Tuesday, July 26, 2016

West Baltimore 23 years ago.

The request for design services for a house on Fulton Avenue came in when I didn't know that this address was located in Sandtown, nor did I know that most of historic West Baltimore would be considered a "ghetto", a term liberally thrown around when describing the disinvested poor neighborhoods in the American city.  This was in 1993 and I had been in Baltimore for seven years. Many people lived their whole life in the Baltimore region and have never set foot into Sandtown.
Mural (Getty images)

Back then Sandtown had advanced to being an urban model. Developer Jim Rouse who had in retirement created the Enterprise company with a strong social agenda wanted to show that "if you can fix Sandtown, you can fix any community in America". I had met with him and came away with the impression that he was certainly very serious about the need to eliminate extreme poverty in urban America should US cities have a future.

It is hard to say whether in 1993 Sandtown looked better or worse than today, in spite of millions that were invested since then, from installing a green median on Fulton to new senior housing, many rehabbed and new homes and the demolition of many dilapidated structures. (see also 2013 Abell Report).
“Overall, the picture that emerges from the data underscores the durability of social inequality and the persistence of overlapping social problems in high poverty and racially segregated neighborhoods.” (Abell Report)
Many houses are stately, then and now, some are even grand but way too many stand empty. Three stories, marble steps, stone base, architectural ornament around doorways and all. Then and now it seemed obvious that the area must have seen better times. Times when houses were never boarded up, shops dotted the corners and formed small commercial nodes and services were seemingly abundant. Today the neighborhood is only a shadow of its former self. The once proud monument studded public squares are now compromised by having carved out space for poorly placed schools and rec fields. The upkeep of the parks seems better now then it was then.
Lafayette Square Park when bike party came through
in the May of 2015 (Klaus Philipsen)

Grand houses, churches and squares appear to be obvious testimony to better days, it isn't easy to tell, though, when those better times would have been. Was it when the area was still red-lined, inhabited by the well-to-do that kept blacks out, or when the black middle class flooded in and every house was filled to the last room so that there were overcrowding issues? There never was a time that one could describe as all around satisfactory if equity and fairness is considered. 

Lately Sandtown has become a news item again in reports about the community as the home of Freddie Grey and why all the attempts to fix up the neighborhood have barely done more than, at best, stabilize a highly unsatisfactory status quo. (NYT article). Most articles end with a figurative shoulder shrug that writes this community off along with most of West Baltimore as irreparably "failed".
Groundbreaking of the first 80
rowhouse rehab project
(ArchPlan archive)

After that house on Fulton Avenue my firm was selected by Enterprise and BUILD to design plans for the rehabilitation of 80 abandoned and vacant homes as part of an effort then dubbed as Sandtown 500. That engagement was followed by assignments from various outfits such as the now defunct Sandtown CDC and a local developer called Moorish America. My firm surveyed hundreds of houses and designed renovation plans for them. Some houses were just boarded up, many others were mere shells with trees growing out collapsed roofs. I walked all the streets that appear on The Wire and waded through tons of reuse in the vacant buildings. One day employees out measuring up houses called me very worried about a big stash of drugs and money they had found. They left the house in a hurry and wondered whether reporting it to police would endanger their lives. We decided yes but reported it through a discrete back channel anyway.

The renovations were "scattered" wherever Enterprise could get vacant houses from the City, an approach soon considered lacking and unsuccessful since some newly minted homeowners would still have to live next to a vacant house. That can be dangerous and drags on the equity in the house.

Houses would be rehabbed and receive all amenities, the high cost written down through grants and special programs such as HOPE III to allow people to become first-time home owners. There was local hiring and job training and efforts were made to improve schools and provide services. Everybody understood then that to move the needle more was needed than just rehabilitated houses. Still, in the end there was little to show, when it came to workforce training or growing local resources that could fix the community from within, not for lack of trying. I saw the weekly hiring reports. It became clear then, that folks can't be hired right off the street and provide reliable labor the next day. Many more transitional steps are needed.

