Book on Hopkins redevelopment by a leader of the opposition

Marisela Gomez describes group's attempt to defend a community facing demolition and dislocation

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Remains of 247 properties demolished to make way for the future Henderson Hopkins Partnership Elementary School. In the background, St. Wenceslaus Church.

Photo by: Mark Reutter, November 2011

Baltimoreans have fought many battles against City Hall’s development projects over the decades, whether it was a freeway through Fells Point, a new road and parking spaces in Patterson Park or a Westside “Highway to Nowhere.”

But only one community group has single-handedly confronted the daunting task of representing an entire neighborhood facing elimination by a project developed by the City and its largest employer.

Save Middle East Action Committee, better known as SMEAC, was formed in 2001, four months after then-Mayor Martin O’Malley and Johns Hopkins University decided to remove 750 households in 88 acres of the downtrodden Middle East community, just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore.

The plan by the entity they created, East Baltimore Development Inc. [EBDI], promised to lift up East Baltimore through the creation of a new residential neighborhood and a biotech park that would foster jobs, as well as medical breakthroughs by Hopkins researchers. It was also one of the country’s most ambitious efforts to seize private property through eminent domain. But neither the city nor Hopkins invited residents to participate in the decision to demolish the community.

In fact, many of them learned about it in The Sun in January 2001.

David vs. Goliath

Now comes a book aiming to set the historic record straight about SMEAC’s struggle to represent those forced to leave and to give the low-income, African American residents of Middle East a say in their future: to make sure they received enough money to buy or rent new homes, to ensure the messy demolition did not endanger their health and to find a way to let some stay in the newly built community.

Race, Class, Power and Organizing in East Baltimore: Rebuilding Abandoned Communities in America, by Marisela B. Gomez, is both a textbook tale of a David-and-Goliath neighborhood organizing battle and the author’s unabashed pro-community view of the long, difficult history between Middle East and its powerful, ever expanding neighbor to the south, the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

Gomez documents her book with more than 100 interviews and many historical sources, including an investigative series I co-authored with Melody Simmons for The Daily Record in early 2011. (EBDI officials, calling the series “unfair” and “inaccurate,” published a detailed response to it.)

She also comes with a personal story of her own involvement in the Middle East controversy as a Hopkins-educated medical doctor with a PhD in immunopharmacology and a masters degree in public health.

While at Hopkins, Gomez began volunteering in Middle East, attending meetings of anxious residents about to lose their homes.

She became so passionate about their cause that she took the job as executive director of SMEAC in 2003.

“It is my aspiration to offer a perspective from ‘inside’ the community: one that is seldom recorded in detail,” she wrote in her introduction.

She wrote the book, she says, because former residents, most of them now dispersed to other neighborhoods, “wanted to have a history of the work of SMEAC because the organization was disbanded and the history was getting lost.”

While SMEAC was unable to save any homes in Middle East from being seized by the city and East Baltimore Development Inc. (the nonprofit formed by the city and Hopkins), Gomez’ book does describe SMEAC’s efforts  to bring some social justice to displaced residents.

Fighting for a Better Price

Her book documents, for example, how the city initially was only willing to give residents small sums of money to move (at first only $22,500 per household in 2001) that would never allow homeowners to afford houses in new communities.

Thanks to SMEAC and its many protests, each Middle East homeowner received relocation packages of as much as $250,000 so they could buy houses elsewhere at the height of the housing bubble.

These facts are important in countering numerous assertions by the project’s leaders and funders in recent years that the generous relocation package, setting a new standard for compensating people relocated through eminent domain, sprang from their own high moral standards.

But that’s not how it happened, as Gomez’s book recounts. Months of community organizing, public protests (“Real Justice for Real People” read one sign carried in a protest in front of Hopkins hospital) and letter writing campaigns (often with the help of Morgan State University professors) led to raising the standards for those forced to leave.

Their demonstrations paid off, whether it was for more money for relocation, better health standards for curbing air pollution (including lead dust) during demolition, or a chance for some residents to stay in the community by getting newly renovated homes in Middle East.

“And even when residents won concessions, sometimes EBDI and its partners revised history, claiming credit and co-opting resident suggestions,” Gomez writes. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, for example, “appointed itself the new national authority in defining the most equitable relocation processes in the redevelopment of urban communities.”

Houses slated to be torn down on Ashland Avenue as part of the EBDI project in 2011. (Photo by Mark Reutter) Houses slated to be torn down on Ashland Avenue as part of the EBDI project in 2011. The demolisher: Pless Jones’ P&J Contracting group. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Nelson: Should Have Listened Earlier

This was true until last November when two EBDI officials appeared on the Marc Steiner show on WEAA (88.9FM) and praised Gomez and other community leaders who have been a thorn in their sides for years.

