BALTIMORE – When Ricardo Coleman and his half-brother, Frank Moore, moved into this neighborhood in their mid-teens, Middle East was beginning a downward spiral.
It was the late 1960s and residents who could leave were packing up. Crime was becoming rampant, they said.
Now, Coleman, at 56, has a new, spacious apartment in that same neighborhood. And he is looking for a daybed for his second bedroom so his three grandchildren can sleep over.
“When we moved (in the 1960s) it was drugs and crime … it seemed like that’s all people did,” said Moore, 55.
“It’s a difference between night and day,” Coleman added.
Creating a new neighborhood hasn’t been painless for the residents of Middle East.
Some had lived in the neighborhood their entire lives, which made giving up their homes emotionally rough. But most say Middle East — an East Baltimore neighborhood just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital — has made huge strides.
Longtime residents said that they loved their neighborhood, even through decades of drug-related crime. It was familiar, they said, and convenient to Johns Hopkins, where many residents worked.
Now, Middle East is more construction site than neighborhood. East Baltimore Development Inc. has $1.8 billion to transform the once-blighted spot, adding a biotech park, new housing and stores.
“It was a neighborhood totally disinvested,” said Nia Redmond, the sole Middle East resident on the EBDI board. “Now they’re bringing in middle-class homeowners and fixing it,”
Coleman and Moore plan to stick around for the next phase of the project — construction or rehabilitation of 2,200 townhouses, apartments and condominiums, 1.2 million square feet of laboratories and a functional K-8 school.
When Moore and Coleman moved into the neighborhood in the late 1960s, it had already begun what would be a long decline, and while Coleman managed to avoid the neighborhood’s drug culture, Moore fell into addiction and dealing.
A middle-school dropout, he became addicted to heroin in his early 20s. Picked up by the police dozens of times, he proudly says he finally got clean five years ago with help from EBDI-related drug addiction treatment centers.
Beginning in the late 1960s, Middle East — like many neighborhoods — became “infested” with heroin, Redmond said.
Riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 hit East Baltimore particularly hard, added Redmond, whose parents owned the first black mom-and-pop store in the neighborhood. During the riots, many businesses were torched and never reopened.
Redmond said when the redevelopment process began in 2000, it was less resident-friendly than it is now. The city planned to seize hundreds of buildings through eminent domain, which allows the government, for a price, to take private property for the public good.
But the Maryland Historical Trust forced EBDI to keep a number of the blocks of rowhouses, which had been built in the early 1900s, to rehab instead of tearing them down.
The partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation in the early 2000s changed things, Redmond said. The philanthropic organization provided funds to boost the amount of relocation money paid to each resident.
“It’s not a perfect situation,” Redmond said. “I’m not going to say people didn’t fall through the cracks. But if you’re going to do a big redevelopment and you don’t bring in something like Casey, what would have happened to those people?”
Barbara Bates-Hopkins saw her neighbors’ struggles first-hand. As a family advocate for EBDI, she has helped hundreds of residents through the relocation process.
Some Middle East residents didn’t have birth certificates, Social Security cards or other forms of identification, she said. She drove them to get those.
If a resident had a substance-abuse problem, she would help them find a treatment center. She helped organize workshops so residents could learn basics such as paying bills on time, finding legal assistance, and more.
“You’re talking about moving someone out of a home they planned to live in for their rest of their lives and their family grew up and their heritage was,” Bates-Hopkins said. “It was a sensitive process.”
EBDI, she said, worked to help these residents, many of whom were teenaged mothers or addicts or elderly.
Yet, “It’s not a win-win for everyone,” she said. “You’re forcing someone to move out of their home and giving them new challenges you don’t know they can handle.”
Pat Tracey, a former resident and community activist, said the sense of neighborhood left with the residents.
Much of the area has literally been razed. Former residents have scattered, though they still try to get together.
Still, for many residents, up to $150,000 in relocation grants was a boon. Residents say the neighborhood is now safer than it has ever been.
Redmond predicts that in 10 to 15 years, Middle East will resemble the southeastern Baltimore neighborhood of Canton, an old rowhouse neighborhood now gentrified with upscale condos and busy shops and bars.
And while uprooting and reshaping an entire community has met some obstacles, most residents said they felt they came out on top.
“Eminent domain is always rough,” Redmond said. “But most people landed on their feet with their homes.”