BALTIMORE – In the 1940s and 1950s, Oliver was a thriving neighborhood, home to working-class residents and professionals. The neighborhood had a largely white population, with many people traveling daily to good jobs at places such as Bethlehem Steel and the shipyards.
Today, Oliver looks like many other East Baltimore neighborhoods. Rowhouses are in disrepair or vacant. Unemployment is high. Crime related to the city’s drug trade has driven many of the neighborhood’s residents away, making some blocks look like ghost towns.
But people in Oliver are trying to bring the neighborhood back.
Just a few blocks across Broadway, another neighborhood is in the midst of a massive renewal project: East Baltimore Development Inc. is a dramatic, $1.8 billion redevelopment plan paid for by the government, non-profit foundations and the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Oliver doesn’t have those resources. Oliver is attempting to repair itself through old-fashioned community organizing.
“Now we’re looking at things changing back,” said the Rev. Calvin Keene, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church. “Now people are looking at Oliver as a place where people desire to live as opposed to where people settled on living.”
Oliver’s revitalization has a special meaning for Keene, who grew up during the neighborhood’s better days during the 1950s and 1960s.
His was one of the black families who lived in Oliver. “There were a number of African Americans who were doctors, lawyers, steelworkers, teachers — the gamut of backgrounds — but they all lived in one community.”
The neighborhood began to change, Keene says, with the advent of the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. As racial segregation diminished, new opportunities were open for blacks, particularly the professional class.
“Those who could move up through the community could do so,” Keene said. “People who were upwardly mobile began to move out of the city” and into Baltimore County, where crime was lower and schools were better.
More change was ahead when riots raged in Baltimore after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Businesses were looted and burned, including Oliver’s only full-service supermarket. White families started to move out. And though the residents, mostly black, who stayed tried to maintain the community, Keene said, the next decade brought even tougher challenges.
Lucille Harper and her family were just moving in to the neighborhood — to the 1200 block of N. Bond St. All around them, though, drugs were making their way into Oliver, and surrounding homes were falling into disrepair.
“Most of the older people died out, and younger people didn’t take care of the properties,” said Harper, 77, who shares the home with her granddaughter and runs a hairdresser business. Many of the houses became vacant, and some of those vacant homes were used as “stash houses” in the drug trade. Drug dealers openly occupied street corners.
By the time Rob English arrived in Oliver in 1997, the neighborhood had become so unsafe that the children at nearby Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School couldn’t play outside.
English, a community organizer with Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development, was shocked to see about 100 people right next to the school on a weekday throwing “testers,” or free drug samples, up in the air and drug addicts scrambling to grab them.
“The children were really held hostage (with) the teachers inside the school because it was too dangerous outside,” English said. “I couldn’t get my head around that.”
The community began working to combat the drug problem and make it safe for children play outside again. But the neighborhood’s many vacant homes almost magnetically would attract drug dealers. English and BUILD decided residents had to raise money to buy the vacant properties.
“In order to rebuild the neighborhood, we have to possess the land,” English said. “We’ve got to reclaim it.”
The depth of the neighborhood’s problems became clear on Oct. 16, 2002.
On a Wednesday morning, a local drug dealer firebombed the rowhouse at 1401 E. Preston St. Carnell Dawson, his wife, Angela, and five of their children were inside. All of them were killed.
Neighbors and the police said that the firebombing was in retaliation for the Dawson’s repeated complaints about drug dealers near their home.
The resulting mourning and anger within the neighborhood had an unexpected impact on Oliver. It united the community and inspired its residents to change their neighborhood.
“(The Dawson tragedy) shook the community into realizing that they needed to stand up to change the culture that was prevalent back then,” Keene said. “It brought new energy for build to bring people in the community together to talk about what needed to be done.”
Two years before, six ministers from Oliver churches with BUILD had enlisted 150 volunteers and started knocking on doors, going house to house in Oliver, taking inventory of which houses were vacant.
“We discovered that 44 percent of Oliver was vacant homes and lots,” Keene said. “This was the impetus for rebuilding Oliver.” But rebuilding the neighborhood would require not just manpower. It would require capital.
In a neighborhood where the average household in Oliver only made about $30,000 a year according to 2000 census data, the ministers passed a collection plate in their churches each Sunday, and the members of each congregation would give what they could.
“It’s called ‘widow’s money,'” English said. “It’s the money when you reach into your pocket and find the last coin and put it in the collection plate.”
At one point, the churches were collecting between $800 and $1,200 a month. Within four years, BUILD ministers raised about $1.25 million.
They bought up about 250 houses and bulldozed the worst of them. They persuaded the city to provide funds and solicited donations from major business and nonprofit groups like The Reinvestment Fund.
The result was Preston Place: 122 new, energy-efficient homes in Oliver. Many of the new homes are located in the 1600 block of East Preston Street, just two blocks away from Memorial Baptist Church, an area once inhabited by drug dealers.
These new homes’ starting price is $144,000, with rehabbed homes starting at $99,500. To move into Preston Place, however, a family’s annual income cannot exceed $54,000, ensuring that the neighborhood’s lower-middle-class residents can purchase homes there.
In contrast, new homes built in the EBDI project across Broadway will be priced in the $200,000 range. And the project hopes to attract some middle- and upper-middle-class residents, like those who lived in Oliver decades before.
Keene thinks Preston Place can attract more affluent residents as well.
BUILD is also counting on attracting Hopkins employees to the neighborhood, with potential homebuyers getting a $17,000 credit if they buy a house in Preston Place.
Rev. Keene is confident about the biotech park and its impact on Oliver.
“I’m very optimistic that EBDI will succeed,” he said. “Hopkins is the largest economic engine in the city of Baltimore and the world, and the expectation is that it will create more economic opportunities in the biomedical field for the city.
“It certainly will be successful, not just in creating biomedical and technological center but building a better surrounding community as well,” Keene said.
Keene said he hopes that the effort will feed off the planned EBDI biotech park and that the redevelopment project there will help bring an economic rebirth to Oliver.
“The worth, the appraised values of the homes in Oliver will increase, and the equity in homes will increase,” Keene said. “It will entice businesses to increase their building along North Avenue. They will want services and goods closer to Oliver.”