Gentrify or die? Inside a university’s controversial plan for Baltimore

Three years after the death of Freddie Gray, Johns Hopkins medical school is transforming a vast 88-acre section of Baltimore. Will it work and is it right?

The minivan is passing through a scene that typifies urban decay, Baltimore-style: blocks of modest rowhouses, where some dwellings are inhabited, others are boarded up or abandoned to the elements, and some blocks are entirely vacant, studded with empty lots.

This was east Baltimore, says Ron Daniels, an affable scholar of law and political science whose accent betrays his Canadian roots, and who since 2009 has been the president of Johns Hopkins University. Block after block after block. It was either boarded-up vacant housing or just fields strewn with rubble.

The van turns off Broadway, and reaches a kind of clearing in this landscape: an 88-acre zone that on the map has the shape of a grand piano. At the southern end the pianos keys is a thicket of shiny new construction: offices, labs, a hotel, a tall apartment building. Then there is a townhouse complex set around a courtyard; a few rehabilitated rowhouses; and some decrepit ones that have so far escaped the bulldozer. And space: a lot of empty space, large open parcels of land, cleared and ready for action.

Abandoned buildings slated for demolition near Baltimores Eager Park a contrast to the new offices, labs, and hotel behind. Photograph: J.M. Giordano for the Guardian

Many Baltimoreans who remember this area before it got almost totally levelled still call it by its old name: Middle East.

But in 2002, it became the East Baltimore Development Initiative (EBDI), one of the most aggressive urban redevelopment initiatives in the US in recent memory. Now, after 16 years, with many delays and controversies, its finally taking shape. I think its fair to say that weve tipped this development, Daniels says, with a measure of relief. Theres enough here, and theres a logic to what we are doing, so that it will continue.

For the university, the EDBI has meant creating the space to expand its already-renowned medical campus into a full-fledged life-sciences hub, to rival those around Harvard, MIT, or Stanford and attract the top scientists, students and start-up entrepreneurs.

For east Baltimore once a thriving blue-collar community hit by disinvestment, depopulation and the attendant decay and crime the new project beckons new middle-income residents with its planned shops and amenities, public school (backed by the university), park, and the biggest economic infusion the area has seen in decades: jobs, commerce and $1.8bn of direct investment.

Its a huge gamble by the largest private employer in Maryland: to drive a huge transformation of the urban landscape, tearing down most of a distressed neighbourhood, relocating about 740 families, and trying to combine a new biotech innovation hub with what it is hoped will be a sustainable mixed-income, mixed-race neighbourhood.

Its a bet on symbiosis between the university, a manufactured new residential community, and the existing neighbourhoods around it. Its a bet to revitalise east Baltimore and set a model for anchor institutions in other cities. Above all, its a bet that the whole thing wont turn out to be a cautionary tale.

For Johns Hopkins, the vast mobilisation of time and money has both ethical and business justifications, Daniels says. You can make the moral case of why, given the bounty of resources that we have, its incumbent on us to share with the city. But the other thing is to make clear that this is an enlightened form of self-interest. It is inconceivable that Hopkins would remain a pre-eminent institution in a city that continues to suffer decline.

An abandoned school bordering Eager Park. Photograph: J.M. Giordano for the Guardian

But there are other views. This is gentrification, a big institution pushing out a vulnerable community for its benefit, says Lawrence Brown, a critical urbanist who teaches in the school of community health and policy at Morgan State, Baltimores historically black university.

Marisela Gomez, a physician and activist in the fight for fair treatment of displaced residents, is blunter. Every community thats black and brown and low-income in Baltimore is at risk.

Too big a gamble?

Three years after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, and the explosion of pent-up community rage that followed, Baltimoreans tend to agree on one thing: now is a window of opportunity for more inclusive development. But they have different visions for what that means.

The partners in EBDI Johns Hopkins, the City of Baltimore, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a major local philanthropic organisation have been careful not to call it urban renewal.

A mural at the Gilmor Homes housing project where Freddie Gray was arrested. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

That term is permanently tainted by the massive projects of the 1950s and 1960s that demolished whole neighbourhoods, often ramming highways through them, and primarily displaced black and other disadvantaged communities. Instead, EBDIs backers speak of rejuvenation, or revitalisation.

