Commentary: The Cost of Civic Sharecropping

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“Be the change you want to see.”  – Anonymous Persons 

By Nneka Nnamdi

The above sentiment suggests Baltimore residents must become active in making their own neighborhoods better. This is a story of what it actually looks like when residents attempt to “be the change”. 

In 2017, Fight Blight Bmore submitted a proposal to the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) for access and use of the Dr. Emerson Julian Center as an operating space for the Hack Hub. The Hack Hub is an innovation and incubation space primarily for youth focusing on technology and entrepreneurship development. 

The Dr. Emerson Julian Center is located inside of Heritage Crossing, developed by Enterprise Homes as the result of Thompson vs HUD, a federal housing discrimination case.

The Dr. Emerson Julian Center in West Baltimore (Photo Credit: Jason Harris, New Futurism)

Ensconced in a community rich in African American history, the center should have become an anchor in Old West Baltimore where there is a need for accessible space. The neighborhood instead suffers from the impacts of racism in community development and urban planning. The failed I-70 extension, the so-called “Highway to Nowhere” is but one stark example. Many of the beautiful structures in this historic district sit vacant, dilapidated, misused or underutilized (all forms of blight). 

The Dr. Emerson Julian Center is in good condition but its utilization is low. The building was rehabilitated during the development of Heritage Crossing in 2002 with Hope VI funds. As such “…funds can be used for the development of community buildings if such facilities are to be used by residents of the revitalized community and surrounding neighborhood. That is, the community building must directly relate to the revitalization of the public housing development and the residents should be the primary beneficiaries,” according to the HUD NOFA, 2004. Yet, the Dr. Emerson Julian Center isn’t being used by the community at large. A third of the building houses a daycare, but the rest of it except for two small offices are vacant. The lack of use of this building does not seem to be in alignment with the guidelines laid out by HUD.  

The proposal(s) submitted by Fight Blight Bmore to HABC, which owns the Dr. Emerson Julian Center can provide culturally authentic, economically viable, sustainable and scalable programming for the community. Instead of being met with open doors, the proposal was ignored, marginalized and shut out. On February 13,  Fight Blight Bmore received the following response to the third version of the proposal: 

Nneka: I apologize for the delay in responding to the proposal you submitted for the use of the community room at Heritage Crossing. HABC has been reassessing the future plans for the community room.  The discussions are internal and external input is not requested at this time. Therefore, HABC’s response to your proposal is on hold until further notice. “ (Michelle Cruise, Senior Manager of Private Management)  

Fight Blight Bmore’s experience with HABC is a clear example of #CivicSharecropping which is the process by which a municipality or government agency exploits the labor of Black residents to provide:

  • services and programming that the municipality or its agencies should be providing i.e. community clean ups,
  • activation, care and upkeep of property owned by the municipality or its agencies i.e. community gardens.

HABC now has a well researched plan for how to activate the Dr. Emerson Julian Center in Fight Blight Bmore’s proposals, which were submitted at their request. 

No less than 320 hours were spent researching, formulating, writing, submitting and following up on the proposals. If the city had hired a consultant to create a plan for using the center they would have paid top dollar for that work. 

But they didn’t, they instead asked Fight Blight Bmore, a Black woman owned business, to do it for them for free. Who knew that “being the change” would be so costly, lesson learned!

Nneka Nnamdi is founder and COO of Fight Blight Bmore.

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