BALTIMORE — Along the street where Freddie Gray was arrested, abandoned houses are gashed with gaping holes. The roof on an old red-brick building is collapsed. A storm drain is clogged with concrete.
Sandtown-Winchester is crumbling, and there is little to suggest that two decades ago visionary developer James Rouse and city officials injected more than $130 million into the community in a failed effort to transform it. Instead there are block after block of boarded-up houses and too many people with little hope.
“It’s frustrating,” said Stefanie DeLuca, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who has studied the neighborhood. “How much money would it take? It certainly seems on an instinctual level that $100 million should have made some difference.”
But for much of Sandtown, life remains bleak. Once home to Thurgood Marshall, Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway, the West Baltimore neighborhood has suffered from unemployment, crime and poverty rates well above the city’s average, census and other data show. The state spends nearly $17 million just to incarcerate its former residents. Life expectancy is 10 years below the national average.
Sandtown’s misery has become part of the country’s conversation about poverty and policing since Gray’s death April 19, with President Obama and former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis among those weighing in. Gray, 25, suffered a severe spine injury while in police custody, touching off rioting and days of protest. On Friday, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby charged six police officers in his death, soothing tensions but offering no solution to Sandtown’s long-standing problems.
“Clearly, there is much more work that needs to be done there,” said former mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the president of the University of Baltimore.
Schmoke, a Democrat who was the city’s first elected African American mayor, began efforts to transform Sandtown in the early 1990s, teaming up with community groups and Rouse, the developer of the Inner Harbor and a longtime advocate for affordable housing whose Enterprise Foundation pushed such projects around the country.
Both men loved Baltimore. And they had big goals. “It is an enormously important opportunity for Baltimore to bring about major change, to resolve some of our most stubborn problems,” Rouse wrote in the Baltimore Sun in 1995, the year before his death.
Affordable housing was the first step to revitalizing a community, Schmoke and Rouse agreed, but they also wanted to address education, health, employment and crime — an immense undertaking. Many neighborhoods in Baltimore, on both the east and west sides, needed their help.
Rouse wanted to target East Baltimore, according to a study the Enterprise Foundation (now Enterprise Community Partners) commissioned examining the effort. He thought Johns Hopkins Hospital would be the perfect anchor to build around. Schmoke disagreed. He preferred West Baltimore, where he had already worked with community groups. The two eventually settled on Sandtown-Winchester, a 72-square-block community a few miles from the Inner Harbor that was ravaged by the crack epidemic of the 1980s.
As Stephen Harlee, a 57-year-old recovering addict and Sandtown native, put it last week: “I watched my neighborhood die.”
The effort to revive Sandtown was massive. More than 1,000 homes were eventually renovated or built. Schools were bolstered. Education and health services were launched.
But there were many obstacles along the way, according to Enterprise’s report. Some residents complained that the vision was too grand to execute. Others involved said the city’s bureaucracy stifled innovation.
The most significant problem, according to community organizers and the Enterprise report, was that new businesses and jobs never materialized. And as Baltimore’s decent-paying manufacturing jobs vanished — a problem shared by Detroit, Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities — there were fewer and fewer opportunities for Sandtown residents to find meaningful work.
In the absence of jobs, the drug trade flourished.
“A lot of people around here got caught up,” said Harlee, noting that his addiction to crack cost him his family and a series of good jobs — as a corrections officer, a firearms instructor and a long-haul truck driver. Harlee went to prison for five years for slamming his truck into a car and killing the driver after an all-night crack binge.
“Those drugs have everything to do with the condition of the neighborhood,” said Harlee, who said he has been clean for three years and has a maintenance job at an East Baltimore homeless shelter. “Everybody suffered. What kind of role models were we? How could we tell young kids not to sell drugs when we were buying them?”
At Penn North Community Resource Center, the human toll is on display every day. The center, housed in a brick building that was once an all-black high school, offers a 200-bed residential drug treatment program along with Narcotics Anonymous meetings that attract 600 people a day. Penn North is where Freddie Gray’s family held the repast after his funeral, the day the riots exploded.