Douglas Nelson, EBDI board chairman who recently retired as CEO of the Casey Foundation, which has invested more than $36 million in the project, and Christopher Shea, EBDI’s president and CEO, appeared unusually conciliatory toward community adversaries.

At one point Nelson confessed that he wished EBDI had listened earlier to SMEAC’s pleas to set aside numerous vacated houses to be renovated for Middle East residents who wanted to stay in the community. Known today as the “House for House” program, there are only about 40 such houses, out of almost 1,400 houses that have either been demolished or are awaiting demolition.

Calling it a miscalculation, Nelson told Steiner, “We should have done home rehabs and ‘House for a House’ earlier in the project.”

Shea gave unusual credit to the “genius of the community” for suggesting more options for residents who didn’t want to leave.

What prompted these leaders’ change of tone is unclear. Perhaps it was only coincidental that their conciliatory comments came just as Gomez’s book was being released.

Intense Animosity

A photo on the book’s cover is a stark example of the level of animosity that existed between community members (who were black) and leaders of the renewal effort, (most of whom were white.)

In the photo, former EBDI director Jack Shannon stands, wagging his finger in the face of SMEAC’s president Donald Gresham, who is seated.

What were they arguing about? The book doesn’t say, but I asked Gresham if he remembered. They were disagreeing, he said, about the very “house for house” plan that Nelson now praises. But at the time, SMEAC’s proposal to set aside houses in the community for those who wanted to stay was met with fierce resistance from EBDI.

“I wanted him to be in agreement with the community that it could happen,” said Gresham. But the conversation with Shannon became so heated, he recalled, “I got up and stood away from him.”

Gresham was one of the few Middle East residents who stayed in the community and received a newly renovated house last year. He lives on the 1100 block of McDonogh Street in the project’s northwest corner. But his new neighborhood is not what he expected.

In a Sea of Vacants

His home is only one of three occupied in the block of 15 vacant houses and two vacant lots. Many of the houses across the street are collapsing in the back. EBDI has announced no plans to rebuild the rest of the block, which has been vacant for several years. “We haven’t been told anything,” he said.

This is indicative of the entire EBDI project today: large grassy lots stand where new homes and biotech buildings were once planned. In addition to the large lots, there are nearly 600 derelict vacant houses that were slated for demolition years ago.

Most abut a seven-acre public school being built by Hopkins. The development plans are so far delayed that many of the properties are still in the hands of private landlords and the city, instead of EBDI, according to property tax records.

A city housing spokeswoman recently told The Daily Record that 172 vacant houses will be razed this year, but no plans have been announced for the remainder of the buildings.

Today there are fewer than 250 new homes for families and seniors – most in three apartment buildings – while original plans called for 2,200 homes by 2015. (There are another 321 apartments just for Hopkins’ grad students.)

The building going on is mostly centered on Johns Hopkins, with one biotech building (out of five originally planned) and a Hopkins graduate student tower with an adjacent parking garage.

$220 Million and Counting

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is building a new lab (which will not generate property taxes) where a private biotech building was scrapped. So far, more than $220 million in government funds have been committed to the project, according to my count of city, state and federal funding sources.

A new master plan – the project’s third – is being scrutinized in City Hall to scale back the size of development that would include a six-acre park with an exercise circuit where Middle East residents once lived. And although there have been negotiations with builders for new homes, no construction has begun, except for a few scattered rowhouses being renovated.

Gomez’s book is full of little-known facts that round out this sad story of the project’s many delays due to the recession and difficulty luring builders to such a derelict part of the city.

In 2002, she says, a biotech incubator board was appointed to look for companies that might want to move to the new biotech park. “This board’s responsibility was to develop a focused business plan during the first 7 years of the project,” she writes. But the board never met.

An Indifferent City Hall

Though the book doesn’t mention it, Gomez said in an interview that she was one of the appointed members of the board that was to be overseen by City Council members Bernard “Jack” Young and Paula Johnson Branch, who represented Middle East at the time.

But Young and Branch apparently dropped the ball. Gomez said she kept calling City Hall, asking when the board would meet, “but it never met. I kept thinking, what’s going on?”

While bringing such small details to life, she also puts the story in a historic context, one that shows Hopkins repeatedly expanding in East Baltimore over the last century, encroaching on surrounding neighborhoods and making low-income African American residents wary as Hopkins bought up slum properties and contributed to the community’s neglect.

This has been well documented outside her book.

