Justice without community building from the ground up? Is it possible?

Recently a colleague attempted to convince me that the powerful stakeholders directing the process of redevelopment in East Baltimore ‘get it’. Later I thought, who ‘gets’ what justice is? We seem to all ‘get it’ differently. And even more deeper to understand is whether our understanding of justice involves community building from the ground up, without discrimination and violation of human rights.

Perhaps my difficulty in understanding what my colleague and his friends ‘get’ is based on my own experience with these stakeholders and the pattern of inconsistencies surrounding their words and actions: the leadership directing the current redevelopment project in East Baltimore. The past 12 years suggest that the collective understanding of justice and community building, by Baltimore’s Mayor in 2001 (now Governor of Maryland) and the past and current leadership of Johns Hopkins and the Annie E. Casey Foundation runs something like this: it is okay to repeat history from 50 years ago as long as we convince people that we really ‘get it’. Fifty years ago in the 1950‘s, Baltimore City Department of Planning and the Mayor assisted the Johns Hopkins Medical campus’s expansion by 59 acres through displacement of more than 1000 majority African American and low-income families during the Broadway Redevelopment Project. In 2001, the Mayor and the Department of Planning and Housing and Community Development again assisted the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus expansion into another 88 acres through displacement of another 1000 African American and low-income families. This time the Annie E. Casey foundation threw in its power to assure this could happen after erratic outcomes in their ‘Making Connections’ projects across the country. Both East Baltimore projects were sold to the public under the heading of urban renewal and public benefit. And yes, community building was hailed as the core; however it was not the existing community that was the interest of either of these development projects, it was the community of the powerful developer of Johns Hopkins and its partners. Certainly a different brand of ‘justice’ than those involved in social justice movements and most importantly community residents directly impacted by the development ‘get’.

The powerful stakeholders understanding of ‘justice’ in 2001 was to use eminent domain to take the land of residents for the Hopkins Science and Technology Park expansion project. However it met with unanticipated resistance when residents organized and challenged these outside stakeholders and their partners to declare their understanding of ‘justice’ – benefit to the existing community through a right of return to the rebuilt area and a ground-up approach to community rebuilding involving residents (see details in Chapter 5 of the Book page on this website). For 8 years they proceeded to show the powerful stakeholders what ‘justice’ meant for them, through organizing residents and demanding consistency in words and actions. And today, another growing community base continues to challenge the projects’ brand of ‘justice’ known for its inconsistency, non-transparency, and inequitable benefit to existing residents of East Baltimore (Daily Record Series in Resources page on this website). The different understanding of justice, by those with great power and little power -and all those in between- continues and this post will present some evidence of this and challenge us to reason how we can bridge the gap between the words and the actions across the divide of inconsistencies.

Table: EBDI Pattern of Inconsistencies

The inconsistencies come in many forms and suggest that we pay close attention to how each one intends or acts toward who the community is being rebuilt for. While the language used by the developers has been about ‘community building’ the social engineering experiment has consistently left the existing community out of the discussion and decision-making. For example, it has been more than one year since EBDI had a regular open meeting for community residents to learn about the status of the project. And as shown in the table insert, when ‘public’ events occur residents are hand-picked for attendance or informed after-the-fact.

Perhaps we must agree on what the term justice means to all stakeholders to begin to bridge the inconsistences in words and action-to meet on a path where everyone is moving toward a collective understanding of justice. Until then those with less power must organize to demand equity in benefit because the powerful stakeholders are currently running the show-creating a reality for the public consistent with their view of ‘justice’.

Finally, if we abide by the law defining what is ‘justice’ in regard to the use of eminent domain in community building, it is clear: ‘a taking of private land should be struck down if it is clearly intended to favor a particular private party over another, or if only an incidental public benefit exists’ (Supreme Court 2005). Because public:private partnerships have been the power behind this redevelopment project and substantial public funds have contributed to removal of residents, acquisition and demolition of property, preparation of land, update of infrastructure, tax incentives for developers, subsidies for developers, public:private status of development agency and new community school, ensuring equitable and sustainable benefit cannot be a side-effect but a major measurable outcome. Anything else would be an injustice-socially and legally.

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