Here we are, on the weedy old lots once occupied by long-gone Baltimoreans of the long-gone city, the Baltimore of the previous millennium that smelled “like a billion polecats” in summer (H.L. Mencken’s description) and teemed with more than 900,000 inhabitants, many of them crowded into row houses.
Here we are in the Oliver area of East Baltimore, a short walk from leafy Green Mount Cemetery, where many long-gone Baltimoreans are buried. Here, in the urban prairie lands where houses once stood, the sun is high and bright, the weeds freshly cut, a tent firmly anchored, and people with faith in Baltimore have assembled for a revival.
In spaces long abandoned during decades of population loss, new houses will be built — 13 of them on either side of a street not much wider than an alley. The ghosts of the old neighborhood will smile on this. Holbrook Street, once occupied, then not, will see families again.
And families that have been homeless will have a home again.
The project is called Hope Village, and if you’ve followed the story in this column, you will recognize this as an effort by a senior couple, Pamela and Christian Wilson, to do good for their fellow Baltimoreans.
They saw a problem, and, instead of just talking about it, they did something about it.
The Wilsons, both employed in the maritime insurance trade, moved to Baltimore and a rowhouse in Charles Village 23 years ago. They came to love the city and its amenities in no time. “We found truly good, generous people dedicated to their neighbors and their neighborhoods,” Pamela Wilson said.
The couple retired 12 years ago, but they got busy again right away, spurred into action after learning that hundreds of Baltimore school children were part of homeless families. They slept in shelters or in a car or van, or at the home of a relative or friend. Not only did the kids lack a secure place to live, they also had little food on weekends. They came to school on Mondays fatigued and distracted by hunger.
So the Wilsons created weekend survival kits for homeless families.
It helped. Students who received the weekend backpacks of nonperishable food showed improved attendance and grades, and they had fewer behavioral problems. One principal reported an “increase in joy” among the children.
As good as it felt to hear that, Christian Wilson realized that the problem went well beyond a lack of weekend food. He learned that between 3,200 and 3,500 Baltimore school children are homeless at any given time. He looked at his wife and said, “We’ve got to get these people into homes.”
And that’s how Hope Village developed — from a desire to do something, even on a small scale, for Baltimore’s homeless families.
With their background in the maritime industry, the Wilsons first considered having steel cargo containers converted into modest houses for the working poor. At the time, there were plenty of containers sitting unused and stacked high in American seaports.
It wasn’t a bad idea. Containers have been converted into buildings, commercial and residential, in the U.S. and Europe. Why not use them as the foundational structure of a house?
The Wilsons worked on the idea with an architect and they spent months trying to find a contractor willing to do the conversions at a cost that would make the container homes affordable.
Ultimately, they decided on more conventional housing, built of wood.
One day, after I wrote about the Wilsons’ charitable ambitions, Baltimore developer Mark Sapperstein called me. I had written a public appeal for billionaire Michael Bloomberg to step forward and finance the Wilsons’ project. I never heard from Bloomberg, but Sapperstein came through. In a phone call with Christian Wilson, he offered to help in a big way.
“For the first time in my life,” Christian Wilson told those who gathered for the Hope Village groundbreaking Tuesday morning on Holbrook Street, “the only thing I could think of saying was, ‘Thank you.’ And I hung up, and turned to [Pamela] and said, ‘A Mark Sapperstein called and he’s going to fund the whole thing.’ And then the tears started flowing.”
The 400-square-foot homes, furnished and energy efficient, will have small wraparound porches. Sapperstein’s firm, 28 Walker, will cover the difference between the actual cost and the $25,000 selling price of each house.
Graduate students of the University of Maryland School of Social Work will help Hope Village families with the transition to homeownership. The Wilsons are getting a landscaping plan from the Neighborhood Design Center.
A lot of people talk. They talk and they talk and they talk about Baltimore’s problems, and not in any constructive way, but in a way that affirms their prejudices — about people they regard as inferior, about political ideology they consider misguided, about government they believe to be inept. The talkers talk in these generalities, often snarkily repeating what they hear in right-wing media. For many, the talk emanates from mild cases of cynicism; others have more advanced conditions, believing the city is hopeless and unworthy of further investment, financial or emotional.
The talkers, we will always have with us.
It’s the doers — and Baltimore has many — who matter most, who make all the difference in the world, who give us hope.