Chelsea Roberts (Courtesy Photo)
By Chelsea Roberts
I arrived at Baltimore Penn Station from New York Penn Station one morning a couple of years ago, delighted to be home. Tossing my brown leather duffle in the back of my mom’s SUV, I jumped in the front seat to hug and kiss her, we began to chat. As we approached the canopied tree lined streets of Ellamont, in our long – time neighborhood of Ashburton, I noticed a white guy donning a Georgetown tee shirt jogging with a baby. I was stunned. My mother and I gave each other a look – the kind where black women say all that needs to be said solely using their eyes.
There’s a common joke where I currently live in Harlem (and in many other black communities across this country) that the neighborhood is changing when you see white parents and their children comfortably strolling in known predominately black places.
On October 26th, 2020 Ashburton will turn 100 years old. Known to many, as a historically black neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore, often deemed a suburb within the city. It’s a place my mother, Pat Roberts, (along with former mayor Kurt Schmoke) who grew up about 10 minutes away always dreamed of living. She had a cousin, Joseph Hall, who lived in the community. He was the first black Dean at John’s Hopkins University. Her teachers and doctors and favorite recreation-center advisor, Alice Smith, lived there too. The trees were symmetrical, the lawns manicured, the station wagons with shiny emblems were parked one after the other.
In the early 1920s, Ashburton was a 166-acre community of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. There was an ad in The Sun that said the location was unequaled, only 16 minutes from downtown, and that the neighborhood was restricted to those who were white and gentile. After the Great Depression, owners were forced to sell to Jewish people. By the late 50s, when Black folks moved in, there was a mass exodus. This was famously described in the Saturday Evening Post in 1959, “When A Negro Moves Next Door”, focused on Ashburton.
“I live in what is known as a “changing neighborhood” in Baltimore. In short, a Negro family has bought a house down the street. The color of my neighbor’s skin does not bother me at all. His income and behavior are just about the same as mine. But the economic threat his presence has created for me, and for the entire community, is disturbing. A lot of people who live somewhere else have assumed that our pleasant, middle-class neighborhood is headed for all-Negro occupancy and rapid deterioration as properties pass from financially strong hands to less responsible ownership. The pattern is a familiar one in many big cities of the North.”
Homeownership in the black community has historically been one of the most promising ways to build and close the racial wealth gap. Many of Ashburton’s long-time residents planned to pass their homes down to their children in order to continue its legacy. But with many young black professionals moving away from Baltimore for college and subsequently creating lives in cities like Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York, residents pass away and their homes are coming to market at a faster rate than ever before. The median home value is $269,000 in Ashburton. In Baltimore’s fancy new inner harbor development, the median home value (none of which are single-family homes) is $387,000. With more affordable homes available, Ashburton is becoming favorable to those outside of its current majority.
In 2017, Druid Hill Park, the largest green space in Baltimore began an overhaul with plans of completion in 2022. The development project costs about $140 million. Adam Boarman, the chief of capital development at Baltimore City Recreation and Parks has a vision to make the park a regional destination. Proposals include a small amphitheater for concerts, a wildlife conservatory, beautiful cafes, and recreational activities like kayaking and fishing. The redevelopment and entrepreneurial spirit has encouraged people to quickly flock to its surrounding neighborhoods, namely Reservoir Hill. Ashburton, only 2.5 miles from the park has made it a prime destination for the same sort of increased interest as it relates to home value over time and future access to the new park. In fact, many of the white families that have recently moved to Ashburton are parents in their mid-30s with a child. When asked, “Why Ashburton?” they laud the neighborhood’s access to their jobs, quality schools, downtown, and green space that Druid Hill Park offers.
My 100th birthday wish for Ashburton, is for its residents to pass their homes down to their children and children’s children. And for those of us who grew up barbecuing together on summer weekends and carpooling to school in the snow, to feel ownership of this wonderfully unique place that raised us. There’s so much out there, beyond the streets of Ashburton, that doesn’t belong to us. My hope for the community is to hold on to its fabric, remember its past, and use its collective power (racial, economic, and political) to drive change across the city of Baltimore so that our legacy remains intact.
Chelsea Roberts is head of partnerships at HBCUvc and an MPA candidate at the NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.