Hard part still ahead for 'urban lab' Sandtown: Hope on the horizon


Judy Washington's prospects looked even worse than her neighborhood's when she came home from prison to the tattered West Baltimore community of Sandtown-Winchester.

Born in a taxicab and raised in Sandtown, Ms. Washington, 38, had wandered down a path of self-destruction that paralleled the demise of her neighborhood from a workaday community with steady paychecks to a backwater of joblessness whose currency was heroin and cocaine.

Pregnant at 15, she quit school after eighth grade, had two babies, took up with a drug dealer, drifted into cocaine use and became a dealer herself, more at ease with a .357-caliber Magnum pistol than with her children's homework. By her mid-30s, Ms. Washington was both a grandmother and an inmate at the women's prison in Jessup.

But today, Judy Washington is married, drug-free, studying for her high school diploma and gainfully employed.

Ms. Washington still walks the rowhouse streets of Sandtown, but with new purpose. She recruits neighborhood people for a federally funded program that brings health care to pregnant women and young mothers.

"I thank God I had a second chance," Ms. Washington said. "I need to give back something positive to the community because I corrupted so many people's lives. I can't make it right, but I can give back something."

The same long odds against success that faced Ms. Washington when she came home from prison three years ago confront Sandtown itself, 72 square blocks of deteriorating rowhouses, corner stores and more than 50 churches just west of Pennsylvania Avenue. The neighborhood is home to more than 10,000 people, almost all of them black and many of them poor.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and James W. Rouse, the Maryland developer and founder of the Enterprise Foundation, have selected Sandtown as an urban laboratory -- one that already has received attention from Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Cabinet secretaries and network television crews.

The mayor and Mr. Rouse have set out to prove that government, private interests and community residents working together can eliminate blight by mounting a frontal assault on all of a neighborhood's problems at once. To do that, they hope to attract more than $200 million in government and private funds to Sandtown over the next five years.

But the hard work of change has barely begun.

"We will be able to do enough physical transformation that people will see a difference over the next year or two," Mr. Schmoke said. "In terms of less tangible indicators of progress, I think it will take a little longer.

"Within a five-year period, we will be able to say that this is a transformed community," the mayor said.

But if Sandtown is to be a model of urban change, the Judy Washington success story and others like it must endure -- and they must be repeated hundreds, even thousands, of times.

Island amid blight

Not long after Ms. Washington came home from prison, flatbed trucks were hauling in the first building blocks of a revitalized Sandtown: pieces of the factory-built townhouses that became the $17.4 million Nehemiah project (named for the Old Testament figure who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem).

Sandtown was once a solid, working-class area in segregated Baltimore. Black Baltimoreans attended the old Douglass High School there, worked at Schmidt's Bakery and other neighborhood businesses, and shopped and partied on Pennsylvania Avenue, then a famous strip.

The evaporation of blue-collar jobs and the flight of the black middle class plunged the neighborhood into a downward spiral beginning in the 1960s. Then, in 1989, the church-based Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) and Enterprise, Mr. Rouse's effort to produce housing for the poor, joined forces to counter the trend. It was the seed from which the larger project to transform Sandtown grew.

The joint venture erected 227 townhouses on a large tract in the middle of Sandtown where the old bakery and other crumbling buildings had stood. Construction was completed this year, and the units are filled with homeowners.

The Nehemiah houses are a neat island amid a sea of general shabbiness. Most rowhouse blocks in Sandtown include a handful of painstakingly maintained homes, many dingy rental units and scattered eyesores abandoned by absentee owners.

Mr. Schmoke has pledged to rehabilitate Sandtown's 670 vacant houses by next spring, but that is a promise that almost everyone is grateful he made and almost no one expects him to be able to keep.

Idle men hang out on corners, and the neighborhood's most vital commerce is the drug trade. Police say the open-air drug markets have moved toward the fringes of Sandtown, farther from the Nehemiah project, but many residents are afraid to go out at night.

Given Sandtown's long list of social ills, the Schmoke-Rouse goals for the neighborhood are ambitious: to create a safe, attractive environment in which children are prepared to succeed in school, find jobs or go on to college, and support families.

The transformation project has begun by putting neighborhood people to work helping rebuild Sandtown -- and sometimes their own lives.

