BALTIMORE — As “Big Mike” Saunders watched an excavator knock down another house in his old neighborhood, he pulled out his phone and searched for a picture. Like many here, when Saunders thinks about the forces that buffet East Baltimore’s poor residents, it quickly comes down to one word: Hopkins.
“Look here,” Saunders said, pulling up a photo that, to him, encapsulates the antipathy many black residents feel toward the massive hospital a few blocks away. It was a shot of some of his family members having lunch with Oprah Winfrey when the megastar was in town last year to film, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
Saunders is a cousin of Lacks, a 1950s cancer patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital who, without her consent, had her cervical cells harvested and maintained for medical research that continues to this day. Called HeLa cells, they have been used in more than 74,000 studies, producing reams of data and billions in medical advances, all from a poor local
patient doctors never bothered to ask.
“They just do to African Americans in East Baltimore whatever they want to, always have,” Saunders said.
It didn’t matter to him or others that Hopkins was playing no direct role in the city’s decision to demolish the blighted 900 block of North Bradford Street.
“They want us gone from here,” said Barak Olds, who was raised in one of the North Bradford rowhouses that Saunders helped knock down.
Residents routinely refer to Hopkins as “the plantation,” “the octopus” or “the elephant.”
Olds is one of many to cite “the model,” a once-publicly displayed architectural rendering of Hopkins’s vision for the neighborhood’s future that left out most of the rowhouses.
“You hear it over and over, ‘My grandma always said that someday they would come for our house, too,’ ” said Marisela Gomez, a Hopkins-trained physician and public health researcher who has been gathering stories in the neighborhood since 1990. “The white men from Hopkins are going to come knock on the door.”
Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels is well aware of how Hopkins is viewed in parts of the community. The Canadian academic, who arrived in Baltimore in 2009, also chairs the executive committee of Johns Hopkins Medicine. He owns up to mistakes the hospital has made over its 128-year history. He understands that an entity of its size — the city’s largest employer — is going to get singled out, whatever its actual role.
“I took the view that the single best way we could engage with the city was not through a lot of lofty rhetoric but to demonstrate with our actions what we could do toward the betterment of the city.”
He pointed to initiatives to boost East Baltimore, including a program to use local vendors for the hospital’s vast appetite of supplies and services, as well as the intentional hiring of 177 ex-offenders over the past year.
“There’s a very rich story about all the ways in which we are doubling and redoubling our efforts to strengthen the city,” Daniels said.
But perceptions have been slow to change. Many of the suspicions about Hopkins are rooted in history, Gomez said. The hospital, once the largest landlord in one of the city’s poorest communities, visited homeowners to buy properties, and many felt pressured to sell. Hopkins has been at the center of multiple urban renewal projects over the decades, including a 59-acre project that displaced more than 1,000 families in the 1950s.
The city’s latest revitalization effort is the massive East Baltimore Development Inc. that aims to remake an 88-acre parcel north of the hospital into an employment center with mixed-income housing. After years of delays and setbacks, the project is gaining momentum, with a new charter school and scores of apartments being built. During a single September incentive event, more than 50 homeowners, many of them African Americans who work at the hospital, put deposits down on new and renovated townhouses.
But some locals see that progress as another form of eviction. Olds lamented the rowhouses, many of them vacant, that were torn down to build the school. His mother’s former rowhouse in the 900 block of North Bradford Street was just outside the redevelopment project’s footprint. But the city demolition program that took the house neatly syncs with fears — real and imagined — of the hospital’s designs.
“This is all part of their generational memory,” Gomez said. “It’s real for them.”