East-side plan pits dream against reality

Bold vision: Hopkins `bioscience park' proposal threatens Democratic machine's control.

January 16, 2001

FOR THREE DECADES, a political machine that derives its power from perpetuating poverty has blunted radical revitalization around the Johns Hopkins medical institutions. This machine -- dominated by the old-style, patronage-minded Eastside Democratic Organization -- has been more interested in maintaining its power than in eradicating blight.

A case in point is the monumental bust of the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, which was launched amid high hopes five years ago with $34 million in federal funds.

Squabbling and petty interference by the EDO have produced nothing of real value -- and nearly half the money is gone.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, in an effort to conserve the $19 million of that money that hasn't been blown, now proposes a drastic change of direction. He wants to transform 87 acres north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus into a community of mixed-income housing, new businesses and open space anchored by a "bioscience park."

"We want the sort of measurable, visible change and improvement that East Baltimore wants and needs," he said.

Raymond L. Gindroz of Pittsburgh's Urban Design Associates is spearheading conceptual planning. A blueprint could be ready by July.

Already complaints are emanating from East Baltimore that the O'Malley administration is trying to impose a new strategy on the community without adequate consultation. In other words, the forces of status quo are starting to feel pinched.

None of this should deter Mr. O'Malley from pushing ahead. Even though the mayor has shown little prior interest in physical development matters, he should become the champion of this ambitious endeavor. Without his direct personal involvement, deterioration and despair are likely to continue to strangle the neighborhoods around Johns Hopkins.

The problem in East Baltimore is a lack of consensus. No amount of make-believe hand-holding can hide this deplorable fact.

The area's political monopoly has its own agenda that benefits a small coterie of longtime functionaries, some of whom do not even live in the city. Through interlocking directorates, the Eastside Democratic Organization controls half-a-dozen front organizations. It runs development projects as well as a variety of publicly financed social programs and even tries to dictate who gets the important jobs in area schools.

The other big player, Johns Hopkins, lacks EDO's cohesion. Instead, the various Johns Hopkins entities are so fractured that they "make even the city bureaucracy look easy," according to an official who has worked for both the city and Hopkins.

Over the years, EDO and the community groups it dominates have been suspicious of Hopkins. Some of that mistrust is old, dating to the era of segregation.

Hopkins, in turn, has vacillated between contempt for its surroundings and honest efforts to get revitalization started. Frequent leadership changes have provided little predictable direction. Hopkins also has been unable to determine whether it really wants to be in community development.

These were the dynamics that contributed to the collapse of the Historic East Baltimore Community Coalition. Everything the group attempted -- from rehabilitation tasks to hiring -- became a control issue.

Had this debacle happened just a couple of years earlier, the result might well have been the wholesale exodus of the Johns Hopkins medical institutions. In the past few years, though, those institutions have made such sizable capital investments in East Baltimore that they are certain to remain for the foreseeable future.

Controversial though their dominance may be in certain quarters, the Johns Hopkins medical institutions give East Baltimore forward-looking economic stability it would not otherwise have. The area's only other major employment, after all, comes from a growing cluster of prisons.

There has been no shortage of grand plans for East Baltimore over the past 50 years. Yet no one has been able to halt deterioration. In sketching brighter prospects for one of the city's most depressed areas, Mayor O'Malley has taken on a challenge that will test all of his leadership skills as well as his diplomacy.

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