In an East Baltimore 'opportunity zone' where President Donald Trump canceled visit, residents seek investment

Jose Portillo once saw an opportunity in the Baltimore neighborhood of Broadway East: a corner rowhouse for sale at a discounted price.

The 40-year-old father of two and immigrant from El Salvador said he mulled the deal over, compared it to more costly homes in Anne Arundel County, where most of his construction jobs are located, and made a leap of faith.

“I went for it,” he said.

Six years later, Portillo said he still sees huge potential in the neighborhood, and hopes that message gets across to President Donald Trump — despite a White House decision to cancel Wednesday’s planned trip by the president to Broadway East.

“He should be aware of everything that’s going on in the community — like all the necessity, all the things that the community needs,” Portillo said. “For example, all these vacant houses. Something needs to be done about that, because that makes the community really go down, instead of forward.”

In a neighborhood downtrodden for decades, where front porches decorated with Christmas lights are generally the minority among rows of boarded up and abandoned buildings, word made the rounds late last week that Trump intended to visit the Rev. Donte Hickman at the Southern Baptist Church, across the street from Portillo’s home.

Portillo and many others in Baltimore didn’t know quite what to make of the president coming, but were interested in the reason for the visit: a provision under a recent Republican rewrite of the federal tax code that provides incentives to developers to invest in neighborhoods that, like Broadway East, are designated “opportunity zones.” The White House said Trump’s visit was intended to highlight his agenda “to expand the economic boom to all Americans, especially those in distressed communities.”

On Monday, the president’s office moved the meeting to the White House. Residents said the change in plans was unfortunate, representing a missed opportunity for the president to see the need in the neighborhood up close.

Portillo has a green card and said he agrees with Trump on many issues, including that immigrants should not be allowed to enter the U.S. without proper documentation. But he disagrees with other policies, such as the separation of parents and children at the border.

But that’s all politics, he said.

Portillo said he’s glad the president is listening to Hickman, even if he isn’t visiting the neighborhood. He said the president might agree with local residents about the potential there.

“It could become one of the greatest communities here, if we have enough people doing the right thing about all of these vacant properties around the community,” Portillo said. “I see that there’s a lot of space to build businesses, to build pretty much anything you want — as long as you take the chance to invest.”

Local politicians — Mayor Catherine Pugh, Gov. Larry Hogan, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings — said they won’t be attending the White House meeting. But Hickman said he planned to be there, as did the Rev. Harry R. Jackson Jr., senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville.

In a way, Hickman is what Trump styles himself to be: a don’t-take-no-for-an-answer developer. For years, Hickman has been on a mission to transform the community around his church through redevelopment. His vision has begun taking shape, against the odds. His church’s development arm has pursued affordable housing and built a senior living center around the corner. And there’s more to come: Hickman has started clearing away the crumbled brick hull of an old industrial laundry, with plans to build a health and wellness center.

In a Facebook post Sunday, Hickman wrote that people in Baltimore couldn’t afford to wait for an administration that they like to be elected and should seize opportunities for investment.

“Whatever vitriol we have for this presidential administration should be manifested in our determination to do what we can to restore our broken city,” Hickman wrote.

Walter Jones, 83, lives in the senior living center near Hickman’s church. It was burned, mid-construction, during the riots that followed the 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in Baltimore Police custody. The center was rebuilt.

Jones said he never believed Trump was coming to Broadway East, a neighborhood he and his family have lived in and around much of his life.

“I think it’s just a lot of talk, like everything else he’s doing,” said Jones, a longtime Baltimore Department of Public Works employee and AFL-CIO union member.

But if Trump is serious about helping such neighborhoods, there are plenty of people who would be willing to help, he said.

Jones said his career began when he was hired under then-President Lyndon Johnson’s Model Cities Program to clean up Baltimore after the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Later, then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer hired many of the men in the program to work for the city.

There is so much work to be done now to clean up neighborhoods like Broadway East, Jones said, and lots of people looking for work. The neighborhood needs a grocery store, for lots of its vacant rowhouses to be torn down, and for affordable housing to be built in their place, he said.

“I don’t like to be around deterioration,” Jones said. “It’d be nice to get this place fixed up.”

Portillo agreed.

Since it’s so cold, he isn’t too busy right now, he said. He’s taking GED classes at night. During the day, whenever he doesn’t have a job elsewhere, he does work on his own house, he said. This week, he was building an awning over his door. The president might have seen Portillo at work as he passed into the church.

That won’t happen now, of course. But if Portillo did have the chance to talk to Trump, he said, he would urge him to help drive growth in Broadway East — even if he doesn’t visit.

“I would say, ‘Mr. President, please come up with an opportunity for all the investors in the area, perhaps an incentive big enough for an investor to really invest into the community, to really make it better,” Portillo said. “More new schools. Any development that will create jobs for all the people that live in the community. Invest more in security. Invest more in streets. Make sure our streets are cleaner, better to walk on, safer.”

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