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A place of their own

The coalition of activists who recently took over a vacant brick rowhouse in Sandtown-Winchester near where Freddie Gray was arrested last year say they want to use the property as a community center and job training site for residents of the impoverished neighborhood. Admirable though that goal may be, it clashes with the city's plans for the property. Housing officials have told the group the building on Presbury Street is unsafe and that they intend to demolish it in the next few weeks.

The city's position has created a standoff of sorts in which both sides are eyeing each other warily. We urge the activists and the city to work together. With the approach of the anniversary of Freddie Gray's death and the unrest that followed still fresh in people's minds, this is no time to escalate the dispute.

As the Sun's Catherine Rentz reported this week, the city's Department of Housing and Community Development purchased the property last year for $24,700 and relocated its occupants as part of a plan to demolish and renovate an entire block of Presbury Street under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's Vacants to Value program. Activists calling themselves the "1619 Coalition" have been seeking to set up shop in the building since January, when the former residents moved out (the group chose the name for its symbolic connection to the year 1619, the date Dutch traders introduced the first captured Africans to America; the building's actual numbered address is 1618).

The house is one of three rowhouses that sit along Presbury Street directly across from the Gilmor Homes housing project. From the outside it's evident that the other two properties (and many of the surrounding buildings) have suffered major structural damage over the years. But a walkthrough of the 1618 property suggests it's at least possible that it could be renovated for the purposes the activists have in mind. Coalition members say that among the two dozen or so people in their group, there are enough volunteers with the requisite skill to fix up the place and turn it into a community asset. They deny the building is structurally unsound or in danger of collapse.

We can't offer an opinion on that last point. But we certainly can applaud the goals of this loosely organized coalition of young people who want to make a positive difference in their community and whose tactics up to now have been entirely peaceful. The group wants to use one room of the building as an art classroom for neighborhood children, another for a community food pantry, and a third space as a job training site to serve an area that has one of the city's highest rates of youth unemployment. The activists see all these efforts as grass-roots organizing aimed at empowering local residents to take charge of their lives and create a better future for themselves and their children, and that's exactly the kind of change this city needs now.

On Wednesday coalition members met with housing officials and reported that the city appeared willing to work with them, at least up to a point. Housing officials still want to demolish the 1618 building, which currently has no water or electricity and which the city insists isn't worth saving. On the other hand, activists say the city has hinted it might make it possible for the group to use other vacant properties in the area, as well as space for community gardens where residents could grow fresh produce on cleared land after the demolition is complete. Coalition members would still be required to put in the sweat equity to bring those projects to fruition.

As we approach the first anniversary of Freddie Gray's death while in police custody and the tragic events that followed, we can't forget the unhappy fact that precious little has actually changed in the neighborhood where he grew up. Poverty, unemployment, violent crime and urban blight still plague the area, and rebuilding the community's physical, economic and social infrastructure remain a long-term work in progress. The city needs all the help it can get from youthful activists like the "1619 coalition," who are bringing new energy and hope to the task. They are trying to bring about change, and Baltimore's city government needs to find a way to let them, even if it's not in exactly the way the activists initially had in mind.

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