorphous of these East Baltimore enclaves was accomplished quietly, the way Miles himself worked.
The results are obvious to riders of Amtrak and MARC who observe the changes as they pass along the railway’s East Baltimore’s embankment en route to and from Pennsylvania Station.
Blocks are being rebuilt wall by wall, window by window and roof by roof. Where there were once 623 abandoned houses, there are now 360 rebuilt units - and more coming each month.
Miles had his allies. He got to know Daniels and the former Rouse Co. president, Anthony W. “Tony” Deering, who died in 2017. Deering led other investors in pledging $10 million to this quiet rebuild campaign. That grew into a $114 million investment in the Oliver Broadway East neighborhoods.
ReBUILD officials employed federal historic tax credits and other financial tools to buy abandoned homes - some so neglected that trees were growing through the living rooms and roofs.
About a dozen years ago, if you walked the blocks around Broadway and Eager streets, you’d wonder what would it take to turn this place around. The sight of 450 vacant houses scattered all over would bring on a depression. The less committed would get up and leave.
But not Miles. In that time, what he took on has changed significantly. There are now, maybe 18 vacant and abandoned houses remaining.
He lived long enough to see that bold, against-the-odds personal goals can be achieved.