In 1982, I wrote in the Evening Sun that the university and hospital’s endowment fund owned 164 dirt lots, commercial buildings and rowhouses adjacent to the hospital, some with housing code violations. Today Hopkins owns 31 vacant lots, unpaved parking lots and vacant houses in the unfinished EBDI project, according to state property tax records.

One glaring example in the book of how Hopkins’ expansion affected the community is a photograph from the 1950s of several square blocks of cleared land just west of Broadway (which involved the forced relocation of 1,000 families).

The photo eerily resembles today’s pictures of several square blocks of vacant land where Middle East residents once lived. Like the current plans for a new community the Broadway redevelopment project of the 1950s, was delayed as the land sat vacant for years.

There are some peculiarities in the way Gomez assembled the book. She purposely eliminates many names of people who readers might view as heroes or villains. The letters she reprints between EBDI and SMEAC, for example, have deleted names.

“The book needs to be about roles, not personalities,” she says.

Another problematic feature  is the book’s price. It is being marketed by publisher Lexington Books (an imprint of Roman & Littlefield) as a sociology textbook. That explains why it has an $80 pricetag, an embarrassment to Gomez who is raising money to give a book to each displaced resident of the project.

For anyone who wants to read the introduction and first three chapters for free, go to her website at
A reporter for 28 years with the Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun who covered housing, development and other issues, Joan Jacobson co-authored, with reporter Melody Simmons, a five-part series on the EBDI project that ran in The Maryland Daily Record in 2011.

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  • Chris Merriam

    That is an insane price for a book that deserves wide readership in Baltimore. Who thought that was a good idea???

  • Joe Six-Pac

    So I’ve always wondered, was the $200K per house paid to the owner of the property, or the tenant? If I recall that area had abysmal home-ownership rates, something just shy of 10%, so if the owners were the ones getting paid then this group mainly acted as a lobbying arm for the slumlords who ruined that section of town via decades of disinvestment. Way to stand up for the little guy…

  • Gerald Neily

    This sure doesn’t sound like the description of a textbook. What are the principles? What are the processes? Even the name is off: “Rebuilding Abandoned Communities”? It’s more like CAUSING abandoned communities. And it has just kept getting worse, starting with 750 household removals and now its up to 1400. And that doesn’t even include the escalating collateral damage northward across the Amtrak tracks. All I can really see here is megalomania.

  • asteroid_B612

    It’s “only” $63.99 on Kindle….

  • JoanJacobson

    The $250,000 each was for homeowners (the price of selling an East Baltimore home, paying for moving costs and to purchase a new home elsewhere.) Low income tenants received federal Sec. 8 vouchers for new rental homes. The city spent about $8 million for 151  rental vouchers. As for the price the city paid for of each home (whether from a landlord or a homeowner), I randomly selected 50 rowhouses in EBDI’s second phase and found the city paid $2.5 million, an average of $50,000 a house. 
    Joan Jacobson

  • ushanellore

    Hopkins is a behemoth. Its research labs benefited from East Baltimore’s residents but from the very beginning its expansion was an inevitability scheduled to gobble up its environs.  It divided the residents and conquered. 

    As for EBDI admiring their once enemy activists on the Mark Steiner show–that indeed is rank hypocrisy.  All of a sudden the milk of human kindness flowed on a radio show–the appearance of empathy is so seductive it is almost irresistible, I suppose, when one is in front of a mike.  Put it on brother–we regret we didn’t rehab more houses and so on and so forth.  What garbage. 

    Hopkins needed the land–O’Malley genuflected.  The poor looked like a big fat nuisance.  They wanted to buy them off cheaply.  The activists wouldn’t budge.  More money was forced to flow to the displaced because the SMEAC dug in.  The EBDI members bit their collective lower lip and propagandized their own absent kind hearts as not only present but also announced the 250,000 dollars given per resident displaced as a supreme example of their love of socio economic justice.  Lies, lies and more lies.  Publicity is an insatiable monster for lies. 

    Hopkins has grown beyond capacity.  Its right hand knows not know what its left hand does.   I imagine it as a hydra.  You cannot lay its sins at anyone’s feet.   Its sadism does not have a human face.  And yet, there are humans behind all those cruel and callous decisions.  They ARE the behemoth but the behemoth covers their butts and their injustices.  Behind it they hide and inflict sorrows on lesser mortals.         

