Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Letters to the Editor: Lucille Gorham – Role model for E. Baltimore

Ms. Lucille Gorham, a longtime resident and activist of East Baltimore died Saturday Nov. 3. Until 2006, she lived in a home on Chase Street which she owned, after being displaced three times for small and large expansion projects of the Johns Hopkins Medical complex.

Ms. Gorham’s activism became prominent after the 1950s Broadway Urban Renewal Project when 50 acres west of the Hopkins boundary — Broadway at that time — was redeveloped and more than 1,000 families were displaced. None were able to return to the rebuilt area after promises that affordable housing would be built for them.

The homes built were affordable only to staff, students and faculty of the Johns Hopkins community. Ms. Gorham was determined that the 1960s Gay Street Urban Renewal Project which followed would be different by helping to organize the community and participating in decisions affecting the planning and development of that area.

Fast forward to 2001 when 88 acres north of Hopkins is targeted for urban renewal, again for the expansion of Hopkins and promises that the more than 1,000 families displaced by eminent domain and similarly low-income and working poor families would have an opportunity to afford new or renovated housing and increased employment.

This project finds Ms. Gorham, now 76 and having lived her adult years as activist and community leader, spearheading several prominent community organizations (Citizens for Fair Housing, Middle East Community Organization, Clearing House for a Healthy Community and others), giving the Middle East Community its name, and being a role model, an anchor, and a reliable resource to up and coming African American politicians who sit in positions that could benefit this community today.

In the 1980s at the peak of her relentless challenge to the continued expansion of the Johns Hopkins Medical complex into her community, she garnered a promise from the president that the institution would not expand its northern boundaries beyond Rutland Avenue. Given the current expansion of the institution beyond Rutland Avenue, it remains unclear whether promises by past leadership of the grand institution leave with them.

Ms. Gorham was reluctant to leave but believed that after so many years of disinvestment and abandonment of Middle East, the large planned development might be able to save her community. She did not know that so many families would be forced to leave and so many buildings would be demolished.

And she thought those who wished to return would be afforded that right through the necessary support. Her block on Chase Street was targeted in the first phase of redevelopment by EBDI (East Baltimore Development Inc.) and she left in an “urban renewal fog” (her words).

Ms. Gorham was angry after her relocation to a home in Northeast Baltimore and she shared this with many. The home required many repairs she could not afford and she thanked the Lord that her family members had the skills to help with the repairs. Still, she worried about the cost of the home and meeting the mortgage.

She also felt isolated; no one in the new community knew her and she wondered what had happened to her friends and neighbors in East Baltimore. After so many years of living in a close network of friends and family, opening her door and saying hello to many who passed her door each day, she felt alone.

Other elders who were displaced for the 88-acre Hopkins development have reported similar feelings of isolation and disconnectedness from familiar places and people. At least six others have died since the project began.

Studies report that the stress effects of being involuntarily displaced from your home and community can be compared to forced migration as seen with refugees. One recent study reports the negative health effects of displacing elders from their social networks in familiar communities.

Still others report the unknown toll of displacement secondary to loss of connections — being uprooted from community and familiar settings — on the physical and psychological health. Young children can also be affected by the stressors of displacement directly and indirectly when their parents suffer stress from an involuntary move, the unknown of a new community, and loss of social networks which helped to support daily activities such as transportation, shopping, child care and elderly care.

Another recent study reports a benefit to young adults after voluntarily relocating from impoverished communities to ones with increased safety, better schools and better infrastructure. This suggests that general health of residents can be improved by taking the same resources we use to displace a community and investing them into making that community one with increased safety, better schools and better infrastructure, thereby increasing the likelihood that all races and classes of people would want to live there. Then we would not have to uproot our historic communities.

It begs the question: do we not want the historic people in the rebuilt community?

Yes, it is a sad day when the prestigious institution which promotes itself by being first in curing diseases and developing specialty care has neglected the socio-economic causes of illness and death in its own backyard.

But it is a trauma when it continues to contribute to a shortsighted vision of redevelopment in a haste to protect itself by disrupting and uprooting communities and contributing to known and unknown consequences of poor health.

When health institutions cause harm, we must ask ourselves why, and what can be done about this targeted neglect to our most vulnerable citizens of Baltimore: our poor, our elderly, our disenfranchised.

Today, in the wake of the death of Ms. Gorham, a person whose adult life represented the struggle to address exactly this population, we must begin to find the paths that lead away from this neglect, and toward a more healthy way of doing redevelopment that brings benefit to all those affected.

We must call on our community organizations and associations in East Baltimore to come together and plan for restoring this community to wholeness. We must call on our political leaders who have the opportunity to cause change in this urban renewal project but have not shown the political will or action to do so.

We must call on our social justice organizations across the city and beyond to offer the resources that will support a community movement in East Baltimore. We must call on our students, staff and faculty at all the Johns Hopkins campuses who want to attend and participate in a renowned health institution that addresses the needs of society not only abroad but also at home.

We must call on the powerful stakeholders who guide this project to re-envision what a healthy East Baltimore really means. And finally we must ask ourselves: do the ends envisioned by the few and affecting the many justify the means and processes that enable us to get there?

Marisela B. Gomez

Dr. Gomez is an author of the forthcoming book “Race, Class, Power and Organizing in East Baltimore: Rebuilding Abandoned Communities in America.” She is a preventive medicine and public health professional, and community activist with the Community Housing and Relocation Working Group in East Baltimore.