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Rebuilding the lost village in East Baltimore

The Mary Harvin Senior Center was rebuilt a year after the partially completed project was burned down in the April 2015 riot after the death of Freddie Gray.
The Mary Harvin Senior Center was rebuilt a year after the partially completed project was burned down in the April 2015 riot after the death of Freddie Gray. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

The Rev. Donte Hickman can stand in front of his church on North Chester Street in East Baltimore and point to several reasons for hope in an old neighborhood that for decades might have been the most hopeless in the city.

Down the street from Southern Baptist Church, where Hickman is pastor, is the Mary Harvin Senior Center, the apartment building and community center that was under construction, and half completed, when it was destroyed in a suspected arson on the night of April 27, 2015. That was the day of Freddie Gray's funeral. While rioting erupted in West Baltimore, the fire that roared through the Harvin Center on the east side became — second only to the burning CVS in Penn-North — the most lasting image of Baltimore's unrest.

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But the Harvin Center was rebuilt within a year. Hickman can see it from his church. All 61 of the affordable apartments were rented on the day of the ribbon cutting last spring. Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center leases space in the building to provide health services and counseling.

Hickman can turn on his heels and point to a block of vacant houses due to be demolished by the city. He speaks of a $22 million plan for 104 units of affordable housing on Federal Street.

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He can step around a corner of his church and point to the historic American Brewery, one of the city's great renovation successes and home to Humanim, the workforce development and mental health services nonprofit. Directly behind the church, along Gay Street, are the Oliver Senior Center and the Coel-Grant-Higgs Senior Housing Complex, a project of Southern Baptist's development arm and named for the church's first three pastors.

And now Hickman has his eye on the abandoned Bugle Rental, once an industrial laundry, also on Chester Street. The pastor speaks of building a community health and wellness center on the site, and he mentions partners in the project: Legg Mason and the Johns Hopkins University.

Did I tell you about the two liquor stores that Southern Baptist bought out? One was on Oliver Street, another on Federal. They are gone, and that is no small victory for quality of life in this part of town known as Broadway East.

Remember something: Over the last few decades, the area around Hickman's church was about as pitiful as any in the shrinking city of Baltimore. It was one of the most blighted and neglected, and the subject of a 2006 series of articles in The Baltimore Sun by reporter Eric Siegel. We called the series "A Neighborhood Abandoned." Siegel reported that about half the properties in a roughly 20-square-block area around the old brewery were empty buildings or barren lots. And there was plenty of crime. "I can't change the fact that 10,000 people want to buy crack on Lanvale and Bradford every week," one resident told Siegel.

It was considered a neighborhood without hope.

"But I called it a neighborhood without help," says Hickman, who has been pastor at Southern Baptist since 2002.

He considers his church and five other Baptist congregations as the anchors for contiguous redevelopment throughout the rowhouse neighborhoods north of the railroad tracks that cut across East Baltimore. He sees himself as an evangelist for community revitalization.

Hickman's church is now at the center of renewed efforts to revive the area, and he has the help of some heavyweight collaborators who see good things flowing from the restoration of residential density. Build apartments and new houses, bring people back to the neighborhood, and other things follow — stores and shops, for instance.

Much has happened since the April 2015 the fire at the Harvin Center. For one thing, Ron Daniels, president of the Johns Hopkins University, took an interest in the area, which is about 12 blocks north of the sprawling Hopkins medical campus. Daniels walked the streets with Hickman and spoke with residents. Then a Hopkins official asked architect Adam Gross of Ayers Saint Gross to meet with Hickman. Gross drove to Southern Baptist — in a part of town he had never visited — without knowing what to expect.

"I thought maybe the church needed a new kitchen designed," Gross says. But he soon discovered that Hickman had big ambitions for the neighborhood. "He started talking about a master plan."

Now there is one — the result of months of work. Gross and his associates, including Amber Wendland, spoke with people who lived in the community. They staged four charettes, three at Southern Baptist and one at Morgan State University, and interest grew with each. One woman, a former resident who still attends Hickman's church, looked at a map of the area and recalled a grocery store and a barbershop. "You know," she told Gross, "this used to be a village, and now the village is gone."

So the idea is to restore the village, and restore hope. More to come. Watch this space.

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