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Daily Record investigation: Renaming Middle East hits a sour note

What’s in a name?

That’s a loaded question if you ask people from Middle East, a community north of Johns Hopkins Hospital that is subject to an 88-acre overhaul.

Now the community may be getting a new name.

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Middle East needs to be “rebranded,” says Andrew Frank, a former deputy mayor who now works as special advisor on economic development to the president of the Johns Hopkins University.

“The downturn in the market has given us a time to pause. We need to be smarter about who is likely to live in the neighborhood,” said Frank.

A name change does not sit well with some elected officials who represent the area and with former residents. They remain unsettled by the city’s decision almost 10 years ago to relocate residents, demolish buildings and build a new community.

“What are they going to name it — Upper Canton?” asked Carl Stokes, a city councilman who represents part of the area. “It’s Middle East … why do they have to do a marketing study?”

The long-troubled community, once home to both working-class elderly citizens and drug dealers, was named Middle East by its residents in 1978 for its geographic setting the city. Increasing violence there later brought comparisons to its international namesake.

“Paying a consultant to rename East Baltimore is a waste of money,” said City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who grew up in the area and was Stokes’ predecessor in the 12th District council seat.

“I don’t like it. Why change it? It’s not anything we have had an ongoing conversation about,” said Donald Gresham, one of the most vocal opponents to the project. Gresham chose not to leave Middle East and is one of about 40 residents waiting to move to a newly renovated house.

A new name, said city housing commissioner Paul T. Graziano, should reflect the positive qualities of the new community.

“What should people think of when they think of this community?” asked Graziano, adding that residents “don’t live in EBDI.”

John T. “Jack” Shannon Jr., the founding CEO of East Baltimore Development Inc. who resigned in 2009, isn’t so sure a name change is a good idea. He called it “a hot button issue for certain community members.”

“It also begs the question: You can call that neighborhood anything, but unless you establish a physical environment and sense of community it’s not going to change,” said Shannon.