Reinventing Community Planning: Sandtown, Baltimore

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Ph.D.(Arch.), Director, IMCL
& KJ Kresin

Across the United States thousands of once thriving working class neighborhoods are boarded up, but few are in such dire straits, or in such an extreme need for a reinvented Community Planning approach as Sandtown, Baltimore.

Old suburban areas such as Sandtown Winchester, in Baltimore Maryland narrate the history of the growth and contraction of the economy in the last century. Steel was brought to the City with the construction of a steel mill and shipyard by the Pennsylvania Steel Company in 1893. It dominated the local economy and later became Bethlehem Steel in 1916. Factories brought blue-collar careers to the region, which attracted middle to low class families to suburban neighborhoods surrounding the city. For the first time in history, working class families could afford a house outside the city where most of the factories were located. In the last two decades the need for manual labor dropped dramatically with the introduction of automated machining factories. Nearly one-third of Sandtown’s population left between 1950 and 2000 due to the decline of the steel industry.

Until the 1960s, Sandtown was part of the vibrant 72 square blocks that made up a family-based, African-American community where laborers, professionals and artists all lived together across socioeconomic lines.”With fewer people working in the steel factories the local neighborhoods slowly decayed as families lost their stable income. In 2015 the unemployment epidemic continues to define the lives of citizens in once thriving neighborhoods.

With the recent media attention to Baltimore, it is important to not forget about the people who continue to live there after the cameras are gone. The citizens living in the Baltimore area of Sandtown need a chance of revival. There is no excuse for neighborhoods to continue to decline when there is an abundant amount of resources and people power to change that. The goal must be to improve the current communities, not push them out to benefit developers. Programs must be put in place to give current residents skills they can use to support their families in the future. Suitable training programs might include blue-collar jobs such as carpentry, plumbing, gardening, and homebuilding. Micro business loans so successful in the poorest nations should be available in America too. With the goal to keep current residents in the neighborhoods stores, services, and housing must be re-constructed to accommodate lower to middle class families.

Sandtown Winchester is located around the intersection of West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue. It was at this intersection that the CVS pharmacy and two police cars were set on fire during the recent Baltimore riots. It is one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the Baltimore area. Despite the recent economic decline, this neighborhood still has remnants of a solid urban fabric. A few miles east of this intersection, North Avenue, is facing rapid gentrification due to the recent construction of posh new housing and art centers targeting the millennial generation.

Sandtown was one of the neighborhoods hit the hardest with unemployment. More than half of the people between the ages of 16 and 64 are out of work and the unemployment rate is double that for the city of Baltimore which stands at one in five. Median income of Sandtown is $24,000 - below the poverty line for a family of four, and nearly a third of families live in poverty.

A current resident of Sandtown, Veronica Boodoo 52 stated, “those in power have forgotten about this part of town.” Police, she said, formed a barrier around The Avenue — as this part of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood is called by residents — “and allowed people to destroy only the black area of town.” "This is a dead neighborhood," she declared. Sometimes, she said, she doesn't even want to look out her front window, because what she sees is decay. She sees sagging stoops and broken windows and nothing, she said, changes. Veronica is an example of many fed up residents living in Sandtown. With current residents feeling the impacts of the economic hardship followed by riots, they are struggling to figure out solutions.

Baltimore has a number of strong programs to support redevelopment and renovation of existing neighborhoods. With the implementation of Baltimore’s Sustainable Community Action Plan The City of Baltimore seeks to enhance economic competitiveness and access to economic opportunity for the Sustainable Community areas through the promotion of Baltimore’s strengths and regional assets. The plan is to improve property values and increase investments in existing arts and entertainment districts.  In the past, cities have used art studios, high-end grocery stores, cafes, and restaurants to attract more people to the area. There are 8 areas slated for redevelopment, but Sandtown is not one of these areas.

Paired with the renovation of neighborhoods to attract middle to upper class shoppers, Baltimore also wants to improve their transit system and construct bike paths to connect local parks to one another.

 The ideas and intentions carried out by the government are good ways to improve the standard of living for middle income citizens and young professionals and increase GDP.  In an ideal world their focus and enthusiasm could branch out and be transferred to target different demographics. Yes, having safe pathways to parks is useful, but the pathways that connect people to their jobs need to be safe, too. Often people working low paying jobs do not have enough money to maintain a car, so they utilize public transit and might bike to work if routes were safe.

Yet the vision for Baltimore’s neighborhood redevelopment and renovation program seems more related to a process of gentrification rather than helping existing residents become economically stable, and live healthy lives in a socially and ecologically sustainable manner.

Counteracting a poor neighborhood’s efforts to stabilize their community, and prevent unemployment and homelessness is the notorious ‘Black Tax’, as it is called in Chicago, predatory tax-lien speculation by which poor people’s homes are seized on the basis of small unpaid taxes. “Tax-debt sales enable powerful, wealthy, corporate actors to use the law to bully and exploit a city’s most vulnerable residents… Late in 2014, the Abell Foundation published a report on the state of the practice in Baltimore City… In 2014, of some 6,690 tax liens sold, 2,236 were for owner-occupied homes… the Abell Foundation report’s authors warn that in Baltimore, the “tax sale can lead to evictions, homelessness, and property vacancies and abandonment in a city already plagued by all three.” How many of Slabtown’s boarded up homes are owned by speculators waiting for the whole black population to disappear so they can develop a profitable upper income neighborhood?

