BALTIMORE — On a steamy July evening, young and old gathered on a freshly cut plot of grass for a summertime block party in West Baltimore, the air thick with sweat and bug spray.

With dance music beating, kids bounced in an inflatable house and swung on swings while adults congregated with plates of food. As an ice cream truck jingled up to the curb, Sonia Eaddy, the block party’s organizer, stepped up to the microphone. The celebratory atmosphere belied the tenor of her remarks.

“I’ve been fighting this fight since 2004. I’ve been trying to get the attention of people since 2004,” Eaddy, 57, said. “So too have all of you out here in 2021 — it should not have taken this long.”

The West Baltimore native and her husband, Curtis, are at the center of the Poppleton neighborhood’s dispute with the City of Baltimore, which condemned their home last year using eminent domain — how the government takes private property for public use. Their property is among more than 500 homes and lots included in a planned redevelopment of the neighborhood that the city signed 15 years ago with New York developer La Cité.

In an aging city with several ongoing redevelopment projects, such property seizure is commonplace. But some argue its use is uneven, typically resulting in the displacement of low-income and working-class people in communities of color.

“You’re not doing that in Federal Hill, in Canton, in Reservoir Hill. You’re preserving and protecting the architectural character,” Eaddy, 57, said. “How come Poppleton doesn’t deserve that?”

Tammy Hawley, a spokesperson from the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said Poppleton had become “largely vacant and desolate” over the years. She said La Cité will bring in new residents and visitors at various household income levels to “advance and enhance” the neighborhood.

“It is commonly understood today that a mixed-income community is what is needed for communities to thrive and opportunity to flow for current and future residents,” she said.

Residents like Eaddy say they aren’t opposed to reinvestment in their neighborhoods. But they are angered at being pushed out from the land they own, away from where they and their families grew up and the neighbors they hold dear.

“We just broke up — they broke up the family,” said Carolyn Shoemaker, Eaddy’s neighbor and a longtime Poppleton resident who moved July 15 into her new home in Mondawmin. “It hurts in the pit of my stomach. They didn’t give me much of a choice.”

Poppleton's past

Poppleton, like other predominantly Black neighborhoods, has been neglected for decades as a result of redlining, a bank practice of refusing to lend in areas deemed a financial risk, said Seema D. Iyer, associate director of the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore.

“It’s a very long and sad history, but the question is, what’s the response?” Iyer said. “How do you invest where the current community that’s there can also reap the benefits?

“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t let neighborhoods get to this point in the first place.”

Poppleton is a community all too familiar with the harm development can cause. It sits just south of the “Highway to Nowhere,” a stretch of road originally meant to extend Interstate 70 to downtown Baltimore starting in the 1960s. But it remains unfinished, its legacy reduced to dividing West Baltimore neighborhoods like Poppleton from other communities.

Still, much remains of Poppleton’s proud past. It houses Black churches, landmarks and schools, as well as a community garden. Edgar Allan Poe’s former house has been converted to a museum, Maryland’s only national Literary Landmark. And Baltimore’s first public housing complex, Poe Homes, will soon be overhauled with federal dollars.

Eaddy, who has owned her home since 1992 and spent years working as a community leader and volunteer, does not want to leave. She spent years rebuilding her house after a devastating fire in 2012. She’s also working with historic preservationists to see what can be saved from ruin and sought to pause demolition of some properties.

The Sarah Ann Street alley houses — an “endangered” building class, where Black families have lived in Poppleton possibly since the 1870s — will not be demolished, Hawley said, though most of their residents have relocated. However, the houses will be transferred to the developer, who will incorporate them into its plans.

The fate of Eaddy’s home, which dates to 1900 and has been in her family for decades, is less clear.

After the Eaddy family appealed the condemnation of their North Carrollton Avenue home, a judge ruled the city had the authority to take it. Eaddy and her attorney, Joseph Suntum, said they will appeal the city’s decision, a process that could take years.

It can be difficult for people to appeal condemnations and win, especially those involving eminent domain, given the jurisdiction states and municipalities have to take properties for public use.

