A fragile partnership of renewal

May 10, 1994|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Writer

It's long been renowned for excellence across the globe, but the Johns Hopkins Hospital's image is less lustrous right across the street. For years, Hopkins' medical achievements meant little to its closest neighbors, people like the Rev. Melvin B. Tuggle Jr.

Why would it? Mr. Tuggle asked. Hopkins -- the hospital and the schools that share the campus -- could not have been more removed from East Baltimore's narrow row houses, he said, if it had been a rampart-ringed castle atop a hill.

"That was the ivory tower. That's where white folk went and foreigners came," Mr. Tuggle remembered.

"The only time you heard from them was when they needed to build a garage," said Lucille Gorham, who has spent decades heading East Baltimore community groups.

But now, Hopkins' chilly image is warming, its neighbors say. And the reason is: Hopkins.

Like other urban universities and hospitals across the country -- Marquette in Milwaukee, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Yale in New Haven, and many others -- Hopkins has decided it cannot wall itself off from the problems of the city (though indeed, in one housing experiment, it tried).

The change, begun slowly years ago, has been gaining momentum.

Hopkins long has offered a variety of health programs to its neighbors. It contributes money to community projects. It sponsors Little League teams. It helps support a recreation center. It rehabilitates housing. It has given surplus beds to the homeless.

But the programs lacked a focus. And the neighborhood viewed the campus with suspicion. Then, in February, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced an ambitious East Baltimore renewal project, a vast undertaking that would include new housing, education, medical programs, new streets, business incentives and job training for the more than 47,000 people in the project's 180 square blocks.

Hopkins -- in partnership with the city, the state, the Kennedy Krieger Institute and community and business groups -- will contribute funds up front for staff and design work, plus millions of dollars later for programs and construction.

Hopkins leaders pledge to thrash out the plan with community groups and City Hall, instead of imperiously dictating the details. They promise to listen to the wants of the neighbors and use their clout to help prod governments along.

"Some people view this as Hopkins reaching out to the community," said Dr. James A. Block, president and chief executive officer of Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health Systems. "That's not so. We are of the community."

Some other Baltimore hospitals moved to the suburbs years ago, but Hopkins stayed, rejecting any proposals to leave. Its leaders say they heeded the mission that merchant and financier Johns Hopkins described in his will, that the hospital "be a solace to the sick and an ornament to the city."

"Johns Hopkins had some very specific feelings about what that hospital should be like," said Dr. Robert M. Heyssel, who retired as president of Hopkins Hospital in 1992. "We were to take care of poor folks and well-off folks, and black folks as well as white folks. Wetook that very seriously," he said.

"This is where we live," Dr. Block, his successor, said. "This is where we work. We want the community to thrive."

That community is beset with urban problems. Boarded-up houses and trash-strewn alleys mar the blocks around the Hopkins campus. Green spaces, back yards, even street trees are few. The neighbors are crammed together more densely than residents of some public housing projects, according to consultants studying the project area.

Decay and crime

Over the last few years, some spectacular crimes -- the kidnapping of a doctor from a Hopkins garage, the rape of a medical student -- have made staff, patients and neighbors shudder.

Nearly 43 percent of the residents in the project area live in poverty, according to 1990 census data.

Thirty-six percent of the households receive public assistance. Thirteen percent of the houses were vacant and 6,200 crimes were reported in the area in 1990.

Mr. Tuggle said it was statistics like these, not noble vision, thamoved Hopkins to change its role in the neighborhood. A founder of CURE, Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore, Mr. Tuggle said that Hopkins realized its very future is threatened in a neighborhood so troubled by decay and crime.

Dr. Michael Johns, dean of the Hopkins School of Medicine, said that, despite the urban problems, Hopkins has no problem recruiting the best students and faculty. But he acknowledged that, over time, "I'd say our location is going to influence some of the people who apply here."

Mr. Tuggle puts it more bluntly: "No one was going to come to study at the world-famous Johns Hopkins if you were going to get robbed or raped," Mr. Tuggle said. "No one."

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