If there is hope for West Baltimore, it runs down Pennsylvania Avenue

I can’t count the number of times well-meaning but unknowing people have warned me to “be careful” when I indicate that I’m going to West Baltimore. I generally laugh because they have no idea how varied and how complex West Baltimore is.

One can quickly shift from the trepidatious — like what one woman calls the “valley of death” where drug dealers and their addicted clientele can make shopping on part of Pennsylvania Avenue feel like you’re running a gauntlet — to the bucolic — like the beautiful old mansions with manicured lawns that overlook Lake Ashburton.

But that’s our city. We often hear talk of “two Baltimores” to describe the gulf between the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the powerless. Baltimore’s early 20th century ordinances dictating where the different races could live influenced the development of apartheid in South Africa — not an export to be proud of, for sure. Vestiges of that, as well as a history of redlining, has meant that even today a map of the city can be divided into what Morgan State University professor Lawrence Brown has described as the white-L, where more prosperous and mostly white areas are, and the black butterfly, denoting the struggling and more darker-hued neighborhoods.

But history does not have to dictate the future — and that includes Pennsylvania Avenue, storied in the segregation era but often relegated to a place of “remember when” as the present crashes in on it. A flood of homeless people and a noticeable increase in drug dealing threaten to undermine efforts of small businesses, community associations and churches. Just as harmful, it turns out, has been the inability of those distinct groups of community champions to work together toward their common interest in a healthy, sustainable West Baltimore.

In my relatively short time in Baltimore, I have seen other efforts to form workable coalitions. Many of the lifelong residents who gathered at the Harris-Marcus Center on Pennsylvania Avenue last Thursday have me beat by decades. As one man ticked off the meetings he regularly attends — Communities United, Clergy United to Transform Sandown-Winchester (CUTS), No Boundaries Coalition, the Western District Police Community Council — others murmured in recognition. “We are ‘meeting-ed’ out,” said C. W. Harris, a lifelong Sandtown resident who leads Newborn Holistic Ministries.

The area is teeming with people with ideas, and as one person after another spoke, it became evident that there is no lack of policy initiatives languishing on drawing boards. Neighborhood groups in Liberty Heights, Park Heights and Upton have commissioned master plans for development. For about six months, several churches in the Sandtown-Winchester area have been making strides toward coming up with theirs. The Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, whose Ty Juan Rice led last week’s meeting, is rehabilitating a block where dilapidated rowhouses, addicts nodding on stoops and prostitutes plying their trade have too long greeted people driving past the “Welcome to Historic Druid Heights” mural.

Shortly into what Rice called “a networking session,” even skeptics began to see the value in sharing ideas, in breaking out of silos, in, yes, having another meeting. But as another community organizer, Eric Stephenson, warned them: “If we reduce this to grievances about nuisance issues, then this is no different than all the other meetings that we all go to.”

They have witnessed various initiatives, including the designation of Pennsylvania Avenue as a Main Street nearly 20 years ago, earmarking it for special development funds. They have seen the Avenue Market struggle through decline, seemingly forgotten among the city’s historic public markets.

At the same time, they see the revival of area around North Avenue and Charles Street and in Pigtown and the promise of change in South Baltimore in Port Covington. And they fear that powerful developers in cahoots with public officials will impose their own visions of a future if these stakeholders don’t get their act together.

“It’s our time,” state Sen.-elect Antonio Hayes said, articulating what others were thinking and then echoed. “It’s our time.”

So there is a sense of urgency that was absent even as people coalesced after the unrest sparked by the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015. Pennsylvania Avenue is too big to fail if West Baltimore is to thrive. If anything emerged from that meeting, it is that recognition, along with a commitment to not just hold public officials accountable, but to hold themselves accountable, too.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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