Taking lessons from city Reaching out: At Johns Hopkins, a university known for insularity, some students are using Baltimore as classroom.

September 26, 1998|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

"What do you see here?" David Harvey asked his class of 10 Johns Hopkins students as they stood on Remington Avenue, near the university's Homewood campus.

"A bridge?" one asked. Harvey agreed, observing: "The interesting thing about bridges is not only do they connect, they also separate."

He peered over the bridge railing into the steep ravine carved by Stoney Run, where tracks of the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad once ran, and explained how it has always separated Johns Hopkins from the neighborhood to the west -- Hampden.

Harvey is one of six Hopkins faculty members trying to build a bridge between the school and the city with a course that uses Baltimore as its classroom. More than 50 students from a campus with a reputation for ignoring the city that surrounds it signed up for Cities Under Stress: Learning from Baltimore.

"I thought Baltimore was the worst thing I had ever seen my first two years here," said Nina Creedman, a 22-year-old senior from San Francisco who was taking Harvey's tour of Hampden. "Now I want to get to know Baltimore better."

The course was the brainchild of Stuart Leslie, a history of science professor who came up with the idea during two years as assistant dean of undergraduate studies.

"I thought students needed more of an opportunity to get to know Baltimore," Leslie said. "And I saw the city as a wonderful laboratory we weren't using much, a wonderful way to learn about urban America."

Leslie, who was also trying to use the course to build bridges among the faculty at Hopkins, started asking around and found five professors from different departments, schools, even divisions of the university, whose interest in the city was clear.

The teachers ranged from Neil Hertz, director of the HumanitiesCenter, who had taught a course on writing about Baltimore, to Lee Bone of the School of Public Health in East Baltimore, who has been involved in a variety of community projects.

They were joined by political scientist Matthew Crenson, Sandra Newman of Hopkins' Institute for Policy Studies, and Harvey, a geographer. When Newman had to limit her participation, Leslie stepped in as a sixth instructor.

The idea is that each brings a different academic perspective to the course and the city.

Five instructors -- all but Newman -- each picked a neighborhood and the 55 students each picked an instructor. They meet as a group Thursday afternoons to discuss common themes, separating to focus on their neighborhoods -- Canton, Locust Point, Sandtown, Inner Harbor East and Hampden. Thursday was neighborhood tour day.

Bone took her students to Sandtown, where she has been part of the continuing efforts by a variety of institutions to improve life in that neighborhood.

While she said that much of what her students will consider is which programs work and which don't -- and why -- she wants them to take something else from the course.

"I hope they will realize that despite how difficult the situation is in Sandtown -- and for a variety of reasons the types of problems it faces are some of the most difficult and intractable in urban America -- that many people there are not involved in substance abuse or crime, that they are forming relationships and living lives as significant and important as those these students will lead," she said.

Other instructors bring different approaches. Leslie said he is no expert on Locust Point, but knows about the history of technology and how its changes have affected neighborhoods that used to be home to thriving industries.

He sent some of his students to last weekend's Locust Point Community Festival. One was 20-year-old junior Steven Bowman, who spent the day buying raffle tickets and asking questions.

"I just wanted to know something about where I lived," said Bowman, who comes from a small town in Louisiana, of signing up for the course.

While Newman addressed the opening class about how to frame research questions and where to find the data to answer them, Hertz gave a show of slides of the city he took over the summer.

A native of New York, Hertz said he came to Hopkins 15 years ago after 22 years at Cornell in part to get back to an urban area.

"I love Baltimore," he said. "Part of my attraction to the course was to figure out what that means."

Crenson's students are studying Canton, where his father once had a summer job in a tomato cannery, the type of building that now houses upscale apartments. They will look at the impact these changes have had on Canton's older residents, good and bad.

"We will also consider the alternatives to gentrification," he said.

As he walked his students around Hampden, constantly showing how the geographic features affected peoples' lives -- the water that drove the mills, the valleys that isolated the community, the heights where mill owners built their homes and churches for their workers -- he was a few blocks from the house he has owned since coming to Hopkins in 1969.

Harvey grew up in England and left Baltimore in 1987 for Oxford University. He returned in 1993.

"I really came back more out of affection for Baltimore than for Hopkins," he said. "It's a very sticky city. You plant your feet here and they get stuck."

Pub Date: 9/26/98

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