In Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester, ‘every day is Katrina’

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On a recent sunny afternoon, a horse dragging a wooden cart laden with fruit and vegetables plodded through Sandtown-Winchester, which is not so much a neighborhood as the ruins of one, a warren of boarded-up houses and drug markets that have turned Baltimore into a national symbol of urban neglect.

By Hannah Allam, McClatchy Washington Bureau

The brightly painted cart, with its singing custodian, is a vestige of the city’s old “arabber” merchant tradition. The wagons look quaint when they’re spotted near the gleaming new developments of Baltimore’s downtown. Here in Sandtown, though, where there are no real grocery stores, the people who emerge from crumbling row houses for a few tomatoes or bananas are buying out of need rather than nostalgia. A “farmer’s market for the ‘hood,” one longtime resident cracked.

Life here is a study in the juxtaposition of rich history and impoverished reality. Teachers remind their students that Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, graduated from a high school in Sandtown, which now leads all of Maryland in the number of residents who are in prison. A nearby statue of the jazz great Billie Holiday, who grew up around here, is etched with a crow to honor the struggle under Jim Crow laws; studies show that Baltimore remains one of the nation’s most segregated cities.

Given the grim statistics people in Sandtown will make less money and die younger than residents anywhere else in Maryland it didn’t sound hyperbolic when a resident, gesturing toward the condemned buildings that serve as the backdrop for daily life, invoked a national tragedy when he yelled, “Every day is Katrina! Every day is a Katrina here!”

Except, locals stress, this disaster is man-made, the legacy of segregation, unemployment and addiction, resulting in living conditions that one might expect to find in a far-flung developing nation rather than an hour’s drive from the White House.

Residents say they’ve seen little of the millions of dollars that have been earmarked for neighborhood improvements, and few seem to buy into the fresh promises of resources that came in response to the protests and riots that erupted after the death last month of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man from Sandtown who sustained a fatal spinal-cord injury while in police custody.

The unprecedented criminal prosecution of six officers in connection with Gray’s death has turned Baltimore into the showpiece in a nascent, grass-roots rebellion against police conduct in black communities. The charges also shocked the city into a calmer state, allowing some space for town hall meetings and prayer vigils and a peace march.

This lull, however, feels fragile. A week of reporting in Sandtown, including extensive interviews with residents, activists and officials, makes it clear that the decay is so deep, so institutional, so internalized that it’s hard to imagine a turnaround. Locals predict doomsday scenarios if there are no convictions in the Gray case.

On a tense afternoon at Penn and North, the intersection that was ground zero for the riots, nerves were so raw that locals were even losing patience with a group of evangelical pastors who’d shown up, uninvited, to pray for the community.

“Man, we’ve been praying for 400 years and ain’t nothing changed,” one passer-by told them.

Doni Glover, 49, a prominent activist and writer who’s one of the last homeowners on his block of Sandtown, grew up as the son of an undertaker who was known for cutting deals for families who couldn’t afford funerals.

As a boy, Glover played in the storied local James Mosher Baseball league, which claims to be the oldest black continually operating league in the country. In a walk along his block, he pointed out the third house on the right, where he used to take piano lessons.

None of that immunized him to the drug culture that surrounded him Glover spent years hooked on crack and heroin before finally getting clean and embarking on the reinvention he describes in a new memoir, “Unapologetically Black.” As with his own redemption, Glover said, change in Sandtown must come from within, with homegrown leaders who are invested in the community and responsible and transparent in how funds are allocated.

“Baltimore needs love,” Glover is fond of saying.

There’s ample reason for pessimism. The Baltimore Sun recently reported that from 1989 to 1999, at least $130 million in public and private money was spent to build or refurbish houses in Sandtown-Winchester. Millions more, the report said, went toward a specialized school curriculum, jobs training and prenatal health services.

However, the Sun concluded, “those who have examined the revitalization effort say it’s impossible to measure the impact because there was little accounting at the time and less follow-up afterward.”

The streets of Sandtown bear that out, and while tensions may have calmed for now, residents don’t share the rest of the city’s pleas to return to “normal,” which for them means being perpetually stuck between a deep distrust for the authorities and the no-snitching code enforced by drug lords.

