BALTIMORE – From her office window, Pat Tracey can see what was once her blighted neighborhood — now mostly razed and ready for housing and retail.
She works for Johns Hopkins Hospital as a community health coordinator in the surrounding area, helping her former neighbors.
When Tracey lived in Middle East — the neighborhood just north of Johns Hopkins — she was at the forefront of the fight to make sure residents got the best deal possible out of the coming redevelopment.
Now that the redevelopment is well under way, and the neighborhood is mostly demolished to make way for mixed-income housing, retail and a biotech park, Tracey, still keeps in touch with old neighbors and her old church.
“You look at some of these neighborhoods like, ‘Why would someone live there?'” Tracey said. “But if you’re in a third-world country, people live there because they have nowhere else to go.
“This is what they know. This is where they have their support. This is where they have their community.”
Tracey, 60, once led the Save Middle East Action Committee, a group of residents committed to making sure the redevelopment of their neighborhood would be careful with residents.
The neighborhood was quiet, she remembers, because many of the homes were vacant.
The project now known as East Baltimore Development Inc. came as a surprise to the residents, many of whom learned about it through news reports. The neighbors heard their neighborhood might be bulldozed.
Suddenly, Tracey, who had lived in Middle East since 1982, was a neighborhood activist.
“They were looking at this whole project as if it were a public housing project, like you’re just going to move people and that’s it,” she said. “You’re forgetting that a lot of people in there owned their home. You can’t just come in and tell people, ‘Too bad. You got to move.'”
Tracey, a short, soft-spoken woman, said this was too much for her. She stubbornly researched the EBDI project and tried to find a way to make sure the residents were taken care of.
In the fall of 2000, Tracey helped form SMEAC and became its chairwoman. There was so much to learn: Could EBDI really take their homes through eminent domain? How much money would residents get for their homes? How would this work?
In the early 2000s, SMEAC argued for grants so that residents could get up to $70,000 in relocation packages. Making the process more generous was a big victory for SMEAC, Tracey said.
She left the group in 2004. SMEAC disbanded this November. On fliers posted around the neighborhood, the organization noted it was time for it to move on.
She took $70,000 in 2004 to move to a new home in Moravia Park, a city neighborhood 30 minutes away.
While Tracey still attends EBDI’s monthly policy meetings and attends church functions, she says she’s lost much of her sense of community.
Previously, when St. Philip’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Caroline Street had a dinner and someone forgot a mixing bowl, she said, they could run home and grab one. Now, former residents must plan for these things far in advance.
“A lot of people who lived in Middle East had neighbors that looked out for them, they were within walking distance to church or doctor or friend. I’m not saying the project was all bad but it just didn’t work for everybody.”
Tracey was surprised the redevelopment of her neighborhood was so long coming.
“Living that close to Hopkins, I thought they had to do something with the neighborhood and couldn’t let it continue to go down, but I didn’t know it would be this process.”
Tracey said more neighborhoods in the city need the kind of attention Middle East is now getting, so that they can recover as well.
“The city is supposed to intervene when the community is devastated, (it) shouldn’t fall on the backs of people who live there,” she said.
“This is why people get so upset: If you’re poor nobody cares about you. You don’t have the education to know what’s going on or how to deal with it, then you look at the neighborhood like, ‘How did it get to this state?'”
Now, Tracey is satisfied with her new home, which is brand-new with three stories. She lives there with her daughter and her daughter’s two children.
There are different challenges now. Her taxes have more than tripled and she has condo fees to deal with. Her mother, whom she could visit in 15 minutes, is now almost an hour’s drive away.
At her new home, Tracey found other things to fight. The original developers were supposed to put a retaining wall around part of her property, but when the development was sold, the new developers forgot about that detail. Tracey made sure they remembered.
And what about the old community, the one she worked so hard for?
Tracey said the busy neighborhood that planners envision isn’t what she wants for herself.
“It’s going to be a traffic jam no matter what,” she said. “In three to eight years, I want to retire, and there’s all those crowds of people and their noise.”