The catalyst in Judy Washington's new start was the Baltimore Project, a city effort (with federal and foundation support) to wipe out infant mortality in Sandtown.

After nearly a year in prison, Ms. Washington had shed her cocaine habit and resolved to start fresh. The Baltimore Project made that possible by hiring a woman with a checkered past and no diploma.

A variety of programs

That project has expanded into Healthy Start, a broader program with 70 employees housed in the old Douglass High. Now Ms. Washington uses the neighborhood contacts of a former drug dealer to sell young women on preventive health care.

Other programs reach a variety of residents. Neighborhood youths attend job training and remedial education classes at a former school on Mount Street. Sandtown's three elementary schools are starting all-day kindergartens and plan school-based health clinics.

Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, an independent effort that started in 1988, expects to have rehabbed 35 vacant houses by early next year using volunteer labor, donated materials and "sweat equity" from each low-income homeowner.

And more than 20 staff members at Community Building in Partnership (CBP), an agency formed to lead the neighborhood transformation, have turned vacant lots into gardens, set up a food and clothing bank, organized anti-crime block watches and published a monthly newspaper that cheerleads for change.

Michael Randolph, 37, a Sandtown native who holds a part-time CBP job but zealously puts in 50 hours a week, has organized 120 block watches. Block watchers call 911, jot down suspicious cars' license numbers, take descriptions of miscreants and track police response time.

Mr. Randolph enjoys telling hesitant residents how two elderly women helped clear their Stricker Street corner by repeatedly calling police to identify drug dealers and their customers. Drug dealers have not harmed any block watchers, he said.

"It's amazing that all people have to do is stick together," Mr. Randolph said. "Most drug dealers are about making money. They will leave and go where the money is."

Patrick M. Costigan, Enterprise's chief architect for Sandtown, estimates that 250 to 400 residents are intimately involved with the neighborhood transformation and that 600 or so others have been touched by it.

"I think we're creating a new approach to community building by doing," he said, but he added that hundreds more will have to get involved to make the project work.

'Show me'

Sandtown residents regard the activity swirling around them with hope and skepticism. Some fear that after years of promises, the millions of dollars needed to transform the neighborhood won't be there.

"When people come who truly want to help us, we tend to shy away," said Lucky Crosby Sr., 26, a Habitat for Humanity homeowner-to-be who works at two low-wage jobs. "People have used people for so long that they get gun-shy."

Some residents say that after three years of planning and consensus-building, it's time for more tangible results. Others believe that the city and Enterprise are moving so fast that the community is being left behind. Some hold both opinions at once.

"We've been meeting to death," said Elder Clyde Harris, a Sandtown pastor. "Gardens are nice, the newspaper is nice, but in three years, the folk just expect more. They're in the mode of, 'Show me or just keep on walking.' "

The Nehemiah project showed that change was possible, but most of the houses went to people from outside the neighborhood. Few Sandtown residents applied for units; others who did were too poor to qualify. The average income of homeowners selected was $18,000 a year, well above Sandtown's median household income of $12,465.

The Community Building in Partnership office has initiated popular programs, but some residents complain that the mayor brought in an outsider, Barbara A. Bostick-Hunt, a former city jail warden, to run the office. Some say longtime local leaders have been elbowed aside.

Allan Tibbels, Sandtown Habitat's executive director, describes the prevailing mood as "a healthy wait-and-see attitude."

A white outsider who moved into Sandtown with his family, Mr. Tibbels has won gradual neighborhood acceptance for Habitat since 1988 by putting down roots and showing results. He espouses a philosophy of building community family by family, block by block.

Fast change sought

But the Schmoke-Rouse blueprint envisions much faster change Sandtown than grass-roots efforts such as Habitat can provide.

At a recent community meeting, Mr. Costigan, the Enterprise official, laid out some challenges ahead: Get the money, acquire vacant houses and find developers to rebuild Sandtown.

"We have to do 500 units a year," Mr. Costigan said, turning to Elder Harris, who represented Habitat at the gathering, "and we can't do it -- with all due respect, with all our good efforts -- by doing 10 or 20 at a time."

The large bloc of Nehemiah homeowners was expected to provide "critical mass" in rebuilding Sandtown's sense of community. Appalled at times by Sandtown's problems, they are starting to move beyond their island of new houses to get involved.