But Suntum said every condemnation appeal has its own merits. In Eaddy’s case, he said the Urban Renewal Plan for Poppleton, which dates to 1975, has barely been realized, making the house’s contribution to public use unclear.

“The developer doesn’t have financing for his plans with the Eaddy property,” he said. “Our position is it shouldn’t be going forward unless the actual plan is going to go forward.”

La Cité did not respond to requests for comment.

The Eaddy family has vowed to fight as long as they can to protect what remains of the neighborhood they love — the site of their ancestral roots and generational wealth. But demolition of properties, even ones with historical value, rolls on.

On July 12, two days after the block party, crews demolished the “Boss Kelly” house, the former headquarters of the West Baltimore Democratic Club. The city’s housing department temporarily delayed it after it was designated for demolition in April. But the developer determined it couldn’t be rehabilitated, according to a statement from the housing department, surprising neighbors and activists who thought it stood a chance at being preserved.

'Last ones standing'

Eaddy said she feels unmoored after losing the condemnation appeal and as neighbors move and homes come down around her.

“We are the last ones standing,” she said. “They have left our community devastated. And they don’t care. We had neighbors, we had people — families. They came in and they wiped that out.”

As people left Poppleton and development stalled, Eaddy said, the neighborhood’s condition worsened, giving the city more leverage to assume control.

“We shouldn’t have to call 3-1-1 to maintain property that you took,” she said. “You created the blight, not us.”

City officials signed a land disposition agreement in 2006 that laid out the developer’s rights and the vision for the “Center\West” project. The city is responsible for at least $10 million in bonds already sold as part of a $58 million tax increment financing deal to pay for infrastructure work for the massive $800 million project.

Per the agreement, La Cité has the authority to bring in new residential and commercial amenities to the designated 13.8 acres of land spanning Poppleton and the adjacent Franklin Square neighborhood. The parcel is west of the University of Maryland Medical Center and north of the University of Maryland BioPark and the B&O Railroad Museum. Downtown Baltimore and the central business district are blocks away.

“This is prime real estate,” Eaddy said about her house in a recent interview in her living room. “We walked downtown to everything. You have that accessibility.”

Still beholden to the 2006 agreement, city officials are tasked with acquiring properties and removing tenants and homeowners. They spent years obtaining pieces of land and relocating individuals to new areas, an undertaking that continues now.

“We haven’t preserved Black history in the same way we have white history,” said Nicole King, associate professor and chair of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s department of American studies, who has studied Poppleton and helped document it.

King said the land covered by the agreement included 134 owner-occupied properties, most of which have been cleared out.

The housing department’s Hawley said negotiations are underway for affordable housing for seniors in Center\West, a project originally slated in the land disposition agreement to be completed in 2016.

“Market volatility, like the Great Recession of 2008, has been cited by the Developer as responsible for some delays,” Hawley said in an email. “Legal issues can cause delays. Of late, the recent pandemic has also been said to have an effect on contractor performance, financial support, etc.”

La Cité has completed two luxury-style apartment buildings there, both now fully leased and occupied. Its website outlines a vision for up to 1,800 units of housing, 20 percent of them designated as “affordable.” The remaining 80% would be valued at market-rate prices.

Plans also include for-sale housing, parking, municipal services, green space, hotels, office space and a shopping center, according to the developer’s website. In March, La Cité reached an agreement with Market Fresh Gourmet to open a grocery store.

Eaddy said the developer and the city made it clear from the beginning that the renewal wasn’t intended for current Poppleton residents. Baltimore, without its rowhouses, stoops and diverse neighbors, “loses its flavor,” she said.

John T. Bullock, a Democrat on the City Council since 2016 who represents much of West Baltimore, said there’s a tension between improving the neighborhood and avoiding displacement.

“One of the concerns in the area is the concentration of poverty and how we change some of the social ills,” he said. “The answer seems to be mixed-income housing and changing the concentration of resources.”

Eaddy said that if she loses her appeal, said she wouldn’t return to Poppleton.

“What they are trying to create does not look the same as the diversification I grew up with,” she said. “This has been my life, you know. I don’t know what it is to start over.”

— Baltimore Sun