  • mbgomez

    I am enjoying the comments…because they are all true. 
    One disagreement I have with the article is about my ’embarrassment’ about the price. No, I am not embarrassed, I am annoyed and irritated at the price, like I am annoyed and irritated with capitalism. And while I have encouraged the publisher to decrease the price for the hard copy and the ebook, well, like I said, I am irritated and annoyed with capitalism. 
    Re the title, the point is that this is exactly what we call ‘rebuilding in America’ and it challenges the reader to decide if that is okay…are you okay with that? Well, here is the data and it likely matches, in general, the data in other cities in America that say they are rebuilding disinvested communities. We need to ask the question, ‘who benefits?’ The book will attempt to teach the truth for a change, about what  urban planning and community development is really about. Stay tuned and check out a couple more chapters on the website and come to a symposium on March 9 at Sojourner-Douglass to participate in developing and implementing more equitable ways to rebuild our communities.

    • NewCommenter456

      So despite being annoyed you still agreed to sell your book to a publisher who only cares about the bottom line and not the people it should care about? Not too different from landowners making money from this redevelopment, but the tenants being screwed. Everyone is greedy and while we like to criticize others when their greed shows we try to swept ours over the rug when were caught. To me that is the most interesting thing about this article. Writing about gentrification is not new, but the supposed white knight profiting the criticism in such a gross way adds a new spin on it. 

  • Barnadine_the_Pirate

    I’m interested in the answer to Joe Six-Pac’s question. I am assuming that the $200,000 buyout went to residential homeowners, not all property owners.

    This is a city and state without rent control. That means tenants have no equity in the places they rent; they can be tossed out for no reason whatsoever when their leases are up. Maybe it’s different if a landlord accepts a Section 8 voucher; maybe there is some prohibition on refusing to renew a lease without cause. For renters, why not simply deal directly with the propety owner and refuse to renew leases when they expired?

    I am generally sympathetic to the residents and hostile to corporate interests who want to use the power of the state to acquire more land for their own profit. (Even when nominally a “non-profit.”).  The implosion of this project seems to be typical of all such projects when government operates in cahoots with some rich entity to impose a top-down development like this. Look at what happened to the disasterous New London project that was the basis for Kelo v. City of New London, wherein the Supreme Court found that government could use eminent domain to take property from individuals and give to corporations.

    Having said that, I suspect that two of the reasons for the seeming failure of the Middle East project were that (a) it took much longer than expected due to community opposition, which caused it to run smack dab into th recession, and (b) it cost much more than expected due to community opposition, which caused the development itself to be slowed and curtailed.

    The moral of the story may be to do this without city help and without fanfare — just quietly buy the properties from the slumlords and estate sales and then apply for the building permits after you own everything, instead of waiting. That’s how Disney operates in Orlando — just create a bunch of shell corporations to snap up property without anyone realizing it until it’s too late.

  • cwals99

    I just have to make this observation and not knowing Dr Gomez and not privy to the early days of this massive process I can say that it concluded as every public policy event in Baltimore does……the way Hopkins wants it to end.  This is no accident because one thing Hopkins is best at is the NGO and use of private non-profits to capture all of the issues for which they advocate.  Baltimore is one great shadow quasi-governmental system controlled by Hopkins.  It is quite remarkable and as an academic a never-ending source of game theory played live.

    We can look at any issue in Baltimore…….the homeless, health care for all, education reform, enterprise zones, policing…….and in each case private non-profits are created for both sides of the issue and controlled by Hopkins through affiliated and/or hand-chosen directors.  So Hopkins will have private non-profits that work on Health Reform in the form of private health systems which is their policy stance but they will also have the private non-profit that advocates for Health Care for All  the stance opposite of theirs.  What this does is neutralizes all of the advocate groups by bringing them under the umbrella of the Health Care for All banner but having a director that makes sure the plan of attack and subsequent protests are not really about the issue that leads to Health Care for All.  So, an Hopkins director heading Health Care for All simply leads towards what in Baltimore is a massive push towards public health level of coverage similar to that seen in third world countries….no one considers what is emerging as Medicaid will be health care.  Now,  all of the real advocates for Health Care for All are now again forming a coalition to push again but in the meantime Hopkins has implemented its private health systems that they are very proud are making record profits due to lack of access to real care for most Marylanders.  I’ve seen the same as advocates for the homeless decried their private non-profit failed to fight for their goals and the BEC is the private non-profit by Hopkins fighting to privatize public education and create a tiered-level of vocational training complete with tracking of children by evaluative testing.  You can bet none of the education advocates supporting the citizens of Baltimore have that goal for ‘better schools’ in Baltimore.

    My point is that it appears Dr. Gomez was this Hopkins person tasked with foiling any plans those fighting the development might have had.  I hear from many real advocates they feel abandoned just as the groups I describe above and for the same reasons.  So, I dare say that the book may be professional academic publishing credits.  I will be looking more closely in the following year.

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