By J. K. Schmid, Special to the AFRO
There’s no horizon from the center of Gilmor Homes. Brick apartment blocks stretch out in every direction.
There’s a park in the center. The picnic tables lie ruined. Rusty nails stick up out of the grass from the planks that used to be benches. A sapling tree has collapsed inside the fence.
Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) dump trucks are filled but unattended, a box spring juts out of the bed of the fullest vehicle.
HABC’s signs are almost everywhere, announcing the visit of exterminators and the threat of eviction if they can’t get entry.
But, there’s no sign of what’s coming to Bruce Court. But everyone knows. Just not how or when.
HABC has announced the evacuation and demolition of multiple project blocks in Gilmor Homes. Two of which are the blocks of Bruce Court.
One hundred two families are to be relocated. In the past, this meant movement to as far away as over the county line. HABC has promised to assist these families in setting them up in their new residences.
The official rationale is that this is to reduce drug crime in the community, specifically sales. The ground floors have already been cinder blocked up to deter squatters.
“That’s a fairly unique rationale,” Dr. Lawrence Brown told the AFRO. “I haven’t heard any other rationale for it.”
Brown is associate professor at Morgan State University, and coined the term “Black Butterfly” to describe the pattern of segregation and redlining that shapes Baltimore’s Black populations into the wide wedges of West and East Baltimore.
Leon F. Pinkett, III, District 7, described homes like those on Bruce Court as “infested” with drug crime.
Brown says he’s troubled by this “extraordinary language.”
“‘Infestation,’” brings to mind some sort of insect, roaches, something like that, and with that in mind, it’s a language of dehumanization,” Brown said. “But, how do you handle an infestation? You smoke out, you fumigate, drastic measures must be taken, if the notion is ‘infestation.’”
The Clinton Administration’s Hope VI program for public and “Indian” housing led to the demolition of public housing across the country. “Urban renewal” cleared slums and carved up the city with highways in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The original redlining, the appraisal of home values based on race, starved large swaths of Baltimore’s Black population of credit and capital in the 30s and 40s, leaving many behind as home ownership exploded in the ensuing decades.
Mercy Hospital sits across from what was once Gambles Hill, the home of Black attorney and NAACP counsel William Ashbie Hawkins, as well as Bethel AME and Union Baptist churches before another clearance uprooted the community in 1917.
Mercy’s shadow fell on a tent city until January 2018, when it was razed.
Independent of the city’s ability or willingness to deliver, all of these previous efforts at least came with the promise of something better; a railroad, mixed-income housing, jobs, parks, something that someone, usually White, might enjoy.
“I just think there’s something in the language that’s been deployed, and the rationale that’s being stated, and the lack of any sort of stated plan about what else HABC is thinking about doing with that site,” Brown said. “To me, the combination of those factors is unique and disturbing, all at the same time.”
Charles Thomas, an 18-year resident of Bruce Court, put the plight of his neighbors in plain terms.
“I’ll tell you, I’ll be honest with you, people gotta do what they gotta do to survive and this an environment where you gotta do or die,” Thomas said of the drug dealing. “These guys, this is their livelihood. This is their livelihood. You tear these buildings down they’re gonna go somewhere else.”
He gestured to his home and said, “Where do you think they’re gonna go?”
“It’s hard to say what’s gonna go down when you move them,” Thomas added. “A lot of these people, they’re looking for some kind of relief—everything costs so much now, gas electric, rent, water bill. It’s hard to survive off of what people are making around [here], living in this condition.”
While the city works at uprooting, other residents are digging in, literally. Two community farm lots are growing across the street from Bruce Court, with a garden, chicken coop and hydroponics.
To add to the friction, Bruce Court is the former residence of Freddie Gray, whose death at the hands of police in 2015, triggered weeks of riots and uprising. His smaller memorial, is painted on a Bruce Court block scheduled for demolition.
The larger memorial is now fenced off at the behest of an insurance company. The fresh wood slats block half the mural from almost every street angle.
While residents generally worry about what comes next, one was able to get out of the “bricks” without the threat or force of exile or ostracism.
“Believe it or not, I actually went to a program, and graduated from that program,” Darell Fenwick, 37, told the AFRO. He now manages a barbershop and salon. “A buddy of mine was actually involved in there and pulled me in. I wound up being a manager in that same shop. It’s called Step by Step, it’s a drug treatment program.”
But, what helped Fenwick has been left to wither by the city.
“I came from poverty, I’m telling you right now, these kids don’t have nothing,” Fenwick said. “What happened to the recreational centers? What happened to the after-school programs? Which therefore we find our kids out here with nothing.”
Fenwick grew up in 1601 Bruce Court.
“My mom used to live around here, my mother in law,” Fenwick said. “So, growing up around here I can only say it has gotten worse than what it was. I wouldn’t necessarily say tear it down, I would refurbish it, make it a little bit more secure for people to feel safe when they come home.”
Without the guarantee or even the promise of anything other than demolition and dispersal, it’s hard not to see the pattern repeating until all of Gilmor Homes are obliterated.
“Once this all comes down, there’s gonna be all kinds of everything,” another resident said. “Whatever is in that building is gonna affect the rest of us over here.”