Oldtown, a predominately Black community located just east of downtown Baltimore, will soon undergo redevelopment. But stakeholders at the nearby commuter institution Sojourner-Douglass College say they are doing whatever it takes to ensure the scheme won’t lead to more gentrification in the city.

The college has challenged the city’s Planning Commission to place as “much value on human capital development” and resident economic stability as it does on “bricks and mortar development.”

The commission approved the group’s master plan for Oldtown last May. Their next hurdle is endorsement by the City Council.

Proposals call for reconstruction of the once industrious Oldtown mall in the Gay Street area, development of two new structures on Fayette Street and several energy-efficient residential homes including the former Somerset Homes.

To see the project to fruition, Sojourner-Douglass officials have organized the Change4Real Coalition, comprised of 150 Oldtown church, business and community leaders that will serve as watchdogs for the redevelopment design.

John Morris, dean of Sojourner’s newly formed School of Urban Planning and Community Development, says, as a supplement to the city’s building reconstruction, the school will employ strategies to increase employment and home ownership among current Oldtown residents.

He wants the neighborhood to experience an “economic renaissance,” which he says can be accomplished through the school’s proposed health clinic, hotel, weatherization curriculum and other opportunities.

“Our goal is to help residents increase their income so they can afford their homes as the values (from new renovations) go up around them,” said Morris.

Sojourner’s leaders are trying “something different in Oldtown,” the school’s president Charles W. Simmons wrote in correspondence to the AFRO.

“ eradicate poverty…not by forcing the poor residents out, while making unrealistic promises of a ‘mixed-income’ development, but through workable strategies to increase employment, per capita income and home ownership for the current residents so they can remain realistically after Oldtown is developed.”

And according to the school’s polling data of 246 residents and frequent traffickers of Oldtown, most desire to remain in the area after reconstruction.

“What we found was a tremendous willingness for people to talk,” said Kareem Aziz, the administrator who managed the survey. “It produced something that was valuable beyond the statistics; it was a reflection of people’s dreams for their community.”

But statistics are dire. The per capita income of Oldtown’s Black residents is just $7, 024.36, according to the 2000 census. That’s almost six times less than the predominantly White Locust Point and over three times less than residents in nearby Canton.

Further, only about 6 percent of Oldtown residents own their homes. Of Oldtown’s 5,700 residents, about 94 percent are Black.

Sojourner-Douglass leaders say their plan will reverse these numbers.

“This model from poverty to affluence will be significant and groundbreaking,” said Morris. “And to make this work, we have to stay committed to the area.”

The school will dedicate at least 15 years to wiping out poverty in their school’s backyard, Simmons says.


Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO