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The Experiment That Tried To Lift Freddie Gray's Neighborhood Out Of Poverty

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Wanda Fuller in front of her Nehemiah house.
WAMU/Hans Anderson
Wanda Fuller in front of her Nehemiah house.

Sandtown-Winchester has been in the news a lot lately — it’s the place Freddie Gray called home before he died in police custody.

And these days, the neighborhood is dealing with some serious challenges. There are vacant homes. It has more residents in jail than any other census tract in all of Maryland. The unemployment rate is nearly double that of Baltimore as a whole.

It’s particularly striking because 25 years ago, Sandtown was the focus of a large urban renewal effort and there was hope that the neighborhood would be a model for other areas facing similar problems.

A promise in a home

It all started with housing. Sandtown Winchester is a neighborhood full of rowhouses. Some old, some boarded up, some rehabbed. Outside of one home is Wanda Fuller — she’s watering her lawn this morning.

When Fuller bought her Sandtown home in 1992 it was new. She was making somewhere around $22,000 a year.

“To really be blessed with a home, to own your home with two daughters, single parent. That’s a blessing,” says Fuller.

Fuller’s house is a Nehemiah Home. There are blocks and blocks of them throughout the neighborhood. You can tell them apart from other homes for a few reasons. First of all, they just look newer than the rest of the houses. But they’re also very uniform: two stories, brick, with five windows and a small front yard.

Fuller could’ve bought a Nehemiah home in the neighborhood she grew up in — Cherry Hill in South Baltimore. But she chose Sandtown.

“These were being built first and I guess I just wanted to get mine sooner,” says Fuller “it was really a blessing. The whole process, picking out your carpet, picking out your house. I even had an opportunity to get a bigger one, the corner one. But I chose a middle one.”

The houses were pre-fabricated and brought over to Sandtown on trucks. This was in the early '90s and at the time, they cost $62,500. They were accompanied by a package of low-interest mortgage financing for first-time homebuyers. And classes on credit and financing.

Homes like Fuller’s were the bedrock of an ambitious urban renewal project. It started with homeownership, but expanded to include more health programs in the neighborhood. And better employment and education opportunities for residents.

“When we moved into these homes,” says Fuller “they promised so much. But I think they didn’t really deliver on it.”

This was a project of then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and developer Jim Rouse, who designed Columbia, Maryland and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, among other projects. Rouse’s company, the Enterprise Foundation was involved, along with the organization Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD). The effort was going to be run by residents, so there were churches and community groups working on it as well.

A vision for the community

All in all this group was going to take a neighborhood in which 40 percent of residents were living below the poverty line and, in Rouse’s words, “transform the neighborhoods in which the very poor people live in this country in a serious and constructive way." It would be a model for how to revitalize neighborhoods around the country.

Craig Jernigan was on the ground providing services during this time. In 1994 he started as a VISTA volunteer in Sandtown.

“If you do the history,” says Jernigan “You look back on it — on the things we were tackling in Sandtown. You would see that this was a monumental kind of task and effort that was going on.”

Jernigan had his hands in a lot of projects. He worked with kids at Urban Youth Corp, walked around the neighborhood and catalogued vacant houses, and eventually worked with the board of Community Building in Partnership, a group that coordinated the efforts in the neighborhood.

“It was an exciting time, we would go through the community with different initiatives, where we were embraced,” says Jernigan “We were from the community. The vast majority of those who worked in Sandtown as far as the block by block on the ground were from the community. So we were received with open arms wherever we went in Sandtown Winchester.”

Jernigan points to a number of people he worked with who got jobs working for the city of Baltimore or in other parts of the county. There was excitement and a sense of community at the time. He bought his own house in Sandtown.

“I had a vision that one day that the community would be one of the premier communities in the United States of America,” says Jernigan “so I had that vision, that dream that it would be there… it would get there one day.”

Mixed results?

Jernigan doesn’t believe it’s fulfilled his initial dream… at least not yet.

And if you look at the data, it backs that up. Peter Rosenblatt is a professor at Loyola University in Chicago. In a study, he looked at different neighborhood indicators in Sandtown Winchester in 1990, 2000, and 2009.

“And we wanted to see, 20 years after, what changes had happened at that neighborhood level,” says Rosenblatt.

There were some discouraging changes. Unemployment rose from about 18 percent to 21 percent. Median household income fell by about $1,500. But the percentage of residents who received a high school diploma increased. And the percentage of residents living below poverty decreased. But when Rosenblatt compared Sandtown to other neighborhoods, he couldn’t tell if the positive changes were caused by the revitalization effort.

One clear success of the efforts in Sandtown was home ownership. Just under a quarter of residents owned their own homes in 1990. Today, more than a third own their homes.

“The increase in home ownership is certainly significant given the history of redlining and denied access to credit in the neighborhood,” says Rosenblatt. “Historically, like many other predominantly African American neighborhoods, Sandtown Winchester was systematically denied home ownership opportunities in the post-World War II era.”

But many of the programs started in the '90s just faded away. There was a beginning to this project but not a clear end. Mayor Kurt Schmoke left office and Jim Rouse – a driving force behind the effort — passed away in 1996.

Ultimately, a decade of work wasn’t enough to overcome the magnitude of the problems that face Sandtown Winchester.

“Overall, I mean the finding to me just point to how entrenched these issues are in neighborhoods like Sandtown,” says Rosenblatt “they’re challenges that really remain in the neighborhood.”

For Craig Jernigan, it wasn’t a wasted effort.

“Folks may not see a lot of the good and a lot of the great things that happened through that process and the folks that it has helped,” says Jernigan.

For Sandtown resident Wanda Fuller, the program helped her buy a new house. One that she can pass along to her daughters. But the community she bought into isn’t as cohesive as it was during the 90s. She doesn’t know her neighbors as well.

She remembers a time when there would be block parties on her street. She would paint faces. Her neighbor would play music. But then there was a shooting at a block party. Fuller says it was someone from outside the block. But they haven’t been able to have another since. “It has changed, because back in the 90s,” says Fuller “it was excitement. You had that energy.”

Fuller was one of the strong believers in the future of Sandtown. Someone who bought into a program that was never fully completed.

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