Still, the venture is a bit of a throwback to the old slum-clearance days. It has involved tearing down 2,000 rowhouses, preserving only about 200. Most were vacant, but even so hundreds of homeowners and tenants were dispossessed. Only a few dozen have been able to stay within the EBDI zone. The vast majority have scattered.

For the better part of 15 years, EBDIs clumsy execution and uncertain end-point have made for a vivid running theme in Baltimore civic life. In the business pages, the citys boosters fretted. Had Hopkins gambled too big? Would the bad reputation of east Baltimore permanently deter investment and undermine the eds and meds formula universities and health complexes attracting innovation and driving job growth that had helped cities like Pittsburgh?

The new Henderson-Hopkins public school gave priority to local children, causing controversy. Photograph: John Hopkins University

The reaction in the community was no better. The EBDIs methods were peremptory: at the outset, in 2002, residents only learned of the imminent destruction of their homes in news reports. Activists had to agitate for fair compensation and relocation terms, and to ensure the demolitions were safe and did not stir up contaminants. There were standoffs that led to arrests. For years, the area was a dead zone empty land, vacated buildings, parking lots and the Great Recession of 2008 further delayed investment and construction.

Community activists bridled at the costs. Homeowners, who made up half of the displaced, had traded houses valued at $30,000 or less for packages to purchase homes elsewhere for five times that amount but which led to tax and mortgage burdens they could not afford. Renters, who made up about half of the displaced, were more vulnerable still. Meanwhile, each new construction project presented fresh questions about lack of inclusion. First, in 2012, came a tall apartment building on Wolfe Street, with 321 rentals for Hopkins graduate students only.

Then the public school, Henderson-Hopkins, moved into its swanky facilities in 2014. A public school, it had partnerships with Johns Hopkins to support curriculum and family services, a state of the art early-childhood centre, and admission by lottery. But it gave priority to children of residents within the EBDI footprint, and there were very few of these. It took another round of fights with community activists to allocate more spots to the children of surrounding working-class areas.

A model of the Eager Park community in East Baltimore. Photograph: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/Getty Images

And when the first batch of fifty homes went up for sale a set of renovated rowhouses, and a townhome complex built around a central courtyard Hopkins offered its employees a hefty subsidy of $36,000, raising concerns. In principle, it would improve access to the new homes for lower-income Hopkins employees, including those who already lived in east Baltimore. In practice, would it not mostly benefit the more privileged biotech professionals the university was aiming to attract?

Beneath all this lurked a question of cultural loss. For 30 years, the EBDI area had been known as Middle East, following a community campaign in the 1970s to repair properties. Now those properties were coming down, and taking the neighbourhood name with it. Middle East, in the Baltimore context, connoted crime and dereliction. Consultants led a rebranding exercise to name the new green space, settling on on Eager Park. The name was not entirely random John Eager Howard was a revolutionary war figure and early governor of Maryland, and Eager Street runs through the neighbourhood but it is certainly market-friendly, with its suggestion of freshness, brightness, anticipation. Perhaps inevitably, the whole EBDI area is now referred to as Eager Park.

A fortress no longer

The sense of critical mass is relatively recent. First, in late 2016, a six-storey office and laboratory building opened on Ashland Avenue. It is home to FastForward, the universitys start-up incubator. Companies get advice, work and meeting facilities, lab space with shared equipment, and access to Hopkins scientists. The ecosystem is developing quite nicely, says Sebastian Seiguer, co-founder of Emocha, which uses video technology to ensure patients take their medication. With 14 employees, Emocha is outgrowing the incubator space, and will soon move but within the city. Im a Baltimore native, Seiguer says. This incubator is an effort to make Baltimore a place where people stay.

A Starbucks opened on the ground floor in February 2017 the classic harbinger of gentrification, perhaps, but also one of the chains opportunity cafs, which incorporate jobs, youth training, and minority contracting components. These have opened in other low-income neighbourhoods, including Ferguson, Missouri, and Chicagos South Side.

This is an enlightened form of self-interest … Ron Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins university, at a ribbon-cutting event for Eager Park in May 2017. Photograph: Will Kirk/Homewood Photography

In May 2017, the park opened, with an inaugural ceremony that included Daniels and the mayor, Catherine Pugh. It is a long rectangular strip of 5.5 acres that stretches across three blocks, and shows the thoughtful features of contemporary urban design: a tasteful mix of concrete and wood-plank footpaths, a breezy glass-and-steel pavilion, a community garden. Private security guards sit in booths that are conspicuously placed around the parks perimeter. On a chilly afternoon, the park was almost empty; but summertime promises vegetables, concerts, children splashing in the fountain, yoga in the grass.

Then, in October, the hotel opened: a Marriott Residence Inn, facing the parks southern end, filling out a block where forty rowhouses once stood. It has 194 suites catering to longer-stay guests such as families of hospital patients plus retail space and a top-floor restaurant with a sweeping view. Thats when Daniels, the son of a Toronto real estate developer, began to exhale. Now theres a sense that theres a steady march forward.

The energy here certainly differs from the main hospital buildings, which present a fortress-style face. With fences, skywalks and forbidding facades broken by loading docks, the medical campus sent hostile signals to its surroundings, and got hostility in return. Assault and theft were common; beggars set up at traffic lights. Fundamentally it was a hunker-down strategy, Daniels says. The traditional thinking was that the best way to protect the university was to ensure that its perimeters were effectively controlled, and that you were creating safe zones within them.

There is a stark, at times eerie contrast between the older buildings and the new development. Photograph: Siddhartha Mitter

By contrast, the new office and lab buildings in the EBDI feel like they welcome and want to generate foot traffic. It is nothing fancy: ground floor retail, some steps and patios, small setbacks creating spaces to meet and gather. The Charm City Circulator a free bus that augments Baltimores patchwork public transport system with links between the various university campuses and downtown has put a terminus at the foot of Eager Park. On a weekday, the main streets here are quite busy with students and lab workers. There are two cafs, a Walgreens drugstore, and the first street-level restaurant, an Afghan establishment, has arrived. Its just a start, but the promise is there.

But this mounting activity contrasts with the eerie feel that still prevails at the far end of Eager Park. Across from the parks northern edge is a baleful row of vacant houses with their windows taken out, awaiting demolition. At the corner, a squat building with boarded-up doors still has a red awning announcing its former identity as a Baptist church. In other directions you see empty fields, low warehouses, commercial vans in a fenced lot. There is little foot traffic and not many cars.

This will change, of course. Almost every space is slated for construction: more biotech buildings on the southern side, a lot of housing in the north and middle of all types apartment buildings, townhomes, and rowhouse restorations; sales and rentals; market-rate, affordable, low-income, reserved for workforce or seniors. There are more than 700 homes in the pipeline, with potentially many more to come.

The Eager Park design is open, to encourage more footfall. Photograph: Will Kirk/Homewood Photography

In other words, it is too early to know what the future Eager Park community will look like, let alone its effects on east Baltimore. But everyone has a theory, and arguments to support it.

Baltimore is the poster child for deindustrialisation in the United States, says Rob English, lead organiser for BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development), part of a network of community groups that traces its origins to Saul Alinsky in 1940s Chicago. Although many American cities have hollowed out as manufacturing declined, English says that Baltimore has suffered particularly badly.

The east side bore much of the brunt. Its anchor for most of the 20th century was Bethlehem Steel, which had an enormous plant at one time, the largest steel mill in the world – at Sparrows Point, or the Point, some 10 miles southeast of downtown on the Patapsco River. During the Great Migration, black migrants arriving from the south found good jobs in Baltimores manufacturing plants. Redlining and other racist practices drove them into certain areas east and west of downtown; many who worked at the Point lived in east Baltimore. This was the blue-collar African-American neighbourhood, English says. East Baltimore was built because of Bethlehem Steel.

At its peak in 1959, the mill employed about 35,000 workers. By the 1980s, it was down to 8,000. Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt in 2003. There were only 2,000 workers left at the mill when a successor firm shut it for good in 2012. As Bethlehem went, so did the rest of Baltimore industry. Depopulation from job losses, white flight, and eventually black middle-class flight as well reduced Baltimore Citys population (as distinct from suburban Baltimore County) from its mid-20th century peak of nearly one million to 615,000 in 2016.

