The Destruction of Baltimore's Middle East Community - Marisela Gomez on RAI (pt 2/4)

This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on January 9, 2014. On Reality Asserts Itself, Marisela Gomez tells Paul Jay that Johns Hopkin’s “broken windows” policy and Baltimore’s use of eminent domain law helped destroy a once vibrant community.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

We are continuing our discussion about what to do about all the vacant houses in Baltimore. As you know, Real News has moved its headquarters to Baltimore. One of our main missions over the next few years is to try to answer the question: what would you do if you ran Baltimore in the interests of the majority of its people? And one of the questions that has to be answered in that is what to do about the housing crisis. So it’s somewhat a paradox. Of course, it’s not unique to Baltimore. You can find this in a lot of American cities. But there are thousands of homeless people, and there are thousands of vacant homes. You would think there could be a policy that would put those two things together. But that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda here or in any other American cities, with maybe one or two small exceptions.

So we’re going to continue our discussion now. And joining us again is Marisela Gomez. She’s a community activist, an author, a public health professional, a physician scientist. She earned her master’s of science at the University of New Mexico, her PhD, MD, and masters of public health from Johns Hopkins University. And she’s the author of Race, Class, Power, and Organizing in East Baltimore: Rebuilding Abandoned Communities in America.

So thanks for joining us again.


JAY: So for those of you that didn’t watch the first segment, you should. It was sort of biographical. But in 1990, you’ve come to Hopkins and you get all these degrees and you become a doctor, and not just a doctor, but a doctor, a researcher, a scientist. But you’re living in an area, or you’re going to work, at least, in an area surrounded by a community that’s been destroyed. What does it look like in the early ’90s, the community around Hopkins?

GOMEZ: There’s a lot of abandonment. What does that mean? That means that there is a lot of boarded-up housing. So if you walked down one block, you could see half the block would be boarded and half would be occupied.

JAY: Which is what we see today.

GOMEZ: Exactly, which is what you see today. And that was more than 20–that’s 23 years ago. So this is what you see near Hopkins.

JAY: What was it like ten, 20 years prior to that? I know you weren’t here, but you studied this. What were those communities like?

GOMEZ: Those were vibrant communities in the ’40s and the ’50s and the ’60s. It started to change in the ’60s and ’70s when you have deindustrialization, which affected Baltimore as well. You had white flight, which affected Baltimore. But specific to the area near Hopkins–and I think this is something that we forget, which I’ve studied a lot–.

JAY: This is the area that people call Middle East.

GOMEZ: The area that people call Middle East surrounding Hopkins, just north of Hopkins, about 88, 90 acres. In this area, you have a major employer, who is the major employer of the City of Baltimore and the state of Maryland.

During the ’70s, not many people know that Hopkins was also the major landlord in that area. So what does that mean? That means that Hopkins owned many of the properties there. So what does that mean? That means that in an area where you have in a capitalist society, where you grow and you expand in order to continue to grow your power, you’re going to have to keep expanding. So if you have an entity, an institution that is a major landlord, what they are able to do and what they did was, as time came and they wanted more land to expand, people would have to leave.

So, you see, this was part of the–that resulted in part of the abandonment of Middle East area is that because Hopkins owned much of the land in the area, as they needed more land, people’s lease were let. I interviewed many residents, elderly residents who would talk about they were just–it was a matter of time before they’d have to go because they lived in a Hopkins property. So people were aware of this.

And, you know, another part of this–what–this speaks to the mindset of people, the fear that people carried that eventually they would have to leave, because the plantation on the hill–which is what the community refers to still today as Hopkins–is eventually Plantation would have to come and take over.

So this is a history of Middle East was people were always waiting for their land to be taken. And it didn’t matter if they owned the land or they rented, because if they owned the property, they would somehow also lose their land, as happened in the current expansion. So there’s a lot of fear. People are moving.

JAY: If they own the land, how did they lose it? And if they don’t want to sell, what makes them sell?