Since then, Sandtown’s struggles have been revisited by the people who wanted to make a difference there. They said the hundreds of charming three-bedroom houses built in the neighborhood weren’t enough to transform the lives of those residing in and around them.
“Having a well-maintained home doesn’t get at the larger issues that prevent self-sufficiency,” said DeLuca, the Hopkins sociologist. “The labor market and drug markets really destabilized Sandtown.”
Daniel P. Henson III, the city’s housing commissioner when the initiative was launched, agreed that building houses and building thriving families were two different things. “What we did not know as well,” he said, “was how to improve human capital.”
The city tried. It hired people to knock on doors and offer health screenings. Others visited the homes of truant students to find out what was preventing them from attending school. Organizers helped form community groups and began a neighborhood newsletter to bring people together.
“We were naive,” said Diane Bell McKoy, president and chief executive of Associated Black Charities and a former top aide to Schmoke. “We meant well, and we mean well, but I don’t think we have taken time to dig deeply enough to find the answers.
“In many cases, people have to be connected to their own ability to change their lives. That kind of work calls for longer-term solutions than we are prepared to deal with in our political cycles.”
Sustaining interest, funding and other resources for Sandtown began to wane by the end of the 1990s, according to those involved in the project.
For one thing, federal grant priorities shifted toward public housing and other projects, said Chickie Grayson, chief executive of Enterprise Homes, the affordable-housing arm of the Rouse development empire. And Schmoke left office in 1999, succeeded by Martin O’Malley, who had his own redevelopment vision — in East Baltimore, near Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Rouse had originally wanted to focus.
O’Malley representatives dispute any notion that the former mayor (and later, Maryland’s governor and now a Democratic presidential hopeful) had abandoned Sandtown for East Baltimore. Matthew D. Gallagher, a former senior aide, said much of the development on the east side was driven by private funding sources, including Hopkins and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in a time of limited public funds. Efforts to help the west side didn’t cease.
“It wasn’t an either-or proposition,” Gallagher said.
But Sandtown-Winchester continued to suffer.
More than half of the households earn less than $25,000 a year. Nearly half of the neighborhood’s high school students missed at least 20 days of school in 2011, according to the city, and 6 percent of the residents are college graduates — less than a quarter of the city rate. The poverty has been accompanied by an epidemic of violence. Sandtown’s murder rate is double the citywide average, as is its rate of non-fatal shootings.
Still, there are pockets of hope in Sandtown-Winchester Square, in the homes Rouse and Schmoke helped build. While those residents can see dilapidated buildings from their front porches, they live amid white picket fences, red wooden decks and clean vinyl siding.
Charlene Morrison, 55, a nurse who lives on Gold Street, moved here 10 years ago, becoming one of her block’s first occupants.
She came because of incentives, she said: “They gave us $25,000 grants. A grant you don’t have to pay back.”
She raised three of her four children in Sandtown. “I love living here,” she said. “I mingle with my neighbors as I go to and from work. I plant my flowers. It’s like an oasis.”
She said the community is close-knit. “People take care of their property” and take pride in ownership, she said. They try to maintain their yards, despite the trash that blows in from the abandoned buildings not far away.
“Black plastic bags tumble down the street,” she said, “but we pick them up.”
In recent days, the NAACP decided to open an office in Sandtown, and a parade of politicians descended on the neighborhood, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who shot hoops with residents.
Michael Lyles, 23, lives a block from the basketball court and said he was glad to see Hogan come to the neighborhood. But he doesn’t think it will lead to much change in his community.
“I just feel like he’s going around because of the protests,” he said. “If he did it on a regular day, it might mean more.”
The frustration is endemic.
“Everyone keeps calling us impoverished,” one young man, who declined to give his name, complained after charges were announced against the officers in Gray’s death. “It’s insulting, makes us feel like we’re poor or something.”
“But a lot of us are poor,” responded his companion, Hershie Witherspoon, 23. “Not all of us, but most of us. Look at all of these vacant houses. They’ve been like that for a long time. We need jobs.”
John Woodrow Cox, DeNeen L. Brown, Terrence McCoy, Ovetta Wiggins and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.