An opportunity for transformation in East Baltimore

Looking south from the corner of East Eager and North Chester streets in Baltimore, you’ll see the results of Johns Hopkins-spurred development: the new Henderson-Hopkins school, mixed-income housing, amenities including a Walgreens and an Atwater’s. Turn 180 degrees and face north, and you will see a different city — almost a different world. Just past where the CSX train tracks swoop through the neighborhood is a community where boarded-up houses, missing retail and a lack of “feet on the street” reveal a place that has suffered from disinvestment and depopulation over the course of decades.

That might soon change. The organization I lead, Strong City Baltimore, a nonprofit with a holistic approach to community building, is working with many partners on a project to bring activity and investment back to this area of East Baltimore. Strong City and developer Cross Street Partners have completed the financial arrangements that will allow us to move from our longtime Charles Village headquarters to a historic but abandoned industrial site in Collington Square, the Hoen Lithograph Building. This project has the potential to transform the neighborhood, and it connects with other development projects scattered around the area that together could spark an East Baltimore renaissance.

I say “renaissance” because this project can help restore the neighborhood to what it once was and deserves to be again. A century ago, Collington Square was humming with activity. Blue-collar and middle-class families lived in modest homes, shopped at local stores and patronized nearby eateries. At the center of it all was the Hoen Building, where thousands of workers streamed in daily, employing cutting-edge lithographic printing techniques to produce iconic publications such as National Geographic magazine and product labels such as Chunk-E-Nut Peanut Butter.

By the time the Hoen company ceased operations in 1981, Collington Square was in sharp decline. Many residents had fled to other city neighborhoods or nearby suburbs. Local churches continued to anchor the neighborhood (as they still do) but could only do so much against a rising tide of abandonment, drugs and crime.

Strong City, which is turning 50 in May, has a long track record of partnering with communities to bring about positive change. We played a role in the revival of Remington, for example, and in the positive developments taking shape up and down the Greenmount Avenue/York Road corridor. Now, in cooperation with local partners and stakeholders, we see an opportunity to bring our time-tested community-building model to an area of the city where investment and creative problem-solving are badly needed.

Strong City envisions a Center for Neighborhood Innovation at the Hoen Building, bringing together nonprofits, entrepreneurs and visionaries in a shared space that serves the neighborhood and city with resources — including workforce development, educational and retail endeavors — as well as co-working space for nonprofits and entrepreneurs. Cross Street Partners and City Life Historic Properties are renovating the building. We broke ground on the project in the spring with significant assistance from the state under Project CORE and the Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative, as well as support from the city. We expect to move there in January 2020.

We are not alone in seeing the great potential in this part of town. A few minutes' walk from our new building, the Baltimore Food Hub, an incubator for food businesses being developed by Baltimore-based American Communities Trust, is rising on the site of the old Eastern Pumping Station. Just a quarter-mile north of Hoen is the beautifully restored American Brewery, home to the human development nonprofit Humanim. Across Chester Street from American Brewery is the Mary Harvin Apartments, a complex for seniors that burned during the April 2015 uprising but a year later was completely rebuilt through the efforts of Southern Baptist Church, which is also leading an East Baltimore Revitalization Project. Other local assets and stakeholders include Collington Square Park, Collington Square Elementary/Middle School, Collington Commons Apartments, Dayspring Programs and two stalwart congregations, Israel Baptist Church and Southern Baptist Church.

The neighborhood is also blessed with a gem of a program: The Club at Collington Square, which provides free after-school and summer camp programming to neighborhood children in a structured, nurturing environment. A year ago, Strong City took over operation of The Club to ensure continuation of this vital service when the former operator departed.

Because we believe Baltimore is made stronger through the work of community-based leaders, Strong City has coordinated closely with community members on the Hoen project. The Collington Square Neighborhood Association has been a key partner, along with Israel Baptist Church. Strong City has also worked with city and state officials who represent the area and held multiple “town hall” style meetings to provide information and hear community members’ ideas and concerns.

Every neighborhood has assets, but some communities have been neglected for so long that they need a jump-start to get things moving. Strong City Baltimore’s motto is “building and strengthening neighborhoods and people.” Bringing a center for job training, adult education, nonprofit fiscal sponsorship, and creative problem-solving to Collington Square can’t reverse decades of disinvestment in East Baltimore, but we hope it can at least begin to move things in the right direction.

Karen D. Stokes is the CEO of Strong City Baltimore. Her email is kstokes@strongcitybaltimore.org.

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