Silver-haired ministers, old women with canes, mothers carrying infants, husky-voiced teenage boys, girls punching the sky with clenched fists, men snapping photos with their cell phones – more than 500 people marched last night through upscale Harbor East, the city’s swankiest waterfront district, to ask the developer who built it to share a little of his wealth with Baltimore’s run-down city schools.
As they walked, chanting, past city-subsidized office towers and luxury hotels, glittering boutiques, restaurants and galleries that sparkled in the twilight, the marchers encountered some ugliness:
Someone dumped water on them from the balcony of a luxury condominium, The Vue. “Move away!” parents yelled to their children, as it splattered on marchers’ heads. Further down Aliceanna Street, anti-abortion picketers waved bloody fetus photos.
And as the pumped-up, chanting group marched along, sturdy, plain-clothed security guards patrolled, rebuking those who strayed from the sidewalk with the warning to “stay off the street.”
“Oh, they know we’re coming,” Douglas Miles, co-chair of Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development (BUILD) told the crowd earlier in the day at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, staging area for the BUILD-organized demonstration.
The protesters gathered at Dunbar to get their marching orders from BUILD leaders and to share stories about the condition of their schools and concern about the recreation centers the city is threatening to privatize and close, another BUILD priority.
“For three or four years, we’ve had a roof that leaks and after a really rainy weekend, we came back and mold had grown,” said Sharon Wheaden-West, a teacher at Westside Elementary Schools. “Teachers, we’ve been painting our own classrooms.”
The possible closure of city rec centers was what brought Rev. Glenna Reed Huber, pastor of the Church of the Holy Nativity, in West Baltimore, to the rally. “See her?” she said pointing to a woman from her congregation. “She really needs the rec center to be open. She works two jobs, her daughter spends all her after-school time at the center. She depends on that rec center.”
“The Money Trail”
BUILD, a coalition of faith and community groups, has found a potent response to arguments that Baltimore can’t afford to fix the city’s aging schools or save its recs. They point to the millions the city grants to Baltimore developers, particularly Harbor East developer John Paterakis Sr., in the form of tax breaks.
Last year, 12 downtown and Harbor East buildings got $14.5 million in tax breaks – and, of that, Paterakis got $9.4 million.
BUILD co-chair Andrew Foster Connors roused the Dunbar crowd with the story behind each of the Harbor East buildings the group planned to “tour” on what they called “the money trail”:
• The Legg Mason tower had $3.99 million in taxes excused last year, thanks to a city tax break in effect until 2024.
• The Marriott Waterfront Hotel had $3.37 million excused last year, under a city tax break in effect until 2022.
• The Laureate office building got a break of more than $954,000 last year, via a deal from the city that stays in effect until 2016.
• Spinnaker Bay Apartments and garage got more than $1 million, thanks to financing in effect until 2024.
“We got angry,” Foster Connors said, “asking, why is it that we are giving these kinds of tax breaks to subsidize beautiful buildings such as these, when (school librarian) Terra Hiltner has to watch out for falling roof tiles at Holabird Academy?”
BUILD’s Meeting with Paterakis
On Saturday, he said, BUILD met with Paterakis and made all those points face-to-face. The developer told the group that “’but for’ these subsidies, these kinds of developments would not happen,” Foster Connors said. “Jobs would not be created, Harbor East would still be a wasteland.”
He said Paterakis told them he is giving $2 million of his next subsidy to build Crossroads Charter School, and that $140,000 of his own money is going to “a jobs strategy to hire more Baltimore residents to work in Harbor East.” But BUILD wants more.
At the group’s behest, Foster Connors said, Paterakis called Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to ask her to find the money to keep rec centers open and to rebuild and repair schools. It’s unclear whether he will agree to the group’s other requests – that he gather the corporate community to raise $10 million per year for the schools and contribute $2 million of his own money each year as part of that effort.
“He told us, through Michael Beatty from [Paterakis's] H&S Properties, that there is a willingness to help,” but “no commitment.”
Foster Connors said that teachers, parents, faith leaders and even now the mayor has “stepped up,” through the bottle tax she is proposing today, to raise money for schools: “What about the corporate community?”
BUILD Drops in to Harbor East
The buses pulled in next to Harbor Point, the 27-acre project for which Paterakis is seeking a $155 million tax increment financing bond (TIF) from the city. On the east side of the Thames St. Wharf building there, a black stretch limousine idled. On the west side in the parking lots, a spectacular sunset greeted the marchers.
As the march proceeded along Aliceanna Street, the predominantly white patrons of bars and restaurants looked up from meals and the Ravens game to stare out the windows at the stream of predominantly African-American people snaking down the street in a line chanting “Raise our youth! Raise our city
A woman in a sequined dress, smoking a cigarette outside the Marriott, watched the commotion. A car with diplomatic plates was parked nearby.
Carla Hobson, of Mount Washington, said she has a daughter at Barclay Elementary Middle School in Charles Village and a son at Baltimore Polytechnic and joined the march because of the conditions in city school buildings.
“It’s not the teachers or the curriculum I’m talking about, I think they are doing a great job, I’m happy with them,” she said, “but it’s the buildings, the conditions, the lack of janitors.”
“My son is always cold,” she said. The girls’ bathroom at her daughter’s school “is like a sauna in winter, it’s like 106 degrees – they have to prop the door open. The heat collects there. Then the rest of the building is cold. The stall doors don’t close.”
Even youngsters in the crowd, like fourth-grader Toney Jackson could easily explain the logic that brought public school families like his on this brisk November night, to this district of doormen, valet parkers and shops selling items like a 111-year-old decorative olive oil urn for $1,250.
“Baltimore is giving too much money to other businesses and companies – they’re cutting taxes for their buildings, instead of giving it to the schools,” 9-year-old Jackson said.
“The investment should be in our children,” said his mother, Shanti Dixon-Gramby. “I feel like the city has lost sight of that.”