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Daily Record investigation: Wrecking buildings or lives in Middle East?

Baltimore City Housing commissioner Paul Graziano

Did they have to destroy the community to save it?

Most of The New East Baltimore’s 88 acres remain undeveloped, with only 37 percent of the rental and for-sale homes planned for the first phase actually built.

East Baltimore Development Inc. projected, as recently as May 2008 in a bond offering to investors, that there would be 599 houses completed or under construction by now. But there are only 220 residences in four developments, ranging from five condos to 78 apartments, scattered among the vacant lots.

With so much cleared land awaiting development, some question whether it was such a good idea to obliterate the entire Middle East neighborhood rather than demolishing and rebuilding it piecemeal.

Seven hundred thirty-two households have been relocated and 669 buildings demolished so far. Another 700 vacant row houses are ready to come down.

“They don’t have a vision,” City Councilman Carl Stokes said of EBDI. “Housing is not their primary focus there. Dislocation, not relocation. They were trying to remove people.”

“They wanted to remove the people and those buildings and there could be a good case to be made for removing the buildings, but I don’t think there’s any case to be made to remove citizens,” added Stokes, who represents part of the area.

“They should have talked to the citizens to remake the community, but [instead] are using taxpayer money to rebuild.”

Raymond A. Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, said EBDI could have learned lessons from the redevelopment of Hyde Park in Chicago. There, the community was redeveloped gradually, leaving stable business and homes standing, he said.

Baltimore’s philosophy, the professor said, was to “disrupt the whole thing to save it.

“They want it to look like Charles Village,” Winbush said of the predominantly white, middle-class North Baltimore neighborhood adjacent to the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus. “It ain’t gonna happen.”

‘Ethnic cleansing’

Mindy Fullilove, a research psychiatrist at Columbia University who has studied urban renewal and its impact on local communities, agreed. She said The New East Baltimore project, which she has visited, is an example of “ethnic cleansing, American style.”

“It’s been done so many times that there’s millions of ways to do it,” Fullilove said. “When they say ‘We have to clear the neighborhood out,’ they mean they have to get rid of the people there. Some of what people lose when they move is priceless — connections, friendships, history — and money can’t buy those things. Money can’t buy you the house your grandmother left you when she came up from the South.

“Once they tear down the house, you can never go back.”

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young is an example of that. He grew up in Middle East and is still smarting over the demolition of his home turf.

“What if I become mayor? What if I become governor and they want me to show them where I lived? I will have nothing to show them,” Young told The Daily Record.

Another New Orleans

But those overseeing the project — including current CEO Christopher Shea, his predecessor, John T. “Jack” Shannon, and Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano — say that clearing out the neighborhood was the only way to rebuild wisely.

“We were trying to run a high-speed rail at the same time we were laying the rails right in front of us,” Shannon said.

Graziano compares Middle East to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“There are parallels to New Orleans. Obviously New Orleans was a natural disaster, but the abandonment here was equal to it,” said Graziano, who also serves on EBDI’s board.

Ronald J. Daniels, president of the Johns Hopkins University, said the challenges of such a massive redevelopment project are daunting and demand extraordinary resources and commitment to change.

“I think if you look at the magnitude of the problems that that community was and is experiencing — crime, poverty, under employment, low health outcomes — I actually think it behooves the leadership of the city to respond with an ambitious initiative. I don’t think we should say it was too much, too fast. There’s a real moral imperative here to help this community become strong and healthy.”