GOMEZ: What makes them sell? The city makes them sell. What we–like we have here, where 800 households are relocated. The city uses a law like eminent domain, which allows the city to acquire private property for private development. When this law was first established, it was used to acquire private land for, say, a railroad track or a highway, things that would–really had public benefit. Now public benefit has been, as far as I’m concerned, bastardized, because it’s now for private benefit. And this has been argued in the Supreme Court to show that if you’re going to use eminent domain and take the land from one private entity and give it to another private entity, you have to show with a comprehensive plan how there will be equitable benefit for the public good. We have a hard time, I think, proving equitable benefit for the public good.

JAY: Well, I assume Hopkins and its supporters would argue this is one of the best hospitals in the country. It gets rated number one year after year. It does provide health care for people in the community, which is–if you go to Hopkins, most of the patients seem to be African-American. I’m told most of them are local. So they would argue this is a service to the community.

GOMEZ: I think what you’ll find is that–not I think, but I know what you’d find is that the majority of the research dollars that Hopkins receives, which are billions of dollars–.

JAY: I think $1.8 billion just from the federal government.

GOMEZ: Yeah. So 80 or 90 percent of that is–comes from–so 80 or 90 percent of the research budget of the institution comes from the federal government. Now, that’s a subsidy. Call it what you will, but that’s a direct subsidy from the government. I think it would be hard to show–we’re just using research dollars as an example. We’re not talking about tax exempt status for property taxes. I’m not going to talk yet about that. Just money from the federal government for research. It would be hard to show that 90 percent of the research benefits the community, provides a public good, is what I’m saying.

JAY: And the eminent domain law, the public good has to be for the community that’s being kicked out. It’s not just some generalized good for the community.

GOMEZ: That’s right. And that’s what the Supreme Court decided was because more and more eminent domain was being used to take and give–to build a stadium, where people have minimum wage or temporary workers or have no good jobs with no benefits, how does that serve the public? How is that fair development? Or given to build a Macy’s or a parking garage or market-rate housing. How are we serving the public good?

Well, the arguments you’ll get back is that, well, we are increasing the tax from the community. Well, when you do things like tax increment funding, where you get subsidies for development and you don’t have to start paying into that tax, into the city’s tax funds for 20 years because you get a grant or are subsidized to be a developer, you have to start doing the math and you have to start figuring out that they’re–we’re not doing the math to show how is the money that we’re using really benefiting the public that’s there. For example, when this $1.8 billion expansion was announced in the 1990s–early–excuse me–2001–.

JAY: This is a different $1.8 billion that I mentioned was a federal subsidy. This is the expansion to the science and technology part of it.

GOMEZ: Exactly. This is the Johns Hopkins science and technology part that’s just north of Hopkins’ existing boundaries that extends into 88 acres.

JAY: This is where the 800 houses are–people are cleared out of this area.

GOMEZ: Exactly. Exactly. So for that, in order to expand, there were 800 families living in that area. Because the plan was to expand, those people had to go. And so the city uses eminent domain in order to acquire your property.

JAY: Now, one of the arguments I’ve heard is these neighborhoods were already many abandoned houses. The communities were already falling apart, partly because of deindustrialization, as you mentioned. So this, even though it wasn’t very good for the 800 families living in those homes, the neighborhood was deteriorating anyway. But you’re saying it wasn’t just doing it. Hopkins, because it was the big landlord, it was kind of in on depopulating the place.

GOMEZ: Absolutely. There is a whole literature on broken window syndrome and abandonment which shows that once you board one house on a block, you have set the decay of that block. And so what has been happening is because you have been taking the property and now, let’s say, Hopkins has decided it wants to expand that block, once you board that one house, people don’t want to live in a block that has a boarded-up house, because it brings trash. People start dumping things. You get rat infestation. You get drug dealing. You get crime. So there’s all kinds of things that start happening.

What does that do? That sends people who are in that block–if they can afford it, they leave. If they can’t afford it, they stay. A lot of people who stayed have been the ones who couldn’t afford to leave–not all, because some people have moved into Middle East Baltimore within the last 20 or 30 years. Some people [incompr.] because that’s the only place they may have been able to afford to move.

