When tour buses drive through Southeast Baltimore on Monday, loaded with dozens of government planners and business and nonprofit leaders, they’ll be looking out on a part of the city that is attempting something tough: a recovery from the death of the old, industrial economy.
While thousands once worked at the nearby Bethlehem Steel plant, now some 6,000 people earn a paycheck at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
From Boston Street’s Can Co., workers decades ago cranked out hundreds of tin cans a minute. Now, a $30 million transformation has turned the decrepit factory into offices and shops.
At McElderry Park, in place of a traffic median surrounded by ramshackle rowhouses, the tour group will find bright new facades, murals, a community garden and a long-shuttered theater awaiting a $12 million makeover to turn it into a workforce development center.
Nearly 600 people are expected to visit Baltimore through Wednesday as part of a conference by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, “Reinventing Our Communities,” that will use the city as a laboratory to promote the development of monetary policy that spurs economic inclusion. They’ll discuss how to stop blocking ex-offenders from jobs, ways to help children from poor families be successful in college and what strategies can guide people with trauma out of poverty.
For as often as Baltimore has drawn national attention for what is going wrong in the city — the city’s high rate of homicides, STDs, overdoses and bad drivers — this time, people are coming to see what is going right.
The conference will pair real-life lessons in Baltimore with research, to inspire those attending to think about creating neighborhoods and cities that give opportunities for families to move from one income bracket to another, said Patrick Harker, president of the Philadelphia Fed. In the end, he hopes the experiences drive investment in housing, infrastructure, parks, employment and services.
“In working with low- and moderate-income communities, we are helping them with our research and our ability to convene people, to come up with solutions for their communities,” Harker said. “Each community has to take on the challenges and opportunities they have in front of them.”
It is the first time in 16 years the conference is being held outside Philadelphia. Fed officials think Baltimore can teach universal lessons for attendees, based on honestly assessing problems, overcoming violence and using community cooperation for redevelopment.
The Philadelphia Fed is one of 12 regional banks in the Federal Reserve System, which drafts and executes monetary policy, supervises banks and provides financial services to federal agencies. Baltimore is part of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
Chris Ryer, who runs the Southeast Community Development Corp., will help lead the two-hour bus tour through Greektown, Highlandtown, Upper Fells Point and other neighborhoods. On the ride, he said, he will showcase the collaboration between groups focused on the environment, arts, education, retail, housing and community organizing. At library square near East Fayette Street and North Linwood Avenue, Ryer said he wants to show the group how a patchwork of nonprofits has transformed the space with bright yellow, navy, orange and teal homes, benches and stoops and plans for the shell of a 1940s gasoline station to house a bicycle program for kids.
The Federal Reserve typically deals with financial capital, but Ryer said his organization wants to stress social capital and its currency in a community.
“What it boils down to is how different partnerships in Southeast Baltimore have worked together to improve the quality of life in the neighborhoods,” Ryer said. “It’s a success story. The 20th century was manufacturing. The 21st century is service. We have medical. We have informational. We have financial, and we have construction and landscaping.”
The first stop on the tour is the Creative Alliance’s gallery and performance arts center in Highlandtown, traveling next to an elementary school near Bayview and on to Patterson Park before bringing the group to the Hilton on West Pratt Street for the conference’s kickoff. Among the speakers will be Mayor Catherine Pugh, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels and Wes Moore, bestselling author and Rhodes scholar.
Another tour will explore central Baltimore and the ways community groups and universities have leaned on the arts to lead a revival that includes the reuse of large and long-shuttered banks and car dealerships as new spaces for performance arts, wine and beer purveyors and offices.
A third bus will tour East Baltimore to see where some 600 formerly blighted rowhouses have been restored and passengers will learn about a sprawling redevelopment effort to turn 88 acres north of Johns Hopkins Hospital into an employment hub with homes at a variety of price points. They’ll explore the aftermath of some high-profile crimes, such as the 2002 firebombing that killed a mother and father and their five children after the family called the police to complain about drug dealers across the street. It is now the site of the Dawson Safe Haven Center, named in honor of the slain family and built on the site of their home.
Daniels, Hopkins’ president, said he is looking forward to the tour group learning about the change in places, such as East Baltimore’s Eager Park with the addition of the Henderson-Hopkins school as a neighborhood anchor intended to draw new residents, the green space and nearby amenities. He emphasized the importance of change that comes about through communities, government, nonprofits and institutions, such as Hopkins, working together for rejuvenation.
“There is a lot that we ought to be rightly proud of in terms of showing off our city,” Daniels said. “There is a narrative around Baltimore that focuses on some of the more challenging issues around poverty, crime and various health issues. But there is another narrative which I think is equally legitimate that underscores how much very creative and impactful change is happening on the neighborhood level.
“In a number of ways, we have very stirring pilot projects that can inspire and catalyze change elsewhere within the country.”
Del. Brooke Lierman will be one of speakers on the Southeast tour. She said she wants to emphasize the area as a “melting pot” of people who, across generations, have been drawn to the area for its proximity to the waterfront, and the jobs that it brings, to the network of community advocates from Isaac Myers, a 19th-century African-American labor organizer, to retired Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who fought a highway expansion plan that threatened the area.
“Whether they faced outside threats, like a new highway, or faced the effect of the closure of plants and vacant houses, neighbors in Southeast and new residents to the city — first from Eastern Europe and now from Latin America and from elsewhere — have organized and worked together to envision and develop new uses for old buildings and formerly closed businesses and renovations of empty houses,” said Lierman, a Democrat who represents parts of Southeast Baltimore. “It has not been all successful, of course.
“There is still quite a bit of work to do to make sure that all the communities are well-resourced, residents are not driven out as prices increase, and that there is space for all different income levels.”