The path to one of the city’s most spectacular views is more than a little unlikely.
Head west past Arundel Elementary/Middle on Veronica Avenue and take a right on Giles Road. From there, a quick left takes you down a short, bumpy road that leads to a methadone clinic and a shuttered mail station. But drive straight, past a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall on your left, and ahead of you is a serene outlook of the Patapsco and Baltimore’s skyline.
» Border streets: Waterview Ave., Potee St., Reedbird Ave., I-295, Baltimore County line
» Neighboring areas: Brooklyn, Lakeland, Westport, Middle Branch/Reedbird Parks, Lansdowne (Baltimore County)
Michael Middleton, a consultant for the Cherry Hill Development Corporation and the chairman of the Cherry Hill Community Coalition, grew up four miles from here, in a public housing unit that was demolished years ago. He, perhaps better than anyone, can see the neighborhood’s potential while acknowledging its complicated past.
“I claim that this is part of the Cherry Hill community,” Middleton says as we gaze out over the Middle Branch. “We are definitely stakeholders in relationship to any development that comes from that and ought to be part of that community. It should be part of the Cherry Hill community.”
With Sagamore Development’s plans for Port Covington and Westport, Cherry Hill is essentially Baltimore’s last waterfront neighborhood untouched by development. Middleton’s enthusiasm for the transformation of his neighborhood is tempered only by his intimate knowledge of its history.
In Middleton’s view, Cherry Hill turned out “to be exactly what it was expected to be.” During the height of Jim Crow-era segregation, the community was developed for returning African-Americans from World War II, in addition to those migrating north for manufacturing jobs. Private homes were built, offering black families an affordable community in proximity to industry.
“Then came the onslaught of public housing,” Middleton says. “The first public housing that was developed was a result of the city of Baltimore not knowing what it was going to do with public housing. After other neighborhoods protested, we ended up with public housing coming out to Cherry Hill.
“The nature of that public housing was to such an extent that Cherry Hill became the most densely populated public housing community east of the Mississippi.”
Very few changes have been made to the physical structures of public housing units since construction from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. Army barracks-style homes still line the streets of Spelman, Round, Woodview, Seagull and Bethune. “It would take a bomb to blow this place up,” Middleton says as we drive past a standard block of brick-on-the-outside, concrete-on-the-inside homes.
Middleton’s home at 850 Bethune Road was located at the southwest corner of the neighborhood, right next to a city dump and incinerator.
“You would have fruit companies come out and dump swollen fruit, painting companies dumping residues of paint,” Middleton says. “I remember we would run down and grab the bananas. I had a sister whose ankle was burnt because she stepped in acid. All those hazardous materials were not regulated, and so they were all dumped here. You don’t know the extent to which any of that has had on health effects of people who resided in this area.”
Today in Cherry Hill there are more than 5,000 homes, 1,200 of which are public housing units. Another 1,250 or so are low-income houses subsidized by Section 8 vouchers. It is Middleton’s hope that in the coming years, mixed-income housing developments will be built in Cherry Hill to coincide with a handful of quality-of-life improvements.
A new recreation center is set to be built at the site of the old Patapsco Elementary School. Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle, meanwhile, has been designated as a 21st Century School with a budget of $48 million for improvements. Middleton believes Arundel could eventually follow suit with a focus on early childhood development, and he has hopes for transforming Maritime Industries Academy into a high school focused on training students for careers in the transportation sector (though that plan is murky given Baltimore City Schools CEO Gregory Thornton calling for the school’s closure).
From a commercial standpoint, the neighborhood’s current options are severely limited. The closest grocery store is in Glen Burnie, unless you count a Family Dollar in the Cherry Hill Town Center.
“When I was growing up in Cherry Hill, that area right there in the Cherry Hill Town Center was the Hill Movie Theater,” Middleton says. “We had along this [stretch] an A&P supermarket, which is where the Family Dollar store is now. You had black hairdressers, black barber shops, a hardware store, a clothing store, all in this area that’s here.
“Right now you have a chicken box carryout right there, a chicken box carryout inside – two, in fact, inside of the town center. You have a China Wok here. You have a fried chicken carryout spot here. A nails place there. A childcare center that’s right there, a Laundromat right there. None of these businesses are owned by African-Americans or people in the community except for the barbershop, Hilltop. None employ residents in this community, except for the early childhood place and the barbershop.”
The neighborhood has changed significantly since Middleton grew up here in the ‘50s and ‘60s. As other areas of the city were integrated, many families left Cherry Hill – including his own to Northwest Baltimore – for more residential areas. Middleton ended up going to City for high school, Coppin State for undergrad and Maryland for law school. But Cherry Hill always drew him back.
Maybe it’s because Middleton grew up in public housing – “no child should have to face a stigma based on your family’s economic level because you come out of public housing” – and is acutely empathetic to that struggle. Maybe it’s because he worked in Legal Aid for years and saw firsthand how Cherry Hill gets “an unfair rap in relation to having crime.” Or maybe it’s because he has to stand on an outlook in one of Baltimore’s struggling economic communities to see wealth across the harbor.
Whatever it may be, Middleton has a vision for what his neighborhood can become. He sees mixed-income housing. He sees transportation-oriented education in a Cherry Hill high school. He sees a strengthened relationship with MedStar Harbor Hospital, serving as an anchor institution for Cherry Hill much like Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore. He sees a Cherry Hill stop on the Charm City Circulator. He sees a community of tiny houses catering to young, service-oriented professionals committed to living and working in an area with potential. He sees a continued commitment to urban farming, starting with the three-and-a-half acre plot adjacent to his office on Cherry Hill Road. He even sees … the “G” word taking root.
“With the renewed interest in development around the Middle Branch as the last undeveloped area of the harbor, we will have a case of gentrification. And I understand that,” Middleton says. “They say, ‘they’re going to take Cherry Hill from us anyway.’ That is a real fear of people in this community. They see that as something they don’t want. So the reality of things from my perspective is that eventually, Cherry Hill will have to become a diverse community.
“The nature of becoming a diverse community doesn’t necessarily lead to something from a negative perspective of gentrification. It could lead to something very positive.”