JAY: Yeah. We interviewed some people on standing on the front verandas of their houses in this area in East Baltimore, and a woman told us the story of a house kittycorner from her. And we asked–you know, we said, we’re journalists. We going to be doing investigative work. She said, well–we asked, what would you like us to do? And she said, well, you find out what happened at that house, and she points to it, and she says, they did new electrical, they drywalled the place, it was all fixed up, and two weeks later they boarded it up. So this is part of some scheme to depopulate the place.

GOMEZ: Well, there certainly is a plan to–you know, we don’t think of it as someone sat there and said, I’m writing this plan to depopulate this area of all these low-income or majority African-American people so I can expand. I actually don’t think that happens. However, what I think happens is part of capitalism, which is that once you’re powerful, what you do to stay alive is you have to grow your power. And what you do is you do it by exploiting others, and you exploit those that have less power than you. That’s just the–it’s like one plus one equals two.

So you have a big institution. It’s a giant. We call it the elephant. We call it the Plantation. What do the community members say? The elephant will sit where it will. This is what people will say. The Plantation will come and take the land when they’re ready. We’re just here–we’re sharecroppers. That’s the way residents in Middle East described this institution.

There’s a very long and difficult history between this community and Hopkins, one that I think needs to be healed, because this new project, this $1.8 billion project that’s really a gentrification project, it will not come to a good end. It’s not a fair resolution to what has been happening not just in the last 20 years–.

JAY: Now, some of the people, if not all, that were replaced through eminent domain, they were offered some kind of compensation to move, right?

GOMEZ: That’s correct.

JAY: So what happened?

GOMEZ: Initially, when the plan was developed in 2000, there was no plan for people to come back. There was a plan that said these households, these more than 800 households had to go. The majority of people found out that they had to go to through the newspaper. I’m not exaggerating. I remember when I was there in the church when residents gathered. It was so powerful. People were crying, people were screaming, people were angry that how can they be treated this way, how could no one call a meeting and share with them or ask their opinion–we’re thinking of developing this place, do you want to stay or do you want to go. People found out about it through the newspaper. In a church, we gathered, and people said enough was enough. And in the book that I wrote about this whole process, I quote some of the things that people said. At that moment was when people said that was it, this was the straw that had broken the camel’s back.

JAY: And what did they do?

GOMEZ: They organized. They organized and they formed an organization called Save Middle East Action Committee that I was very lucky and humble to be a part of. And that organization challenged the way this project started, a plan that said people had to leave.

There is no plan for them to be able to come back. They were going to use eminent domain. People didn’t have a choice. People didn’t even know people were asking questions like, is this going to happen in a month? Is it six months? Do I have to take my child out of school? Where would they go? None of these basic things, just the natural necessities of life, were even thought of to be important for these people when this kind of planning was done. [incompr.] this is what happened.

JAY: So what happened with the organization? What were the objectives? And were they achieved?

GOMEZ: Many of the objectives were achieved. The organization’s mission was to assure that equitable development would happen, that they were treated fairly, that they had a right to return. One of the major things was to try to stop it. But that was not possible, because the city council members representing the area voted and allowed the area to be taken by eminent domain, which meant that stopping that plan was not going to happen. No one in the community wanted to go take it to the law, because at that time there was already a court case challenging eminent domain in the Supreme Court, and no one knew what would be the result of that. So it was kind of up in the air.

And the plan then was to try to get as fair as possible a relocation package, to try to get a policy that would assure that people could return if they could and to make sure that it was a fair and safe demolition processes. They started demolition with people living right across from existing houses. People would leave in the day, go to work, leave their windows open, and they’d come back and they would be demolition. And I went into these homes. The floors would be covered with lead dust. In a community where researchers from Hopkins had shown that when you did demolition of the houses in that community, that the dust was more than likely going to be lead dust, that it would affect the houses within a certain perimeter from the area, even with that knowledge, there was unsafe demolition going on. We stopped that. We said that–I mean, we didn’t have to get in front of the bulldozer, but we did enough to make it stop. And they had to bring in a whole panel of experts to assess what would be fair demolition and to make it safe for people to be able to be in their homes. We wanted them to make sure they relocated people before they started demolition. So that was a really, really big victory for residents.

