BALTIMORE – The buildings seem to sparkle at night, dwarfing the new construction and standing in stark contrast to the dark, abandoned buildings and empty lots. Near the center, the name of the behemoth institution glows white: Johns Hopkins.
Hopkins’ East Baltimore medical campus and the neighborhood just north of it are inextricably linked. But the relationship between the two has not always been amiable.
Decades ago, the neighborhood thrived. But as jobs disappeared and middle-class families fled to the suburbs, the area north of Johns Hopkins descended into squalor.
The problem was not unique. In cities across the country, the urban neighborhoods around long-established hospitals and universities had also deteriorated. Some hospitals retreated to the suburbs. Other institutions worked to revitalize their surroundings, with mixed results.
But a decade ago, Gov. Martin O’Malley, then mayor, proposed a revitalization project in East Baltimore. The plan: Build a biotech park, and rebuild a community.
O’Malley wanted Hopkins to be involved with the project, but hospital officials did not think they should run it, said Sally MacConnell, vice president for facilities for Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System and a member of the East Baltimore Development Inc. board of directors.
“We needed to be supportive,” she said. “But we are not a community development organization… That’s not our area of expertise. We know how to run hospitals. We know how to run universities. We know how to educate medical students.”
Instead, the city created East Baltimore Development Inc. — a nonprofit public-private partnership to manage and direct a $1.8 billion, 88-acre community revitalization. The project is slated to include new housing, parks, a school, restaurants, stores, parking and 1.1 million square feet of life sciences and technology facilities.
Hopkins played a key role in the plan. The health system owned more than 100 properties in the area, but deeded them all to EBDI, MacConnell said. The hospital also invested financially and served as a lure to attract biotech companies to the project.
“By attracting new companies, you would bring new jobs, you would bring income, you would bring new people to live in EBDI, perhaps,” MacConnell said of the thinking behind the project. “That economic engine would help the city.”
The project was important to Hopkins for many reasons, MacConnell said.
“Hopkins is this huge employer in East Baltimore. It has this huge investment in East Baltimore,” she said. “We’ve been here for 120-some-odd years, we’re going to be here for another 120-some-odd years, and the community around us is very important.”
Urban legends, rumors and stories about Hopkins mistreatment of the surrounding neighborhoods emerged decades ago and still float around EBDI.
“We hated this place,” former Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns, the city’s first black mayor, remembered in a 1986 interview published by Hopkins.
“There was always tension with Hopkins,” Lucille Gorham told The Baltimore Sun in 1994. Gorham led East Baltimore community groups for decades.
“In those days, you always lived with this thing over your head. Because of Hopkins’ great need for parking, within a year you could lose your home. You never knew where they were buying up property. You never knew if they’d move you out,” she told The Sun.
In the same article, Rev. Melvin B. Tuggle Jr. said Hopkins was “the ivory tower.”
“That’s where white folk went and foreigners came,” he said.
There are rumors of medical experiments, of body bags coming out of the old St. Joseph Hospital in a nearby poor, black neighborhood and heading straight up the street to Hopkins for testing.
There is no documentation of any of that in the Johns Hopkins archives. But the rumors persist.
Gary Stephenson, a spokesman for Johns Hopkins, said the issue is extremely complex, wrapping together racial suspicions, skepticism over medical research and a doubts about medical experimentation.
“These issues are far larger than Johns Hopkins, going well beyond East Baltimore community relations with Johns Hopkins,” he said, and urban legends exist in every culture.
Rosa Hart Burenstine moved to Baltimore in 1937 and grew up four blocks from Hopkins. She moved away after getting her education, and her old house is long gone — leveled by Hopkins.
Burenstine makes a face when asked about the relationship between the neighborhood and the hospital. She thinks for a moment, trying to think of a way to explain it tactfully.
“It’s been a stormy relationship,” she says finally.
Crimes in the neighborhood over the years — from the kidnapping of a doctor from a Hopkins garage and the rapes of medical students to the recent shooting of two women outside the Kennedy Krieger Institute — have not helped soothe relations between area residents and the health system staff.
Delegate Hattie Harrison, who has the longest tenure of anyone now in the Maryland House of Delegates, said some of the conflict was stoked by people with their own agendas — including one community organization.
Harrison said people realized the neighborhood was going to be changed, and worked to turn the residents against the plan.
“The folk were told that now that Hopkins got what they want, they don’t intend to come in and help this neighborhood at all. But that’s not so,” Harrison said.
Not everyone in the neighborhood harbored hard feelings about their world-renowned neighbor.
Sherry Ward lived on Rutland Avenue for 14 years, before she was relocated by EBDI in January 2006. She worked as a dietary aide and housekeeper for Hopkins from 1994 to 1998 and has no complaints.
Ricardo Coleman, also a resident of the neighborhood, said he is thankful for the hospital.
“My son got hit by a car when he was 8 years old and was in a coma for a month,” Coleman said. “I have no problem with Hopkins. If it wasn’t for them, he probably would have died.”
Nia Redmond, the sole Middle East resident on the EBDI board of directors, said the relationship between Hopkins and residents is beginning to thaw because of the redevelopment.
“You want to think that something’s changing, but it’s going to take a generation for stuff to change,” she said.
“Hopkins has not been a good friend to its neighbors. You’re not going to change that in 10 years. They’re the best medical people in the world, but we don’t trust them.”
Chris Shea, the president and chief executive officer of EBDI, said he recognizes and understands that the neighborhood has historically had a difficult relationship with Hopkins. But he believes people are ready to move past that.
“If you think about the market, our natural market is people who work at Hopkins, people associated or affiliated with Hopkins,” he said. “Let’s not be ashamed of that. Let’s celebrate that.
“A strong relationship with the single-largest private employer in the state of Maryland is not a bad thing,” he said.
Hopkins employees are eligible for a grant of $17,000 to buy a house in the area, including the EBDI neighborhood, said Pamela Paulk, vice president for human resources.
The theory is that people who live near their workplace are happier and stay with the company longer, she said.
Hopkins employs nearly 10,000 workers — from nurses and doctors to power plant operators, carpenters and painters, Paulk said. And EBDI provides pre-employment training and referrals for some of those jobs.
And as the construction moves forward, the plan is to bridge the gap between the towering Hopkins buildings and the neighborhood across the street.
The idea, MacConnell said, is to have commercial buildings closer to the “big wall of Hopkins,” stepping down gradually to the multi-story rental units and smaller residential properties.
“We want it to succeed,” MacConnell said of EBDI. “We want it to succeed because it’s the land immediately adjacent to our campus, but we also want it to succeed because we are committed to the city of Baltimore.”