The Bethlehem Steel plant, which once employed 35,000 workers. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

But departures didnt follow smooth patterns, even at the level of an individual block. The ubiquitous housing form in working-class and lower middle-class Baltimore is the rowhouse: two or three storeys with a distinctive low front stoop, narrow and tightly packed. Nowadays a block with, say, 20 rowhouses might have eight of them occupied and well-tended, seven vacant and boarded up often with severe structural damage like a collapsed roof and the rest derelict, inhabited by addicts or transients. And these might alternate irregularly along the block, making it hard to tear down a whole section without displacing someone.

The problem multiplies to the scale of the city. It establishes the vacancy rate as a main metric of neighbourhood distress, and the vacant as an iconic architectural mutant form (put to much use in The Wire) but not in such a way that you could pronounce any section empty or bereft of community. The neighbourhoods that have been decimated are not completely vacant, says Tamara Woods, a senior planner in the citys department of planning. There are people still living there.

Middle East, in 2002, was one such area, with some of the citys worst indicators of distress. The vacancy rate was high some said 70%, against the city average of 14%, though activists dispute the figure and poverty, unemployment and violent crime was twice the citywide rate. The average household income was $28,464, one-third less than the Baltimore City mean. Perhaps all this primed Middle East, more than other areas, for a radical redevelopment solution. But for the great east Baltimore raze-and-rebuild of the EBDI, as an extensive 2013 article by Dax-Devlon Ross dubbed it, Johns Hopkins had to want to expand and the city had to collaborate.

Since 2005, the planning department has placed every census block in one of eight categories. Broadway East, just north of the EBDI, and Milton-Montford just east, are almost entirely type H, the bottom category; Gay Street and Oliver, to the west and northwest, are a mix of types G and H. This means that all these neighbourhoods are stressed and require the most help, including comprehensive housing market interventions including site assembly, tax increment financing, and concentrated demolitions to create potential for greater public safety and new green amenities.

The neighbourhoods that have been decimated are not completely vacant … a mixture of derelict and occupied rowhouses. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

For some observers, the combination of an expansionist Hopkins and vulnerable neighbourhoods adjacent to Eager Park means the writing is on the wall. Large-scale demolition and forced relocations seem generally off the tablean apparent lesson of the EBDI experiencebut in the view of Brown, piecemeal dislocation is on the cards anyway.

Brown doesnt begrudge Hopkins for pursuing its long-term interest. This is a protracted planning operation, he says. Theyre doing this for the next 100 years, to secure the best research scientists, the best students. The bigger picture, to his mind, is the flood of government-backed developer money about to wash over east Baltimore. There is a plan to turn Old Town Mall (a derelict shopping centre) into a complex of offices and 1,200 units of housing. Also on the cards is redevelopment of the Perkins Homes, a public housing project with 1,400 residents that is located a few blocks from the harbour a newly desirable site that the city hopes to turn into a mixed-income community.

All told, the development money flowing towards east Baltimore may soon reach $4bn, Brown says. There are similar dynamics in parts of west Baltimore, which has the other large concentration of poor black people. Its hard to fight that level of capital that wants to occupy, build, and expand, Brown says. And I dont know if its already too far gone. This is a city that caters very strongly to developers. Ive seen enough to know that the city will squash and build over low-income black communities by any means necessary.

Lawrence Grandpre, research director of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, which describes itself as a grassroots think-tank on issues affecting black Baltimoreans, is sceptical too.

The theory of economic development here essentially locks a lot of working-class black folks into service economy jobs, he says, which means low pay, disruptive hours, no union representation, and slender job security. In his view, having the city and community hew to Hopkins priorities shows a failure of imagination. It operates to the exclusion of investing in indigenous talent, and even of understanding what indigenous talent could be.

Daniels sees it differently, of course, rejecting the zero-sum opposition of Hopkins interests and those of the community. He points to a range of initiatives. In 2015, for instance, after the upheaval that followed the death of Freddie Gray, the university and health system set themselves targets for hiring employees from the most disadvantaged neighbouring communities, and contracting with female and minority-owned businesses.