On a recent Saturday afternoon, Erica Day set up a card table on the sidewalk in front of her rowhouse in West Baltimore, brought out a half-bushel of steamed crabs and invited some neighbors to join her.
Day’s house had been purchased by her great-grandmother when the neighborhood, known as Sandtown-Winchester, was bustling with black-owned businesses. Nightclubs featured class acts, such as Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway, burnishing the neighborhood’s reputation as Baltimore’s Harlem.
But the charm is long gone. The world learned of the neighborhood after the death of Freddie Gray, who grew up there, and the protests and riot that followed. They saw a neighborhood economically drained by the flight of the black middle class and bled out, literally, by trigger-happy drug dealers. They learned of residents beaten down by overly aggressive police officers.
And yet, on a sidewalk near Presstman Street and Druid Hill Avenue — once part of an expansive open-air drug market — Day was hosting an open-air crab fest. It was a small but significant sign of a neighborhood being transformed, a sense of community beginning to be reborn despite the social and economic problems that linger.
“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t do that, sit out front and eat, not in peace,” said C.W. Harris, a minister at Newborn Community of Faith Church in Sandtown who lives across the street from Day.
Harris had spearheaded many of the efforts that had made more than a few streets safe for such neighborly get-togethers. In 1996, he founded a community outreach nonprofit, Intersection of Change, which develops housing and community centers, a school and urban vegetable gardens to address what Harris called “food neglect” in the neighborhood.
“Our mission is the eradication of poverty,” said Harris, who was born in Sandtown in 1950.
The group began its work by renovating an abandoned house on the block where Day and Harris live and turning it into Martha’s Place, a recovery home for women who are homeless and addicted to drugs. Residents learn not only how to stay clean but also how to start their own businesses.
One former resident now operates her own bus transportation service.
“We try to look out for each other, especially the children and the elderly,” said Janet Hawkins Isaac, who completed a drug rehabilitation program at Martha’s Place and serves as a deaconess at the Newborn church. She also had a seat at the crab table.
“There are still drugs on the street, so if I see a needle on the ground or a dope bag, I pick it up so that the kids and seniors won’t step on it,” she said between bites of crabmeat.
Harris recalled that the once-vibrant neighborhood went into a “tailspin” in 1968, when the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led to riots that destroyed businesses and community spirit. But he refused to join the middle-class exodus.
“I just felt a sense of responsibility and, as clergy, began to see my role as being a moral anchor in the neighborhood,” he said.
Todd Marcus, executive director of Intersection for Change, recalled how the organization dealt with a huge drug market at Pennsylvania Avenue and Presstman Street, where the group is headquartered.
“Dealers were on the corners and around the fountain in the park, with people lined up to get free samples,” Marcus recalled. “We were planning a massive beautification project for the area, so we approached the drug dealers and said, ‘You know what we are trying to do here, and we need your help.’ It was not adversarial, but an appeal to building a community based on relationships.”
Not only did the drug dealers move, but some joined the neighborhood improvement efforts.
Another small but significant example of what is possible without relying on mass arrests and incarceration in a so-called war on drugs.
Together with Habitat for Humanity, the group has built 300 homes for Sandtown residents and also opened the Jubilee Arts center, where residents can take dance lessons and classes in visual arts, ceramics and creative writing. They also raised $10 million to build a school for neighborhood children, from pre-K to eighth grade, called New Song Academy.
The Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood covers 72 square blocks and is home to about 9,000 people. About a third of the housing stock is abandoned and boarded up, 20 percent of working-age residents are unemployed, and the neighborhood has more people in jails and prisons than any other census tract in Maryland, according to a recent report by the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative.
There is much more work to be done, but Sandtown is making inroads worthy of acknowledgment.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.