“All the media-seeking individuals are all gone. Those preachers are all gone. They showed up for the cameras they’re gone,” Glover said. “Now what? You can’t bring people in to tell black people how to live.”

Glover knows how hard it is to change even one little patch. About 10 years ago, he and three other men strategically recruited from houses on each of their block’s four corners banded together to push the dealers away from their doorsteps. The friends managed to clear just one small block of one narrow road, but they did it without involving police or angering the sellers, who only had to move “around the corner.”

Glover counts the effort a success, though half the homes on the block are vacant, infested with rats or still used as stash houses. To him, reclaiming one speck of the neighborhood that’s intertwined with his personal history is an achievement. The fact that the dealers have stayed away even though two of the original four enforcers have moved is a rare gesture of respect, he said, in an age when dealers sell even in front of kids and elders practices once taboo.

“It shows that black men can be a part of the solution, on our own,” Glover said. “Between prison, bad health and drug addiction, there aren’t many people who can help, so those who are left have a huge weight. But it can be done.”

Glover stood on his block, re-enacting for visitors the time he caught a dealer trying to set up shop again. “Blues out! Blues out!” he shouted, imitating the dealer hawking blue-topped vials of crack.

A passing motorist who’d heard Glover swerved to the side of the road and glanced up and down the street before leaning out the car window.

“Man, what you got?” he asked.

Glover, one of Sandtown’s loudest voices, was speechless.

The West Baltimore that 80-year-old Helena Hicks knew as a girl was a lively enclave of black homeowners forced to live together because of segregation. Even then, before anyone called it Sandtown-Winchester, Hicks said, the area was so overcrowded and under-served that children went to high school in shifts. Hers was 12:30 to 5 p.m.

Despite the indignities of segregation, she said, there was a strong sense of community. Some of the police lived in the neighborhood; Hicks doesn’t remember seeing them carry guns. Everything residents needed was within walking distance, she recalled: dry cleaners, a library, a funeral home, a pediatrician, the Jewish butcher who accepted ration cards.

At the site of the CVS that was torched and looted during the Freddie Gray riots, she said, there stood a movie theater that blacks in her day had to picket for entrance. Hicks became a local civil rights icon herself when, in 1955, she and six other college students staged an impromptu sit-in at Read’s Drug Store, a move that would help pave the way for the official desegregation of Baltimore.

But there was an unforeseen drawback to desegregation. Under the more permissive housing rules of the civil rights era, Hicks said, black families who could afford to leave Sandtown did, en masse. In the years that followed, she recalled, homeowners turned into renters, whites disappeared, businesses closed, the words “food desert” entered the local lexicon, drug kingpins took control of the streets and the cops were outsiders whose response was to treat everyone as a potential security threat.

“It’s a humiliating atmosphere,” Hicks said of the heavy surveillance and bulletproof barriers of today’s Sandtown. “It assumes everyone is a criminal and has to be watched.”

Hicks, too, left the neighborhood; after college, she and her husband moved into the house where she still resides, on a street a short drive away with manicured lawns and little crime to report.

In 1972, Hicks, who by then had served as a social worker in schools and for the city, was named director of social services for the housing authority, a position that offered her an intimate look into the social ills that have only metastasized in the years since.

She said the post was also a hard lesson in the government’s inconsistent approach to community improvements her programs hummed along smoothly until the funding abruptly stopped. It’s happened to countless other initiatives for Sandtown-Winchester, she said. Grants run out and aren’t extended. Money is siphoned off for administration, leaving little to trickle down to the neediest residents.

“When the money dried up, that was it,” Hicks said.

In the 1980s, Hicks was presented with another, higher-stakes way to help the community. She had the misfortune of witnessing a shooting that involved a notorious Baltimore convict and nightclub impresario. Fed up with the apathy and fear that prevented residents from ratting out the troublemakers in their midst, Hicks said, she made the risky decision to cooperate with detectives who were building a case against the suspect, whose name makes her so fearful still that she asked that it not be published because he’s still alive.

For her efforts, Hicks said, she spent a year under police protection. She winced when describing the stigma she earned by appearing with a uniformed policewoman who shadowed her at all times, accompanying her to work and to community events, where people whispered that Hicks was either a snitch or on parole. The experience frayed her nerves and was unsettling for her family and neighbors.

