BALTIMORE – Last year, Cornelia Brown was forced to move out of the East Baltimore rowhouse she had lived in for almost 60 years. At 90 years old, she packed up her belongings and moved to a new house miles away from the neighborhood where she spent most of her long life.
And she doesn’t look back.
She wasn’t too sorry to leave her old neighborhood in Middle East, an area that has struggled with crime and drugs for decades.
East Baltimore Development Inc., a public-private partnership representing both the city and Johns Hopkins University, bought Brown’s Chester Street house last May.
EBDI is redeveloping 88 acres just north of the Johns Hopkins medical school campus. It’s the largest project of its kind in the city’s history, but the effort to revitalize the blighted Middle East neighborhood has resulted in the displacement of over 650 households.
Brown was one of the oldest homeowners among the 90 households forced to move to make way for the permanent site of the brand-new East Baltimore Community School, which now operates out of a modular building a few blocks away.
Her old house is boarded up, as is most of the block. A “No Trespassing” warning has been stenciled in black paint on the piece of plywood blocking the doorway. The windows on the second floor hang open, revealing only a dark void inside.
Her new house sits on a quiet, tree-lined stretch of Harford Road in the northeastern part of the city. A knee-high stone wall lines the front yard. A set of stone steps leads up to a pair of double doors, which open into a small sunroom.
“Hold your nose,” Brown says in a gravelly voice as she walks through the sunroom, where her cat, Kitty, scurries around his litter box. Brown walks slowly into the living room, where a soap opera is playing on the TV.
She settles onto a white couch, resting her hand on the top of her cane. Her daughter Gloria, who moved into the new house with her last year, washes dishes in the kitchen.
Brown worked as a cleaning lady at the courthouse until her retirement in 1976. She’s a mother of five, grandmother of 32, and great-grandmother of 36.
She describes the moving process in a no-nonsense manner, occasionally dabbing at her mouth with a handkerchief.
“I had to leave because everybody had to leave out that block. I couldn’t stay there,” she says. “So they just said they’d give me another house wherever I wanted to move, that they would put me in there, and that’s what they did.”
Brown acknowledges she was upset when she first learned she had to move. She had just installed new windows and bought new rugs for the old house when she heard the news.
“I put all my money in that house and then I had to move out of it,” she says.
Brown’s husband, Willie, who worked at the steel plant in Sparrows Point, bought the old house on Chester Street decades ago. He died in 1958 from what Brown calls “complications disease,” a mixture of heart trouble and high blood pressure.
Despite her initial frustration, Brown says she’s happy in her new home, and that she has no plans to move back to her old neighborhood once the redevelopment is complete.
“It’s really nice here,” she says. “It’s a quiet neighborhood.”
Peace and quiet was difficult to come by at her old house on Chester. Crime and violence, most of it related to the drug trade, made her afraid to sit on her front steps. And when trouble started, she wasn’t able to run.
“People getting killed. People getting shot,” Brown says. “Two of them got killed on the front of my door just about.”
It wasn’t always that way. Thinking back to when she first moved to the neighborhood, Brown remembers a nice place to live, a place where people could sit outside without fear.
“It was a beautiful neighborhood,” Brown says. “Wasn’t but two colored families in the neighborhood. All the rest of the people was white when I first moved there.”
As she describes how the neighborhood changed over the years, she raises her arm slowly and gives a thumbs down.
“The only reason I’m glad I was out is because of all that shooting and dope. I could’ve stayed there if it wasn’t for that.”
She never even goes back to visit, because all her friends and neighbors were forced to move just like she was. They’re now scattered all over the city.
Family advocates from EBDI still call her from time to time to check up on her and see how she’s doing in her new place.
This outreach program is the main thing that sets EBDI apart from similar redevelopment projects, says Karen Johnson, the director of EBDI’s family advocacy program. EBDI has 10 case managers and one attorney available to assist people with a variety of issues.
Family advocates continue to work with affected people, regardless of where they choose to relocate, to ensure that their new housing situations remain stable and to improve their understanding of their finances. The organization assists people like Brown for a minimum of three years.
When asked if she’s going to stay in her new house for good, Cornelia Brown nods.
“As long as I can. Right here,” she says. “At least you can sit out on the front steps here in the summertime.”