SUBSCRIBE

In Sandtown, a new and needed mission for Old Douglass

To understand where Archie Lee and Marlo Hargrove want to go — and I’ll get you there in a Baltimore minute — you should first understand where they’ve come from. They are survivors.

They survived early life in the westside public housing projects — the old, gloomy towers where the city and federal governments concentrated poor families for decades. Lee and Hargrove lived at different times in both Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace. Those decrepit and dangerous high-rises were dynamited out of the skyline in the 1990s.

Hargrove’s parents were both alcoholics and both dead before they were 40. Lee was in trouble with the law by the time he was 11 or 12, and committing street robberies by the time he was 14.

Lee and Hargrove survived stints in detention centers and prisons. They were both homeless at times. They sold heroin and cocaine. They both used drugs. “We rode together in active addiction out there,” Lee says.

He’s 62 and, based on the story he tells, lucky to be alive. When he was using heroin, he survived numerous overdoses.

“I OD’d 11 times, and bullets were always just missing me,” Lee says. “I was always being shot at because a new generation had come on the block. I was older and wiser. I was robbing some of the [drug dealers], taking some of the stashes because they weren’t paying me enough money to support my habit. I felt like they were just punking me. They didn’t know the game like I knew it. I would take some of the drugs and run off, and then I’d have these guys looking for me to hurt me or kill me.”

Lee survived, but he hit bottom in the late 1990s. The heroin compounded the effects of a blood disorder, and that scared him into getting clean.

“God has a way of getting your attention,” he says.

Hargrove, who is 46, got away from drugs a few years later, in 2002. Before that, he says, his life was “chaos and confusion, alcohol, drugs and incarceration.” He had been fully engaged in the heroin scene in the old projects. “If you wasn’t doing drugs or selling drugs, if you weren’t into some chaos, you were considered a nerd,” Hargrove says. “I was taught that you weren’t a man if you didn’t go to prison.”

When a Baltimore judge gave him a chance to get drug treatment instead of more jail time, he took it as an opportunity to change his life.

It was around that time, when Hargrove was attending group sessions with other men in recovery, that a Catholic priest suggested he could help others. The priest had heard Hargrove speak and apparently sensed counseling skills and leadership chops.

It wasn’t long before Hargrove reconnected with Lee, and the two started working as advocates for other ex-offenders. That’s a classic scenario: Men in recovery deciding that, of all things, it’s what they want to do most in life. But it takes grit and determination to turn the desire to help into action. Lee and Hargrove found jobs and, in their spare time, started working toward where they are today: Founders of a transitional housing program for men coming out of prison (and out of drug abuse) while making plans to expand their much-needed efforts.

The two friends established a non-profit called FACE, which stands for “Freedom Advocates Celebrating Ex-Offenders.” They rented, then purchased, a house in northeast Baltimore that, over the years, has housed hundreds of men on their way from prison to the next stage of life.

And now, Lee and Hargrove are about to take their modest operation to a new level, and in a place where they believe it will do most good — Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore.

FACE has formed a partnership with the Washington-based real estate company that owns “Old Douglass” — that is, the old Frederick Douglass High School, on North Calhoun Street, the one that preceded the present Douglass High near Mondawmin Mall. The plan is to turn part of Old Douglass, a huge building that once served 3,000 students, into a dormitory-style residence for men and women coming out of prison.

Three decades ago, after the city sold the school to a developer, Old Douglass became an apartment building. It will remain one, but with the addition of FACE’s operation. The building’s owner, Brick Lane, an apartment management and investment company, is making the renovation and expects to have the space ready by late summer. Because Sandtown is listed as one of the city’s Opportunity Zones, Brick Lane is seeking an additional investor to turn the adjoining parking lot, at Calhoun and Cumberland, into an apartment building. Jeff Gross, a Brick Lane principal, says the tax breaks that come with the Opportunity Zone designation also could help pay for the redevelopment Old Douglass’ theater. According to the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, the theater can seat 1,600.

Some aspects of Old Douglass are truly impressive, starting with the carvings of scholars on its facade. The building takes up most of a block. It is three stories high and designed in the Collegiate Gothic Revival style. When it opened in 1925, Old Douglass had two gymnasiums, 32 classrooms, a library and a swimming pool.

Now FACE expects between 45 and 60 ex-offenders staying in the new wing of the old school. It’s the kind of scale Hargrove and Lee were hoping to reach when they started out years ago, after they’d survived homelessness, drugs and prison. “We are those that we serve,” Hargrove says. “We know what the struggles are.”

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad

You've reached your monthly free article limit.

Get Unlimited Digital Access

4 weeks for only 99¢
Subscribe Now

Cancel Anytime

Already have digital access? Log in

Log out

Print subscriber? Activate digital access