On a hot summer day in Oliver, Mike and Bam Bam are soaked with sweat, driving posts into 12 inches of clean soil and mulch and hounding Arthur Morgan about whose turn it is for a Gatorade run.
“I didn’t promise anybody Gatorade,” Morgan jokes, but with more colorful language.
The three are constructing a hoop house on Bethel Street between Lanvale and Federal in the East Baltimore neighborhood.
Morgan is one of the city’s most successful urban farmers. He, Bam Bam and Mike are working on what will ultimately be the Bethel Street Farm – a year-round farm that will grow food for the community, and Morgan says, eventually be run by the community.
Oliver is about 2½ miles from downtown and a mile north of Johns Hopkins Hospital. It has attracted foundation money and millions in private investment and is often cited as an example of Baltimore’s success stories.
And yet after more than five years of redevelopment and thousands of volunteer hours, it’s still home to one of the city’s most robust open air drug markets, persistent violent crime and high unemployment.
Nothing about Oliver’s struggles is easy or simple, according to Morgan, but he knows one common denominator: “For a lot of residents here, I think it comes down to ‘Shit, man, I need a job.’”
Not Getting to Those Who Need it Most
In between driving posts, as radio station 92.Q blares from a portable radio, Morgan talks Oliver and gets a few things off his chest.
“I’m not sure all the investment in Oliver is helping the people who need it most,” he said.
“Murals and trees are great – and gardens, too, if you can grow food – but those projects are for the most part not putting the poorest people here to work.”
“There’s got to be something coming out of this Oliver renaissance where local people can make a couple of dollars. But to be honest right now, I’m not seeing a whole lot of that.”
Holding Baltimore Back
Earl Johnson, Oliver resident and a partner in Come Home Baltimore (a for-profit that has renovated 40 houses in the area), stopped by the Bethel Street Farm to see how the work was going.
Johnson agreed with Morgan about investment not yielding many jobs for locals. Developers are not hiring from within the community – at least not as much as they could, he says.
“You should not have 45 people from Honduras building houses in a black neighborhood with a high unemployment rate. Could they have hired a couple of black men or women? At least one or two?”
Johnson’s company hires as many locals as it can, says Johnson, who also runs Come Home’s nonprofit arm, which works to improve quality of life in Oliver.
He further believes that an effort should be made to hire residents who have criminal records and need jobs.
“Sixty million Americans have criminal records. I have a record,” says Johnson, acknowledging the stigma.
So does Bam Bam, an Oliver resident who has done carpentry work for Johnson’s company, and who says he has been working full time since he got out of jail and few years ago. And so does Mike, who is working for Morgan now, but is hoping to return to electrical work.
“I am very mechanical. I used to do electrical for the city,” he says.
The need for opportunities for Baltimoreans with criminal records transcends Oliver, Johnson says.
“I think it’s a big part of what is holding this city back.”
Scourge of Drugs: “Part of Everything”
Talk turns to Oliver’s drug problem and one of its infamous corners not far from the farm.
“Drugs is really part of everything, isn’t it?” asked Morgan.
“Everybody is selling something. They are selling dope and pills – and strips to get you off dope and pills. I mean, it’s crazy.”
Johnson and Come Home Baltimore distribute recovery information to buyers at the corner of Broadway and Lanvale about once a week.
“They pull up in their cars, mostly people from outside of the neighborhood,” he said. “It is like a McDonalds drive-thru here. And the police know it.”
“We Pushed Them Back”
Johnson said that people thought they were crazy trying to put a farm on the Bethel Street plot because, like a lot vacant spaces in Oliver, it attracts illicit activity.
The new farm just got water service from the city and will start harvesting its first crops in the fall.
For now, Morgan said, that means greens and fruit trees will come along, slowly.
Once the farm is up and running, Morgan hopes the local residents take it over. “Free or cheap food for the community. And they could sell to restaurants and make some money too,” he said.
“Don’t get me wrong, if you do the work in Oliver, you will see a difference. That is true. It’s just won’t be as fast as you think. Before we got this space, people were doing drugs here. There’s nobody here shooting dope in this garden now, is there?”
Johnson chimed in: “They moved up the street a couple blocks. We pushed them back. They don’t have free rein here anymore.”