Many argue a large swath of Old West Baltimore –once one of the most vibrant Black communities in America – was dissected and diminished by the city’s attempts at urban renewal from the 1950’s to the early 1970’s. Now the State Center Project some say once the sight of failed public policy hopes to breathe new life into some West Baltimore neighborhoods.

In the early 1920’s when young Thurgood Marshall honed his formidable debate skills at the old Colored High School (which would become Frederick Douglass High School), the future Supreme Court Justice and his family resided at 1838 Druid Hill Avenue in the heart of what is known as Old West Baltimore, the hub of the city’s Black community.

It was one of the most vital Black enclaves in America; home to other prominent families including the Mitchell’s (political and civil rights dynasty) and the Murphy’s (newspaper publishing, law and civil rights legacy).

In 2014, those neighborhoods now stand as a fragile shell of what once was, ravaged by myriad urban ills over generations including – many argue – misguided urban renewal policies.

“How do we embrace this incredible place that hasn’t had an economic investment really in a generation,” said Caroline Moore of Ekistics LLC, the lead developer of the $1.5 billion State Center Project. The massive redevelopment project of the 28-acre State Center Office Building Complex, which originally began construction in the 1950’s, was recently rejuvenated after a protracted legal battle had placed its future in jeopardy.

“How do we knit all of this together and reverse the unintended consequences of a failed urban renewal plan back in the 50’s and 60’s and really do something incredibly special,” Moore added.

The 10-year project just a few blocks from the once mythic neighborhood where Thurgood Marshall and so many other legendary figures were born and raised, promises thousands of new jobs for West Baltimore. Moore and her supporters hope it can help rejuvenate a community plundered by various forces including urban planners.

“In my mind I saw it (State Center Project) as turning back public policy…correcting what I thought was a mistake. I think a lot of that mistake was racially oriented 40, almost 50 years ago,” said the Rev. Alvin Hathaway, pastor of Union Baptist Church, a historic focal point of the Civil Rights Movement which has been on Druid Avenue since 1905.

Hathaway was born in 1951 at 1211 Druid Hill Avenue just a few doors from Union Baptist and he remembers the neighborhoods isolated and torn asunder by urban renewal.

That area where State Center (was) was a neighborhood and community and we used to go to the market that was our market,” Hathaway said.

“So, as a child I didn’t realize the impact of public policy that now transformed that West Baltimore community. Now you get public housing there where you once had housing, you get a state office complex where once it was a neighborhood and a community gets wiped out,” he added.

Hathaway also recalls another infamous albatross of West Baltimore urban renewal, the truncated stretch of Route 40 along Mulberry and Franklin streets built in the early 1970’s known as, “the highway to nowhere.”

“Then you get the highway to nowhere. If you think about West Baltimore we had free flow east and west…the design of our community was a beautiful design and then you get these public policy actions that literally cuts the community off from downtown, from east west creates barriers between neighborhoods,” he said.

“What happens many times is…we would get to the game late and by getting to the game late all of the transactions, all of the agreements have been already agreed upon or the model has already been,” he added.

The developers claim the overarching plan of the State Center Project is to reconnect the nine neighborhoods surrounding the redevelopment, utilizing sustainable residences, offices, commercial spaces, street level retail and restaurants. The transit-oriented development plans to incorporate the State Center Metro stop, the light rail at Mt. Royal as well as Amtrak and MARC services at nearby Penn Station.

Hathaway along with his group Community Churches for Community Development has been an integral part of the State Center Project process since 2005. This time around he believes things will be different from the attempts at urban renewal decades ago.

“This might be my opportunity to pay everybody back. To be able to put in place processes that generations from now will benefit,” he explained.

“You can take a middle school student right now who is 13 and they can now begin to think, ‘I can work in my local community in terms of a government job or a management job or some type of business opportunity directly in my community.’”

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor