From 'Middle East' to 'Eager Park,' a community is rebranded

Current, former residents fear community's history will be lost

  • Vacant buildings stand in the 1800 block of East Chase St. The block is near Eager Park, a six-acre park that will run through the mixed-use development near the Johns Hopkins Medicine campus.
Vacant buildings stand in the 1800 block of East Chase St. The… (Kim Hairston / Baltimore…)
May 25, 2013|By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun

Hundreds of residents have been relocated and dozens of homes cleared from Baltimore's Middle East neighborhood in recent years. Now the area just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital may be losing something more: its name.

As an ambitious redevelopment project with biotech research labs, corporate offices and homes reshapes the neighborhood, the area is being marketed around the yet-to-be-built Eager Park — a strategy that upsets some longtime residents.

"They want it to sound like there's no history here until they got here," said Donald Gresham, a leader of the now-defunct Save Middle East Action Committee, created more than a decade ago to oppose the displacement of residents. "Eager Park is just another slap in the face. Nobody cares about what this community represented. It's all about the glamour."

East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit behind the sprawling revitalization, says the Eager Park name will attract more new residents and businesses than Middle East, a label with "unhelpful associations." Already, Eager Park has been highlighted in brochures, a website and colorful flags surrounding the area.

The battle over changing a name that has been used for more than three decades is the latest example of the continuing tensions surrounding the 88-acre redevelopment — which EBDI describes as the largest in Baltimore history — and similar projects around the Hopkins medical campus.

It also illustrates a conflict that has played out nationwide as older cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington revitalize. Experts say market-driven name changes are likely to become more common in Baltimore as neighborhoods get more savvy about luring residents and developers gain influence over large city tracts.

Neighborhood names and borders are constantly shifting, said Christopher Leinberger, professor and director of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. "It happens all of the time, and it's happening with increasing velocity. … This is just the beginning in Baltimore."

The name Middle East calls to mind a conflict-ridden region of the globe, said Scott Levitan, development director for Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership, the company contracted to renew the neighborhood. That isn't marketable, he said.

Chris Shea, president of EBDI, added, "Developers want … interesting but noncontroversial names for things."

Genesis of a name

The official names of some Baltimore neighborhoods, like Ridgely's Delight and Fells Point, go back centuries. Middle East is not one of those.

The name was applied in 1978, as residents of the decaying blocks — then a largely black, lower-income community — joined to ask the city for money to repair deteriorating properties.

At the time, there were 200 vacant homes in the neighborhood, according to a contemporary news report. The city allocated $800,000 in federal grant funding over a three-year period, but even then, the housing department estimated that it would take $120,000 to improve just three homes.

Community organizers set neighborhood boundaries across a large swath north and west of the Hopkins complex. (The western portion started its own community group in 2004 and is now called C.A.R.E. — Cleaning, Active, Restoring, Efforts.) They also created a group to oversee the money: the Middle East Community Organization.

In 1982, Lucille Gorham, then director of the organization, described the community's naming to The Baltimore Sun. The "51-year-old widowed mother of eight" instructed a young man who was headed to the city's grant hearing: "We have the Northeast Community Organization on one side and the Southeast on the other. So tell them you're from the Middle East Community Organization, because you're right in the middle of everything.'"

"There was no long, drawn-out [naming] process. It was real simple," said the Rev. Rick Mosley, 61, the "young man" who started the organization with Gorham. He was a 26-year-old Vietnam veteran and not yet a minister. He threw himself into community organizing to stay occupied, he said.

Mosley recalls that there was discomfort with the name from the start, because it was declared months after the Camp David accords, the framework for a treaty to end warfare between Israel and Egypt.

Middle East was a handy identifier for use in city politics, a way for residents to demarcate their area. But the name never quite caught on. When residents introduced themselves to someone from West Baltimore, they used nearby landmarks, mainly the hospital, to describe where they lived.

"What do we call the neighborhood? To my knowledge, nothing," said Maxine Clark, who has lived on East Chase Street for decades. William Evans, who has been on East Chase for 20 years, tells people he lives in Collington Square, after the park a few blocks away.

Of course, there are not many people left in Middle East who would remember it by that name.

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