Gentrification is a war on the people whose neighborhoods are being demolished. Like any other war it leaves the people and the place traumatized while the victors collect the spoils, in this case, a built environment and a socially engineered community that ignores and erases the history of those who were displaced. In East Baltimore, EBDI, or East Baltimore Development Inc. continues to be the vanguard warrior of gentrification of Middle East Baltimore. This pseudo public-private corporation initiated, led, and assured that their private developers collect the spoils of the war of gentrification in an 88-acre redevelopment while traumatizing the people of Middle East Baltimore. Twenty years later, the trauma continues.
In 2001 EBDI initiated the removal of more than 750 historic low-income Black families from Middle East Baltimore to make room for the Johns Hopkins Biotech Park. They began the process of gentrification by first demonizing the place and people to create a public story that the only way to remedy the situation was to displace people and take their land. This was the first phase and this structural violence caused a trauma to the people. Once the government was satisfied that there was sufficient publicity to justify using eminent domain to take people’s land, the city council representatives voted to throw their constituents under the ‘gentrification’ bus. This was the second phase of gentrification, continued structural violence, and continued the trauma to the people. This support of government then allowed the public subsidies to pour in: public support of private wealth growth, more structural violence against the marginalized. This was the third phase and continued the trauma. Of course, the big non-profits jumped in to subsidize as well, such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and others, building greater power. This was the fourth phase and continued the trauma. With all this support, EBDI then attempted to displace historic residents with little or no benefit by offering them payment for their homes based on the current value, relocation payment based on 1970s’ value, demolition of houses adjacent to occupied houses, and no assistance in finding appropriate housing for displaced residents. Each of these violations occurred within the overall displacement process of residents and collects into phase five and continued the trauma.
WAR of GENTRIFICATION
Phase 1 – Demonization of community
Phase 2 – ‘ Justifiable’ government stealing of private land through policy ie. eminent domain
Phase 3 – Government subsidies for private development ie. TIF, CDBG
Phase 4 – Greater power of private and public partnerships
Phase 5 – Displacement/violation/exploitation of historic residents/businesses
Phase 6 – Failed promises of benefit to existing/historic community
Phase 7 – Rebuilt environment is unaffordable, attracts a different race/class, erasure of history
Save Middle East Action Committee, SMEAC, a non-profit formed by residents threatened by EBDI and the Johns Hopkins Biotech Park, stepped in to organize residents to demand some form of equity in the process. They door-knocked block by block and found out what fellow-residents wanted. They convened meetings to hear from residents and they demanded meetings with the powerful stakeholders of EBDI, Johns Hopkins Institutuions, and the Foundations to discuss the needs of residents. SMEAC was one intervention, a protection against the violence of gentrification, that served to provide a healing from the overwhelming trauma that was growing. Simply by being present, SMEAC was enacting a trauma-informed process of redevelopment because it was led by community stakeholders. SMEAC convened residents together who listened to each other and acknowledged that this was difficult, this was painful, but together people’s strength would get them through it somehow.
Fast forward 20 years to 2021. While the project promised that by 2011 it would have rebuilt the community by offering more than 8,000 jobs to the city of Baltimore, this has yet to manifest. Try less than 2000 jobs and less than 40% of them to local residents in East Baltimore. Another trauma to the historic residents, another systemic violation, phase six of the gentrification war-predictions/promises made on unsubstantiated data to ‘justify’ public support. SMEAC fought for 1/3 low-income, 1/3 moderate rate, 1/3 market rate housing to be built in the redeveloped area- disregard for legislation is normal in war. We’re still waiting on the 1/3 affordable housing. Another structural violence, trauma to residents. We’re still waiting for the return of those who were displaced- supposedly 30% or greater suggests a successful redevelopment project (who decided that?). Yet another trauma and phase six of this war, assuring the intended social make-up of the rebuilt environment. While waiting for the 1/3 housing affordable to low income and working class people, we watched the completion of the $350,000 townhomes at the end of 2019.
The war of gentrification manifests not only in phases one – six outlined above. It continues through the resultant built environment with its shiny new buildings and manicured landscape. It manifests in the unaffordable housing and amenities offered in these structures which cater to a particular class of people: high cost amenities like Starbucks, fusion cuisine, and a pharmacy with unaffordable items. This is the seventh phase of the war and another trauma as it continues the erasure of historic residents in the rebuilt environment. Residents within a block of the demarcated 88-acre of EBDI’s war-zone, still walk down to the 2500+ blocks of Monument street to shop for affordable food and amenities and trek to the pharmacy on North avenue. The most recent erasure is the mural sponsored by EBDI in the war-zone to mark the history of the area, a sanitized one. No image of SMEAC or its leaders who fought to assure some level of respect and equity was afforded to residents and businesses being displaced, of Ms. Lucille Gorham who named the community ‘Middle East Baltimore’ in the 1970s, a life-long activist for affordable housing whose family was displaced from the home she moved into from Middle East during the EBDI-war, or the many church leaders who marked the different corners with a space for folks to remember hope and spirit.
Historic residents continue to distrust EBDI and the Johns Hopkins Institutions, with little faith that this public-private power-house understands how traumatizing the rebuilt 88-acre has been and continues to be, to those who came back and to those who didn’t or couldn’t’ (because they died).
Until the trauma suffered from the uprooted residents of Middle East Baltimore has been acknowledged, there cannot be healing. The US is a country that was built on atrocities, structural violence, that resulted in immense trauma in the pursuit of land, power, wealth. This trauma still has not been acknowledge, nor healed. Locally and nationally, redevelopment continues in this same way today, uprooting people from their homes and neighborhoods, leaving trauma in the war for wealth and power. The warriors who lead the devastation can not be the ones who lead the path of healing this trauma because they cannot see beyond their own goals and fabricated scripts and talking points. It will require collectives, inclusive and led by resident stakeholders, that acknowledge and begin the healing path of the trauma of gentrification’s war on land and people. Meanwhile, we can learn from what happened and continues to happen in Middle East Baltimore and urgently enact alternative methods of redevelopment. We must take into account the history of serial forced displacement since the displacement of indigenous peoples in the 1600s to current-day projects like EBDI and the displacement of low income Black people. Redevelopment must be equitable and to do so, it must be trauma-informed so we do not continue to cause harm and we heal the existing trauma.
Sure would be nice if we could model this right here in Middle East Baltimore and East Baltimore, given all the non-trauma-informed redevelopment currently underway at Perkins-Somerset-Oldtown and Lester Merton Courts. [A future blog will consider how this trauma of continued displacement continues to affect residents over the long term.]