Hopkins, families' common ground

The Baltimore Sun

For years, they have been the kind of neighbors that shared the same space if not the same world - the renowned Johns Hopkins medical complex and the largely impoverished East Baltimore community surrounding it.

But in a modest rowhouse just northeast of the hospital, they may have found a bit of common ground.

In the midst of a huge tract that is in stages of being razed, redeveloped and otherwise transformed into an 88-acre biotechnology park, the home at 811 N. Washington St. is being rehabbed to house a family - something of a rare event these days as much of the old residential neighborhood is vanishing in the face of the new construction.

But what makes the rehab project particularly noteworthy is that the people behind it are the very reason that the neighborhood is turning into something almost unrecognizable to longtime residents: the Hopkins juggernaut. The house is being renovated by Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity, with Hopkins paying for the job, both with a $130,000 donation and the "sweat equity" that the group famously requires of both its donors and the homes' ultimate residents.

"That's where the connection comes from," said Marisa Canino, deputy director for the local Habitat for Humanity. "It's about more than the house."

That is particularly true in this case. Here in the Middle East neighborhood, there has always been an undercurrent of town-and-gown - or rather, town-and-hospital-gown - tensions between the residents and the medical campus.

But the friction has flared up more openly in recent years as the biotech park project, which is managed by the nonprofit East Baltimore Development Inc. with Hopkins as a partner, has gotten under way. Residents have felt pushed out of their own neighborhood as they watch research buildings and other new construction replace block after block of old rowhouses.

"There's their first landmark of biotechnology," Arthur Weatherbee said as he opened his back door to reveal his new neighbor: the loading dock of the John G. Rangos Sr. Life Sciences Building that opened last month, a harbinger of more to come.

Weatherbee, 66, grew up with six siblings at 814 N. Washington, across the street from the Habitat for Humanity house, one of six on the block, actually, that the group has taken on. He casts a wary eye at the project, glad that it signals Hopkins' commitment to retaining at least his block as a residential one, but fearful of how long it can survive in the face of the massive redevelopment around him.

"They have to come to the concept of what is going to make the biotech park whole," Weatherbee said, looking at how his block has become almost an island afloat in a sea of new construction.

His fears are common among residents here when it comes to co-existing with the powerful presence in their midst.

"It's a double-edged sword," Weatherbee said of sharing the neighborhood with Hopkins. "A lot of people felt that the hospital for many years preyed on the neighborhood and didn't put a lot back in."

That Hopkins was putting money into renovating the house across the street, much as he is doing with his parents' old house - he himself now lives in the county - gives him comfort. "This is a good sign," Weatherbee said.

If reassurance comes through action more than words, then Weatherbee indeed had reason to believe this past Friday: That morning, a group of Hopkins' senior management descended on the house across the street from his to literally hammer home their commitment to being good neighbors.

Dr. Edward D. Miller, CEO and dean of Hopkins Medicine, led a group that included a president and vice presidents both regular and senior in installing kitchen and bathroom cabinets, clearing a debris-clotted backyard, framing the upstairs windows and otherwise undertaking the myriad of tasks required in getting the house in shape for the new residents moving in this summer.

"You've got a lot of talent here, none of it is carpentry," Pamela D. Paulk, the Hopkins vice president for human resources, said cheerfully.

Well, except for a couple of ringers from the Hopkins facilities department that the executives brought along, and who seemed quite pleased to be ordering around the suits for a change. It was Paulk's idea to use the proceeds from selling pieces of the famed Hopkins Hospital dome that were removed during a 2005 renovation to fund the rehab of the house on Washington Street - a lovely from-our-roof-to-yours gesture.

For all the advanced degrees collected among them, the Hopkins officials seemed remarkably adept with power drills, saws and clamps - not dissimilar, of course, to some of the tools of their own medical trade. You've never seen workmen hand over tools as crisply as the medical personnel, the handing over of hammers executed as crisply as you see nurses placing scalpels in surgeons' hands.

The work prompted Miller to recall a case he once handled when an accident victim turned up in the ER with a pole impaled in his chest; he had to call the building department to request a saw so he could shorten the pole and get the man into an operating room.

For Miller, who has been at Hopkins for almost 25 years, it's satisfying to be part of transforming an area once pocked by so many abandoned, boarded-up houses.

"They stayed when everyone else fled," he said of the longtime residents. "What you see is there's a real renewal going on here."

LaShaunda Wesson, 37, will move in soon, escaping the crowded Pikesville apartment where she and her four kids, ages 6 to 15, are currently living. Wesson, who works for the Maryland Transit Administration, will have put in 350 hours of her own sweat equity on this and other Habitat for Humanity houses by the time she moves in.

"You might be painting one day or framing, or putting in floors," Wesson said. Or, in the case of her own home, adding insulation.

Accompanied by her daughter Alysia, 15, they met the Hopkins staff working on the home, including Karen B. Haller, the vice president of nursing, who was delighted to learn that the girl hoped to go into her field, which is chronically understaffed.

"You will always have a job," Haller told her.

The Hopkins personnel have been working on the house with Habitat's construction manager, Rodney Payne, since February. The "before" pictures show a much different house - Formstone-clad, boarded up, in dire need of essentially being scooped out and remade.

Payne has enjoyed a perk to working with Hopkins staff: They often brought staff skilled in the building trade rather than the medical one to supplement his own crew.

"When we were painting, they brought their painters," he said. " When we were doing carpentry, they brought carpenters."

With Hopkins buying up, and usually tearing down, hundreds of houses in the area and relocating numerous residents, the renovation of a single house might seem like a small thing. But Gary M. Stephenson, a Hopkins spokesman, says it's a symbol of much more.

"We're a part of the community," he said. "They're a part of us."


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