On a recent Saturday morning, Jennifer Coates convened the monthly meeting of the Nehemiah Homeowners Association of Sandtown-Winchester. The ensuing discussion sounded alternately like a suburban improvement association and a council of war.

Members discussed a party for Sandtown children, faulty kitchen stoves and the $307 balance in the association's bank account.

Concerns about crime

The talk often turned to crime. Someone was stealing aluminum plates off light poles, apparently to sell for scrap. A vacant building behind a member's home was a crack house. Someone had shot holes in the back windows of three Nehemiah homes.

Ms. Coates, a cheerful, 36-year-old single mother and City Council staff member, has lived in Sandtown for almost two years in an immaculate three-bedroom townhouse.

She pays about $300 a month on her subsidized mortgage, about half what she paid in rent on an apartment in suburban Woodlawn. She says it's far too good a deal to leave.

But Ms. Coates complains that police seem to take crime in stride. When her car was broken into, the officer who responded "just kind of moseyed around the car. It's the attitude that it's life as usual. But people here [at Nehemiah] are saying no, it's not normal."

Police say serious crime has declined in Sandtown this year. But the neighborhood still has, on average, one murder a month. Aggravated assault, robbery and theft are daily fare.

"It's scaring people to death, but people are staying," Ms. Coates said.

Big price tag

The 1990s-style war on poverty in Sandtown won't come cheap, but all the political planets appear to be in alignment.

Mr. Schmoke, by forgoing a race for governor, has increased his stake in the project's success. And President Clinton's housing secretary, Henry G. Cisneros, a former Enterprise Foundation board member, appears eager to make the project a national model.

In addition, President Clinton has signed into law a $3.5 billion program to set up a half-dozen "empowerment zones" in cities across the country. If Sandtown is chosen next year as part of a Baltimore zone, a $100 million federal grant will flow its way, as well as tax credits and other benefits for employers.

About $60 million in government and foundation money has already poured into Sandtown. Mr. Costigan, the Enterprise official, estimates that $220 million is needed over the next five years just to renovate 3,400 units of substandard housing.

Although transforming Sandtown sounds costly, Mr. Costigan says government spends nearly $70 million in the community every year to maintain a rotten status quo.

A question of costs

By investing an extra $20 million to $60 million a year for three to five years, he argues, Sandtown can be transformed into a decent place to live that, in the end, would cost no more to maintain than it does now.

Healthy Start, for example, spends $1.5 million a year to aid 600 families. That comes to $2,500 a year per family -- money that doubles as an employment program for people such as Judy Washington.

But will Healthy Start and programs like it pay for themselves eventually in increased tax revenues and decreased spending on hospitals, schools, prisons and welfare payments?

Mr. Costigan believes they will. "Invest now or you'll pay more later," he said. But he acknowledged that the answer probably won't be known for years.

Richard Cowden, executive director of the American Association Enterprise Zones in Washington, calls the Sandtown project a "perfect kind of demonstration of what the [Clinton] administration is trying to do."

But he cautions that if Sandtown receives a flood of federal dollars, it might wind up "demonstrating something you can't afford to replicate" in other neighborhoods.

Jobs are needed

Even if millions of dollars are found for housing, health care and education, the Sandtown project is destined to fail unless

residents find jobs with which to support homes and families. Most Sandtown residents must develop the skills to find work outside the community, since new programs there can employ only a fraction of those seeking employment.

The neighborhood jobless rate is 22 percent. Residents need work to keep them off the drug corners, said store owner Charles "Mo" Armwood Jr. That sentiment is repeated like a mantra in Sandtown.

Raised in the Gilmor Homes public housing project, Mr. Armwood, 40, is a neighborhood success story. He starred as a high school quarterback, went to college and came back to work at and eventually buy Doc's Liquors on Fulton Avenue. He wants others to follow his example.

Folks are so scared'

"This used to be one of the great areas to grow up," Mr. Armwood said. "Now all the folks are so scared that it's a shame."

But Sandtown is not an island, and residents who manage to overcome the odds and earn a good living might leave the neighborhood. Mr. Armwood's family lives in Catonsville.

And Judy Washington, the Healthy Start recruiter, has moved to Edmondson Village in West Baltimore at the insistence of her husband, a Sandtown native who wanted a safer neighborhood.

"Sandtown is not really a bad place to live," Ms. Washington BTC said. "I wish

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad