Winds of change blow right past the hopeless

December 21, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THAT WIND blustering through East Baltimore yesterday was strong enough to make street signs rattle up and down Broadway. On Rutland Avenue, a woman shuffled along with a big woolly blanket bundled around her. On Ashland Avenue, four little children held each other's hands, as though worried they might take flight. Maybe, if we're lucky, that wind will start blowing away the history of the last 30 years of this troubled neighborhood just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Yesterday looked like a turning point. At the East Baltimore Development Center on Chase Street, they announced the developers for an $800 million community renewal project. The news is big enough that it reached the frigid street corners where drug traffickers seem to live in their own separate universe. It will ultimately reach out to 80 acres and could create 6,000 new jobs, 1,200 new homes, and a 20-acre Life Sciences and Biotechnology Park.

Thus the city uses science to write a promissory note to the future. A model for the whole country, Rep. Elijah Cummings called it yesterday. The creation of a legacy for the whole city, said Mayor Martin O'Malley. A chance to end years of poverty and addiction, said City Council President Sheila Dixon.

They stood in this packed meeting room, where the speeches and the congratulations went on nearly two hours. The sense of it was: A turning point has arrived in the history of this city. Maybe the coming years will justify the good will, and the money and effort, that arrive after years of disastrous government neglect and indifference and human self-destruction at the point of the narcotics needle.

For now, the day before yesterday, at the corner of Ashland and Wolfe, a handful of folks lingered in the raw afternoon. Rain fell intermittently, but they did not move. According to plans, this block will be the heart of the redevelopment. A community square will bloom here, where families can gather.

But now we had Kieshawn Johnson and Jerome Riddick and Devon Duncan. They said they knew all about the development project, which has been talked about now for several years. Already, a few hundred families have been moved out. Rowhouses, long since battered and boarded up, will be flattened or renovated.

"But what happens to us?" said Johnson. She is 32. She wore a hooded overcoat and said she was homeless and drug-addicted and HIV-infected, and yesterday Bernard Hutchins, resource coordinator at the East Baltimore Development Center, sat in his little office and confirmed all of this. He said he knew her well.

"I grew up around here," Hutchins said, as the big biotech crowd began arriving. "I remember her when she was a beautiful woman, vibrant, working. She's one of those people we can't leave out of the loop this time around. This is the dawning of a new day, but it has to be for people like Kieshawn, too."

Johnson stood there Sunday in the cold and wiped a leaky nose. A vertical scar ran down her face, and her right eye never stopped twitching. She said she has a drug habit that runs about $50 a day. In this neighborhood, such a habit is considered small. She said she steals to support it. She has two children. She said the only times she's been clean since age 16 were the times she spent behind bars. She said her mother died from an overdose and her father died from drug-induced AIDS.

She is a piece of so much of this country's history, which begins with generations of racism and unequal schools and the cruelty of the marketplace, and ends with the needle and the decay of entire communities.

"Yeah, there's gonna be progress, but not for us," Duncan said now. He spoke through missing front teeth. Johnson and Riddick nodded agreement.

So you tell them about the 6,000 planned jobs, one-third of them designed for high school graduates, and you tell them about the 1,200 new homes, designed for mixed-income buyers and renters, and you realize you're talking into that stiff wind which has so much history to blow away.

"Down here," said Duncan, "you come out of your mother's womb depressed and bipolar and manic depressive, all thrown together."

"That's right," said Johnson. She wiped her nose again. "You don't do drugs, you go crazy."

"And who's gonna hire you for a job then?" said Riddick. "You got felonies, all doors are closed."

Maybe the East Baltimore future will be marvelous; it sure sounded that way yesterday. But this is the crossroads now: generations coming and going, the future trying to square things with the past, good intentions trying to overwhelm a long and dreadful night.

And that shivery wind that blew yesterday, strong enough to rattle street signs, and maybe even strong enough to signal a change in history.

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