With the lack of city involvement in stabilizing the community, the neighborhood of Sandtown has the opportunity to be a pioneer in community redevelopment. In the 1970’s England was facing a similar unemployment and housing dilemma and can be used as an example of what can be achieved if you give knowledge and skills to impoverished populations. The program was called Community Architecture, and received strong support from the Prince of Wales. The leader of this movement was Rod Hackney, who became President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and spoke at many IMCL Conferences. He used his architectural skills to help residents adapt their run-down housing to their needs.

Unlike most Community Architects, Hackney even lived in the neighborhood to figure out with the community exactly what they needed, to facilitate their negotiations with city council, and with building suppliers who donated materials.

He also taught residents the building skills they needed to rebuild and renovate their own houses – foundation construction, wall construction, carpentry, roofing, plumbing, plastering and electrical wiring. With the skills gained from the construction, people who were previously unemployed had the skills to go out into the work force and make livable wages.

The self-build program was introduced in Scotland in 1986. Rod Hackney & Associates worked together with Stirling District Council, in an effort to alleviate the need for council housing in the area.

“Asked by the council to look at tenure options other than local authority house-building, the architects identified a group of people on the waiting list who were prepared to set up a cooperative residents association to build and then manage 36 homes on local authority land. Finances were secured from two building societies, allowing people on the dole to get mortgages and buy the land at nominal value. In a model of Big Society localism, workmen from various building trades were then employed by the residents to teach them the skills to build their own dwellings.”

Self-build programs are common throughout Europe. “In Austria over 80% of homes are self-built, and the same goes for more than half the homes in Scandinavia, Germany and Belgium.” Families, couples and individuals join forces to build around 6-15 new houses for themselves. “By working together people can typically save 40% on plot purchase and an extra 10% on building costs like machinery, materials, and specialist help. It also tends to lead to closer-knit communities because the group works together from the beginning and people usually stay in a home they have built for longer than average. There is an imaginative self-build community in Bristol, site of the 2015 IMCL Conference, called Ashley Vale. But these projects, as affordable as they are, do not address such poverty-stricken areas as Slabtown.

John Thompson is another Community Architect from the 1980s who still practices “Collaborative Placemaking”. His approach of asking residents in public housing what they wanted and implementing their needs into construction was revolutionary because before no one ever asked what public housing residents wanted. The Community Architecture movement has evolved into a larger movement of Community Planning firms that assist communities to achieve improvements at the neighborhood, city and regional scales. The movement was originally inspired by the work of John Turner: "When dwellers control the major decisions and are free to make their own contribution to the design, construction or management of their housing, both the process and the environment produced stimulate individual and social well-being." (John F C Turner, Freedom to Build, 1972). Turner and Thompson also spoke at early IMCL Conferences. Community Planners continues to thrive with 40 firms in the UK offering a community planning approach similar to that of Rod Hackney and John Thompson.

This movement is not so visible in the US, though there are some organizations that take a somewhat similar approach. Notably, “Rebuilding Together strengthens the lives of people in our most vulnerable communities by providing low-income homeowners with critical home repairs, accessibility modifications and energy-efficient upgrades.” Nearly 100,000 volunteers donate to cover costs of materials and carry out unskilled work such as painting, yard work, cleaning and light carpentry. It is a great program, but it does not teach the homeowners and their neighbors how to do the work themselves.

 

Habitat for Humanity, with more than 1,400 local affiliates in the United States, builds and repairs houses with volunteer labor, but does not train the poor to fix up their own homes or street. We are looking for programs that do not do something for a poor family, but programs that form a supportive structure that allows fragmented communities to invest sweat equity and learn skills to fix up their own neighborhoods and pull themselves out of poverty. This should be the foundation for all “Community Planning” efforts. In practice in the US, all too often the term has been hijacked to mean the City planning department develops planning policies to facilitate developers’ agendas.

Sandtown born and bred, Elder Clyde Harris, pastor of Newborn Community Faith Church and co-founder of the nonprofit Newborn Holistic Ministries, been devoted to the rehabilitation or to building houses for low-income residents aspiring to home ownership in Sandtown. Recognizing that there will be insufficient motivation for residents to move into Sandtown until other improvements are made, he has recently turned to urban agriculture as a way to provide fresh food, and train skills that the poorest residents can turn to for income.

If neighborhoods such as Sandtown could implement more policies and programs such as this to teach wage earning reconstruction skills and neighborhood improvement skills the results would be astronomical. First off, the aesthetic of the neighborhoods would be improved tremendously; low income families could move back in and take pride in their homes. Children would have safe places to grow and explore around their homes with the improvement of streets and sidewalks. They could also participate in the sprucing up of the city by helping with community gardens, park restoration projects and tree planting. Slabtown is a food desert, with plenty of liquor stores but no fresh food. Community gardens and urban farms could make fresh fruit and vegetables accessible. With more income flowing into the neighborhoods more shops would be able to open with a higher variety of stores catered to citizens’ needs. The state of Maryland would reap the benefits as well through economy stimulation and increased tax revenue coming from people who were previously on welfare or food stamps.

 The city of Baltimore should not be remembered as the city with the highest homicide rate in the United States, but instead the city that made a huge come back from crippling financial depression. Sandtown has the potential to reinvent true community planning not only in Baltimore, but state and nation wide. People have the power to change the world if given the opportunity and no one should be denied education or work based on their race, financial status, or gender.