JAY: And one of the stories you told me is that when people were offered this moving money, they were told, you have to move to another poor black area. In other words, you can’t move into a white area or something else. You had to go further into east Baltimore.

GOMEZ: That’s right. It was incredible. And, you know, when I tell people this–and again, this is one of the reasons this book was written is that all these things that happened was just swept under the carpet as if it didn’t happen. But it happened. The first plan said that you could get your relocation benefit, which is–by law you have to receive using eminent domain. But you could only get it if you moved into this area that was just peripheral, which was no different, and in five years or ten years it would be exactly the same as the one you were moving out of. And mind you, the law states that if you use eminent domain, the person has to be relocated into one that’s socioeconomically better than the one you’re moving out of. All law and everything being there, this is what happened.

And we challenged that. We said, no, you can’t do that. This is segregation again in the 21st century. And that changed. That changed where you could move anywhere you want. In fact, some people even moved out of the state, moved back south. So this was a big victory for the organization.

And the organization just really worked to–what happened was there was no transparency, there was no trust. What the organization did was it offered a place for people to feel they could come with all their questions about this huge project that was happening, then having to move–where would I go–and people would come in, they would bring their questions, and they felt like they were bringing their questions to people who would actually take them seriously, treat them with respect, and bring them an answer back. And our commitment was that we would do our best to bring an answer back, and if we couldn’t find an answer, we would let you know.

But even better, we want you to come, and we want to make sure we can get those doors open so you can sit in the meeting and ask the questions of these people yourself. I mean, why shouldn’t you? Why shouldn’t you have the right to sit and discuss the rebuilding of your community? Why shouldn’t there be a platform, a place where you can participate in what happens in your community? None of that was there. That had to be established.

We demanded meetings. Initially they would have meetings in the day, and we said, what are you doing? People work for a living here. Even though the perception is that folks in the community, they’re all employed, that’s not true. People wanted to come to meetings. We said, you have to have meetings in the evening after people came from work. So eventually they changed the meetings and people showed up. Gee, they could actually show up.

JAY: But did people move back?

GOMEZ: To date there has not been a relocation-back policy. So there was a relocation policy, and the way we say it is people got a ticket out, but there is no ticket coming back in, because we never had–we were not able to get them to establish a relocation policy back in.

What does that mean? What we’re told is that on an individual basis it will be assessed, and they will try to help people to come back. In talking to residents, what we hear is the amount of money to come back, to have to sell your house, they’re not helping with any relocation fees. I mean, there were relocation fees that was used to help people leave. There’s no relocation fees to help you relocate back in. It’s taken so long, this project. And also there’s no affordable housing for people. And they’re not building the kind of houses that people want to move back into. So there’s–you know, so for the elderly, they wanted houses that weren’t two-storied because they can’t get up and down stairs.

So all these things showed us that we weren’t working with a group of people who were interested in rebuilding a place that would meet the needs of the folks who were leaving out. The needs–the plan was never to rebuild the community for those people who were there. The plan was to get rid of those people and make it a different place to bring a different group, different race and class of people in, basically gentrification in the 21st century. This was always the plan. And it is still.

JAY: And still is the plan. And we’ll talk about that, because there’s a new hotel going up. Johns Hopkins is building a hotel in the area. There’s a school that’s going up, which is partly for people that live in the area, but there’s not a heck of a lot of people left in the area, so a lot of it’s going to be for Johns Hopkins people that work at Hopkins Kids. So it’s creating a new community, but it’s also taking a heck of a long time, which is part of what I’m going to ask you. If the plan’s gentrification, you know, why is it taking so long?

So please join us for the next segment of our interview about what’s happening in East Baltimore with Marisela Gomez on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News.

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Marisela B. Gomez is a community activist, author, public health professional, and physician-scientist. She received a BS and MS from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, a PhD, MD, and MPH from the Johns Hopkins University. She spent 17 years as an activist/researcher or participant/observer in East Baltimore during and after training at the Johns Hopkins Schools of Medicine and Public Health. Past and current writings address social determinants and health, social capital and urban health, disparities in mental health care in incarcerated populations, disparities in substance use treatment, mental health care in the primary health care setting, community organizing and development, and mindfulness practices in organizing.” theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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