New hope for East Baltimore

February 10, 1994

The Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, created last week by a partnership of the city, state, the Johns Hopkins medical institutions and a number of civic organizations, gives new hope for one of the poorest areas of the city. The question now is: Can the target area, a huge chunk of about 180 square blocks, be turned around?

Much rides on the answer. While the Johns Hopkins medical institutions and the expanding Kennedy Krieger Institute are solidly anchored in their historic homes, both might reconsider their future if the deep decline of the surrounding neighborhoods is not arrested. As smokestack industries have disappeared, those two medical giants are the city's major remaining private-sector employers.

It is sobering to recall the many previous attempts to revive East Baltimore that have not passed muster. Among them is a 1950 project, deemed so crucial in its time that it was named the "Baltimore Plan." It covered 27 blocks of blighted neighborhoods bounded by Caroline, Chase, Chester and Preston streets and brought a wide range of city resources together with the efforts of neighborhood, religious and civic groups. The initiative changed the area for a time but bequeathed few lasting improvements.

We are not recounting this past history to belittle the latest effort. But it is so ambitious -- covering more than twice the size and four times as many residents as West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester -- that a dose of realism is in order. Many of the area's old neighborhoods have deteriorated so badly that the sense of community they once had has been lost. In these circumstances, community development will be a bold challenge.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will propose that the huge East Baltimore tract and the Sandtown-Winchester district be designated by the Clinton administration as one of its six empowerment zones. Such a designation would entitle the city to $100 million in federal funds to accelerate job creation and bolster social programs. The test for the new neighborhood alliance is to come up with enough alternate development funds to get the East Baltimore program off the ground even if the city does not get one of the fiercely contested awards.

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