On balance, many people that could leave the neighborhood did so, and those who had no means to leave were left behind. Abandonment never seemed to become any less.  And yet, in all community gatherings I have attended to this day, I was always impressed how many residents with options and education remained in the community and engaged in the struggle for improvement. Sandtown is not a place where only desperate people live and neither is Harlem Park, Upton or Druid Heights.

But I also saw some of those houses we had renovated re-boarded after just a couples of years and that was before the foreclosure crisis that hit so much harder in West Baltimore than in neighborhoods with better income levels. Predatory lending taking a high toll. 

There simply is no way to rebuild Sandtown with subsidized housing alone or strictly for the people that are already there. There simply isn't enough money for the former and not enough people for the latter. For West Baltimore's vacant houses to be filled, people need to be drawn to the community that represent additional and different demographic groups. People with more means and choices. Why would people choose Sandtown? Cheap real estate, proximity to downtown, easy access to DC and the historic setting and architecture are all good reasons, but "a market" still needs to emerge.

Today there is much more talk about transportation as an equity issue. West Baltimore is better off today in transit then in 1993. MARC trains now go hourly to DC and most stop in West Baltimore. The overloaded number #23 bus was augmented with a #40 "Quickbus" and later a #47 Quickbus was added. The promised east west rail line, sadly, never materialized.
Harlem Park: Big houses

For any influx to occur it would take some initial larger investments near areas of strength. Not the large-scale demolition and urban renewal style clearing of the past, just projects of the kind that turned Patterson Park, Remington, Barclay and Oliver around. Managing vacants, filling them with qualifying home buyers who can buy at market rate, strategically placing quality affordable housing in between, such as Miller's Court on Howard Street, the Lilian Jones apartments on Greenmount or the Gateway on North Avenue. But in the 1990'ties the approach was based solely on public money as the SUN reported in 1993:
The 1990s-style war on poverty in Sandtown won't come cheap, but all the political planets appear to be in alignment.Mr. Schmoke, by forgoing a race for governor, has increased his stake in the project's success. And President Clinton's housing secretary, Henry G. Cisneros, a former Enterprise Foundation board member, appears eager to make the project a national model.In addition, President Clinton has signed into law a $3.5 billion program to set up a half-dozen "empowerment zones" in cities across the country. If Sandtown is chosen next year as part of a Baltimore zone, a $100 million federal grant will flow its way, as well as tax credits and other benefits for employers.About $60 million in government and foundation money has already poured into Sandtown. Mr. Costigan, the Enterprise official, estimates that $220 million is needed over the next five years just to renovate 3,400 units of substandard housing.Although transforming Sandtown sounds costly, Mr. Costigan says government spends nearly $70 million in the community every year to maintain a rotten status quo.By investing an extra $20 million to $60 million a year for three to five years, he argues, Sandtown can be transformed into a decent place to live that, in the end, would cost no more to maintain than it does now. Baltimore SUN 1993)
Clearly, this strategy did not work out. Neither were the investment levels sustained nor was it ever realistic to assume they would. Politically the attention went from intensive care (Let's take care of our most disinvested places, Schmoke) to triage (working from strength, O'Malley). Sandtown simply moved out of focus until April 2015. Now with a name almost as well known as Harlem or Watts, no clear new strategy for Sandtown is in sight, no matter the CORE money for demolition and economic development that the State set aside.
Urban farming on vacant lots in Sandtown

It is hard to imagine how Sandtown could come off its knees without the entire City embarking on a much more convincing upswing. The truth of the real estate world is, that investment is drawn to areas that are affordable but have a good promise for a return on the investment. There are plenty of neighborhoods in Baltimore which currently appear to be a far less risky place to develop.

But there is no alternative to the building from strength approach that Mayor O'Malley favored, a strategy that should include relative strength of places within the communities. Whatever investments will be made, private or public, they must be very strategic and leverage sustained growth based on positive feedback loops from re-entry to training, job opportunities, transportation and housing.

Sandtown taught me not only what a Baltimore rowhouse is but also how hard good urban policy is without a strong overall city market. This is unfortunate, especially since housing is an essential of life and shouldn't be seen merely as a commodity.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

From the 2013 Abell Report "Sandtown- 20 years later"