“You wonder why people don’t help the police? I’ll never do it again,” Hicks said. While she still serves on the police council, she said, if she’s ever questioned about another crime, “I’m going to become senile, instantly.”

Hicks’s older sister, the late Lillian S. Jones, took a different route to help Sandtown. Jones brought up three sons and a daughter in the Gilmor Homes housing project and was terrified of losing them to the streets because of the lack of after-school activities. Hicks said her sister worked for years to create what became the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center, designed with an entrance from inside Gilmor Elementary so that students could play ball right after class without stepping into the troubled world outside the front doors.

Hicks wasn’t sure whether the center was still open it had been closed for a long time, she’d heard so she took a trip to check. The school day was under way at Gilmor when she arrived, but attendance was still low because of the unrest of the previous week. A few students who were climbing a tree outside came down to see the new faces. They introduced themselves as living “in the projects,” meaning Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray had lived with his sisters. One little girl said she lived in a shelter in East Baltimore, where the living conditions mirror those in Sandtown.

The teachers and staff let out reverential “wows” when Hicks introduced herself as Jones’ baby sister; they all knew the name because it was emblazoned on the front of the building.

“It’s like meeting history,” one young school staff member said.

Gilmor administrators were excited to tell Hicks that the center had reopened and still offered a haven from the streets, especially for young boys. Hicks affectionately grabbed the hand of Denisha Logan, a young principal-in-training from the New Leaders program, a national nonprofit that develops administrators to transform troubled public school systems. Logan grew up in Baltimore and had just started her rotation at Gilmor when the neighborhood exploded.

“This is real, authentic learning. It is,” Logan said. “And I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be, and at a better time.”

Outside, between classes, the computer teacher, Jerrelle Santana, chatted with Hicks as he waited for his students. He agreed that there have been improvements at the school he now has 30 desktop computers in the school lab and is creating a mobile lab with the 30 laptops that just arrived through a federal grant.

As a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, the New York City borough with its own history of poverty and crime, Santana is a passionate defender of the children he teaches. He and Hicks said they were upset that officials all the way up to President Barack Obama had described the rioters as “thugs” without considering for a moment the environment that had spawned them.

“Who cared about these streets before this happened? No one!” Santana said. “No one’s been down here. These houses have been boarded up for years.”

Kids at the school still suffer health and behavioral problems that many educators blame on the effects of lead paint, a silent plague in the decrepit row houses of Sandtown, built originally as military housing. A 1999 edition of a now-defunct newspaper, the Sandtown-Winchester Viewpoint, included an item on the best foods to eat to slow lead absorption. Fast-forward 16 years: At the time of Freddie Gray’s death, his family had an open lawsuit against a former landlord for health problems they say came from lead paint.

Santana said some of his fifth-graders had older siblings who were close to Gray. Most of them live in Gilmor Homes, where Gray lived. So rather than ignore the protests, Santana assigned his students PowerPoint presentations to help them analyze what was happening in their streets. He said he was disappointed when the kids regurgitated CNN news reports rather than shared their own, muddled feelings about the scenes they’d witnessed.

Santana was also troubled by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s stop at Gilmor Elementary on her way to Gray’s funeral. She’d never paid a visit before and, to him, the whole event reeked of a photo op. He said the children had been handpicked for good behavior and were given questions to read. The windows of other classrooms were papered over, lest the cameras glimpse the conditions.

The mayor’s spokesman, Kevin Harris, said the decision to visit Gilmor was made on the fly and that there had been neither the time nor desire to stage-manage the visit; any such planning would’ve come from the school. He said Rawlings-Blake was under no illusion about the state of schools that’s why she’d initiated a $1 billion plan to refurbish Baltimore schools and to build new ones “for the first time in a generation.”

But Santana’s concern was about a pattern of officials parachuting in for a few minutes, making promises and then vanishing. He said they never stayed long enough to hear, for example, how a class project to get the city to demolish a single vacant house took an entire year. An entire year, he repeated. One house.

“People come in, but don’t really want the truth to come out,” Santana told Hicks. “I think that we should show the world how real this is, that this is what it’s really like.”

