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Stepping up in post-Freddie Gray Baltimore

Looting and rioting broke out at North and Pennsylvania Avenues where a CVS was set on fire in April 2015.
Looting and rioting broke out at North and Pennsylvania Avenues where a CVS was set on fire in April 2015. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

After the vandalism and arson that erupted on the day of Freddie Gray's funeral, there was a lot of talk about stepping up. Big Baltimore institutions and businesses volunteered or were asked to increase their commitments to help the city deal with some of the chronic problems laid bare by the unrest of April 2015.

Before I go on, a word about those words, "laid bare." Don Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, stopped me last year when he heard the phrase during a podcast recording. Norris said, and I agreed, that the phrase was cringeworthy. The idea that the April rioting had "laid bare" something we didn't know about — poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunities, tension between police and citizens — was just foolish.

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"Laid bare" suggested that the unrest had taken Baltimore's leaders by surprise, or that they had been unaware of the profound social problems that kept so many adults and children feeling hopeless and resentful. Anyone who paid attention to life in the city over the last 30 or 40 years, as we lost population and poverty became concentrated in large stretches of east and west Baltimore, knew what was up. The "other Baltimore" is not new.

A local hiring and contracting program Johns Hopkins leaders launched after Baltimore's 2015 riot has largely met its goals so far, according to a one-year progress report released Thursday.

Remember what happened in the immediate aftermath, once calm was restored and people came out to sweep the broken glass off North Avenue? Almost immediately, there was a lot of talk about renewal, and about addressing the long-simmering problems "laid bare."

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In the midst of that, the Johns Hopkins University and the Hopkins health system made a commitment to do more local hiring and buying. Last week, we received a status report on the "HopkinsLocal" initiative. Attention must be paid:

Since the initiative was announced in September 2015, Hopkins has hired 304 workers from "distressed neighborhoods" — Cherry Hill, Penn North, East Baltimore near the medical campus — and steered $55.5 million of construction spending to minority- and women-owned businesses. Hopkins also increased spending with local suppliers by nearly $5 million.

I call that stepping up. I mention it today because it shows something that we're not used to seeing: substantive follow-up. When I heard all that talk about "One Baltimore" after the mess at Penn North, I was skeptical. A lot of people were. The problems are deep, and they have been around for a long time. They were not "laid bare" by the unrest. There has been plenty of time (like four decades) for the business community, the political class and the big, non-tax-paying institutions to step up. Would they really do so after a riot that lasted one afternoon in West Baltimore?

Multigenerational drug addiction, lead paint poisoning, lack of decent housing, lack of easy public transportation to jobs from poorer neighborhoods, lack of investment in old neighborhoods scarred with vacant houses: Those are huge challenges that take long-term commitment and lots of money, public and private. Parts of this city have waited decades for something as commonplace as a supermarket. So, skepticism about a new commitment to fix all this — or at least make some significant progress on these fronts — seemed natural.

The Baltimore City Council is expected to pass a $660 million public financing package for Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank's massive Port Covington project — a deal supporters tout as a way to bring thousands of jobs to Baltimore but critics decry as corporate welfare.

But I think the Freddie Gray uprising might have left a mark — call it a scar, if you like — that people around here won't forget. (And, if they do, they can be easily reminded of it at any time.) It will probably sound like wishful thinking. But I sense a heightened level of consciousness about the "other Baltimore."

I'm still gathering evidence of it. "HopkinsLocal" serves as Exhibit A.

I also offer the robust effort by community activists to make Kevin Plank's Port Covington deal with the city better for Baltimoreans. Over the years, major developers got generous tax breaks for projects that, while exciting for the skyline, did not make much of a dent in the city's problems. But the Port Covington deal includes levels of local hiring — 30 percent of all infrastructure construction workers must be from Baltimore and be paid a wage of at least $17.48 an hour — and local worker training we have not seen in such projects before.

"I cannot emphasize enough how much our strategy includes forcing big corporate interests to be enrolled in fixing some of our most significant problems," says the Rev. Andrew Foster Conners, co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, the community organization that negotiated with Plank's Sagamore Development Co.

Thursday night, at Port Covington, a second class of apprentices graduated from what Sagamore calls a "manufacturing boot camp," a program aimed at teaching skills for careers in manufacturing. It's part of Sagamore's commitment to workforce development.

Sagamore and Plank are also behind the new, fancy-schmancy Sagamore Pendry Baltimore, on the old Rec Pier in Fells Point. The hotel opens to the public March 20. The company said last month it had hired 153 people, 75 percent of them city residents. I call that stepping up.

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