Frustration stewing in 'Hopkinsville'


SCORES OF CITIZENS who live north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus are about to lose out on the East Baltimore revitalization effort. About 100 households have been relocated and an additional 200 are to be moved by December.

That's part of the first phase of this $1 billion redevelopment project that will clear the way for five life science buildings, retail space and housing. The original plan called for relocating about 800 Phase 1 residents by the end of 2004 and an additional 1,600 people in Phases 2 and 3 over 10 years. But because Phase 1 cost more than originally anticipated, the later phases are in doubt, spelling trouble for vulnerable homeowners.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new for East Baltimore residents. The community has experienced a history of planned redevelopment without follow-through, leaving residents, churches and businesses up in the air.

Because of eminent domain, which allows property to be taken and used for "the public good," residents have been waiting since 2001 to hear the verdict about their futures at the hands of the city and the nonprofit organization that is overseeing the project, East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI).

Early this year, EBDI's CEO, Jack Shannon, announced that because of a lack of funding, a revised plan would be forthcoming with changes in the relocation and demolition of occupied housing in Phases 2 and 3. As residents continue to wait, with no control over whether their property will be taken, whether they will be forced to move or whether they will be provided grant assistance to ensure equitable treatment with Phase 1 residents, they watch the construction of a new community from their stoops.

Leslie Lewis, a Phase 3 resident, said, "When I first heard they were going to take our homes, I was upset - upset for my father, who purchased this house in 1948, and for my in-laws who moved to Wolfe Street in the early 1940s. But I was not surprised."

Ms. Lewis says her aunt had a similar experience in the 1970s when Johns Hopkins planned to expand its East Baltimore campus and never followed through, leaving people in limbo. Her frustration in the neighborhood that she calls East Hopkins, or Hopkinsville, is cresting.

Ms. Lewis says she has been watching her 87-year-old father's health decline from worry about investing his savings to upgrade a home that the city may demolish and whether he will be able to afford a new mortgage if forced to move.

And he feels like a failure as well, she says, because he is unable to protect his home and leave it to his heirs. "Now I'm angry. After all we have been put though, EBDI is telling us that there isn't enough money to proceed with Phases 2 and 3. So where does that leave us?"

Ms. Lewis and her neighbors face dilapidated homes on one side, years of construction on the other, to be followed by unfairly high property taxes that could force some homeowners into a financial crisis and loss of their homes.

"Should we stay and wait with this sword over our heads or just board up the house and leave like others with no concern for those left behind?" she said. "How long can we wait? Good homes in nice neighborhoods are being priced out of our range each day ... with no guarantee of help from the city or EBDI. We're stuck, again."

Some community organizations, such as the Save Middle East Action Committee Inc. of Baltimore (SMEAC), have offered EBDI and the stakeholders directing this process a plan for giving Phase 2 and 3 residents equitable compensation.

For starters, a community agreement with input from affected residents could create a more participatory process. Such an agreement would also dictate how EBDI could seek funding as a way of ensuring that redevelopment will benefit those residents and businesses that have stuck with the city while living through the deterioration of their community.

The process could also begin to change the bad feelings in the community about its history of redevelopment - from one of feeling like a victim of imposed development and displacement to participation in rebuilding.

This may result in urban renewal actually benefiting the people who currently live in the targeted neighborhood, not just the urbanites moving in.

Marisela Gomez is executive director of the Save Middle East Action Committee Inc. of Baltimore.

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