About a week after the riots, a group of black business owners and activists met in the dim back room of a jazz club, Phaze 10, in downtown Baltimore. They belong to an informal group known as “Black Wall Street,” named after the self-sufficient black communities that sprang up in Tulsa, Okla., and other cities in the days of segregation.

The attendees, mostly in business attire, were exhausted from the previous week but determined to act while there was still interest in helping Baltimore’s most neglected neighborhoods. They were frustrated by the government response so far, with one businessman describing the idea of private fundraising to improve Sandtown-Winchester, East Baltimore and Park Heights as insulting, like “a bake sale,” a route the downtown waterfront area wouldn’t be asked to consider.

Glover, the Sandtown activist and media figure, presided over the Black Wall Street gathering. A community development leader urged activists to coalesce into official organizations so they’d be eligible for more funding. There was a banker who, tired of seeing young black girls fall through the cracks, is opening her own girls-only charter school this summer. Antonio Hayes, a 37-year-old state delegate from Baltimore, received special recognition and applause because, while other officials were going on camera, he quietly arranged for the delivery of 23,000 pounds of food and medicine to Sandtown after the CVS was destroyed.

“This is the kind of young leader Baltimore needs!” a member of the audience said.

The most urgent item up for discussion was the launch, in just a few weeks, of YouthWorks, a program that matches young Baltimore residents with summer jobs. The city received 8,000 applications but has only about 5,000 positions, so the mayor started the Hire One Youth initiative, urging small businesses to help place the teens.

With the tensions in the streets and the criminal case in Gray’s death pending, there were fears of what might happen if officials couldn’t find positive outlets before the last day of school. One man from East Baltimore warned the other attendees that the public pool in his neighborhood would be closed for the fourth summer in a row, a symbol of the lack of recreational activities in poor neighborhoods.

The mayor has a bill before the city council seeking permission to sell two city-owned parking garages in hopes of using the projected revenue of up to $60 million to refurbish and build new rec centers. Her spokesman described the bill’s status as “languishing.”

Amid the button-down shirts and elegant heels, a young man listening to the debates stood out in his backwards baseball cap, ripped jeans, shiny gold sneakers and T-shirt emblazoned with a big mouth and the words “Real Talk.”

This was the 19-year-old rapper Young Goldie real name Amin Peters who was on hand to receive a plaque from Black Wall Street to honor the entrepreneurship behind his debut album, “Dream Come True,” scheduled for release next month. The hip-hop magazine The Source this week called him “one of the city’s hottest talents,” and the video for his new single received nearly 2 million views in the first four days it was on YouTube.

There was an awkward sweetness to the moment: successful black Baltimore leaders reaching back, across age and sensibility, to lift up a young artist from Sandtown who raps about money, sex and guns. Goldie’s acceptance speech “I’ll use my voice to tell other kids to chase their dreams, never give up” was cut short in the interest of time. He was still proud enough of the honor to share the news with his tens of thousands of fans on Instagram and Twitter.

As the businesspeople said their goodbyes, Young Goldie sipped a lemonade and ruminated about how he was on the cusp of stardom just as his beloved city was in the news because of Freddie Gray. Like Gray, Goldie came of age in Sandtown, growing up among drug-addicted family members and witnessing violent crimes from a young age. With his mother’s constant encouragement, he said, he managed to graduate high school. One of the fellow graduates he’d celebrated with that night is already serving a life sentence for murder.

“Baltimore is a real struggle. If you make it out of Baltimore, then you’re blessed, because Baltimore is a war,” Goldie said. “Low income, drugs surrounding you, killing nonstop, no school funding, no recs or pools open. There’s nothing for us to do. That’s why people are going crazy.”

Goldie said he did think Baltimore was “kind of changing,” though he said it shouldn’t have taken Gray’s death to shine a light on the problems that he’d seen every day of his life. He sounded encouraged that a new generation of community activists is emerging, people with closer ties to the streets. For now, though, Young Goldie is reserving judgment on all these voices promising to save Baltimore.

“I’m just waiting for a real change. I want to see work done,” he said. “When I see action, that’s when I’ll respect it.”