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Cities of Hope: In Baltimore, Lifting a 'Sinking' Community

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This article is the last in a series of three to explore new strategies being used by the philanthropic community to aid urban America.

By Meg Sommerfeld

BALTIMORE--Several years ago, as she looked at the growing number of boarded-up houses in Sandtown-Winchester, Marsha Bannerman, a lifetime resident of the Baltimore neighborhood, was feeling discouraged.

"This community was sinking,'' she said, adding that she no longer felt safe to be on its streets. Children "had just lost respect for one another.''

But things have begun to look up in Sandtown-Winchester, and Ms. Bannerman is feeling more optimistic about her community's future.

Three years ago, residents joined forces with the Baltimore-based Enterprise Foundation and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's office to found a nonprofit corporation called "Community Building in Partnership.''

What sets the partnership apart from other more well-known urban renewal initiatives, including Rebuild L.A. and the Atlanta Project, is its more limited focus. (See Education Week, June 2 and June 9, 1993.)

While the Los Angeles and Atlanta projects seek to transform entire cities, the Baltimore initiative is targeting its resources on a single neighborhood.

To date, the partnership has raised some $4.3 million in private donations--as well as millions of dollars in federal grants and state and local funds--in an effort to attack the interrelated problems affecting education, employment, health care, housing, human services, and public safety.

"There is not a system that will not be touched,'' Barbara A. Bostick, the partnership's executive director, said.

A Neighborhood at Risk

Located in the western part of the city, Sandtown-Winchester occupies approximately 72 square blocks and is home to 10,000 residents. If Sandtown-Winchester were a child, it would most likely be labeled "at risk.''

In 1990, for example, Baltimore's infant-mortality rate of 18 deaths per 1,000 live births was nearly twice the national rate of 9.2 deaths per 1,000 births. In Sandtown-Winchester, meanwhile, the rate was a shocking 32 deaths per 1,000 births.

Crime, drug-abuse, and teenage-pregnancy rates were also high, Ms. Bostick said, and it was estimated that more than half the neighborhood's children did not graduate from high school.

A Comprehensive Vision

But along with the problems, a number of key individuals also saw potential.

In the winter of 1990, Mayor Schmoke appointed a task force that brought together city officials and Sandtown-Winchester residents with representatives of the Enterprise Foundation.

James W. Rouse--a developer known for spearheading several urban-revitalization projects, including the Inner Harbor here and Quincy Market in Boston--founded the Enterprise Foundation in 1981 to help neighborhood groups develop affordable housing.

A critical first step was helping residents "develop a vision'' for their future, said Ms. Bostick, who was appointed by Mayor Schmoke and who previously had served as the commissioner of the Baltimore City Jail.

For eight months, community members met in working groups to set goals in eight areas: physical development, health care, education, family development, substance abuse, public safety, community pride and spirit, and economic development.

In time, the working groups evolved into four broader "design clusters,'' which developed programs to carry out the goals.

"We basically said we need to look at all the systems and how they work together to affect everyday life,'' said Patrick M. Costigan, the director of neighborhood transformation at the Enterprise Foundation. "In the long run, it will be more cost effective to do it that way than ... piece by piece.''

Throughout the process, the foundation's objective has been to serve as an "enabler and entrepreneur,'' Mr. Costigan explained. Its major role, he added, has been to strengthen the capacity of existing community groups and to prod city agencies to redirect resources to the area as necessary.

Citing the Model Cities program of the Great Society era of the mid 1960's as one example, Ms. Bostick said earlier urban-renewal efforts often faltered because "government came in and promised a lot, and people in the community did not really get involved.''

If the Baltimore partnership is to succeed, she said, it must be community-driven.

Community Advocates

Using an approach similar to one used in Atlanta, the partnership has hired seven longtime residents to serve as paid "community advocates.''

Jerry Cross, one of the advocates, describes his role as a being a liaison between his neighbors and "the ties and suits'' in the partnership and making sure city and foundation officials use clear language to describe projects, rather than the jargon of policy wonks.

Each advocate also focuses on a particular issue. Mr. Cross, for example, is developing substance-abuse-education programs, and Ms. Bannerman, who also serves as an advocate, is trying to improve sanitation services.

Patricia E. Newby, the assistant superintendent for the Baltimore schools' southwest region and the district's main liaison to the project, praised the strategy.

"One of the things I think they've done very well is to establish community leaders and participation in this whole process,'' she said.

Signs of Progress

One of the partnership's critical concerns has been to produce tangible evidence of progress while not rushing through planning stages.

A crucial milestone was the construction of the Nehemiah Homes, 227 townhouses built with a $4.2 million grant from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department and funds from the state; the Enterprise Foundation; and Baltimoreans United in Leadership, a coalition of area churches and three unions.

"That was a real beginning for this community,'' Ms. Bostick said, and represented a visible sign of change.

Since then, numerous other projects have been launched, including youth programs, classes for adults seeking to earn General Educational Development certificates, a community newspaper, and a support center with activities for senior citizens. Sixteen vacant lots have been converted into community gardens, and two playgrounds have been renovated.

Several advocates also cited the repainting of the "Wall of Pride'' as an important step. Originally painted in the 1970's, the brightly colored mural depicts famous African and African-American figures in history. Over time, it had become weathered and discolored, so last year community members held fund-raisers to pay a local artist to restore it.

Across the street from the mural is the home of one of the partnership's key components, the Baltimore Project. Established by the Baltimore city health department, it conducts door-to-door campaigns to encourage pregnant women to obtain prenatal care.

"Our principal concern is making sure they are receiving some kind of medical services,'' said Deborah Shepperson-Smith, the center's administrative officer.

The city now plans to create similar centers in 10 other Baltimore neighborhoods and recently qualified for a federal "Healthy Start'' grant to pay for the expansion.

School-Reform Efforts

Meanwhile, efforts are also under way in Sandtown-Winchester to establish health clinics and family-resource centers in the area's four elementary schools and its one middle school.

Currently, students' lack of access to health services "interrupts education so much,'' said Angie McCollum, the principal of the George C. Kelson Elementary School.

It is not unusual for students to miss an entire day of school when they have a doctor's appointment, she said.

Plans are also in the works to connect the improvement of health and social services to other school-restructuring efforts under way.

The partnership's education-reform efforts are centered in part on training teachers in strategies designed to insure that all children are given the opportunity to achieve at high levels.

In addition, each school will adopt a reform strategy, such as those guiding such restructuring networks as the Coalition of Essential Schools and the Accelerated Schools Network, said Ralph R. Smith, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant to the partnership.

"What's exciting about what's going on in Baltimore and in the Sandtown project is that this is an effort to try to fix all of the pieces all at the same time,'' Mr. Smith said. "As a consequence, it's a far more challenging task than most education-reform efforts, but it is one which I believe holds greater potential for eventual success.''

Already, the Enterprise Foundation is seeking to replicate the partnership's strategies in other communities. In Florida, it is helping Miami-Dade Community College and the Overtown Neighborhood Partnership launch a similar initiative.

Meanwhile, as more renewal projects develop and work together, their leaders are realizing there is power in numbers.

"If 16 cities come together and say, 'HUD, we need this,' it's a lot more effective than Dan Sweat, [the coordinator of the Atlanta Project], calling from Atlanta and Jim Rouse calling from Baltimore and Peter Ueberroth, [a former co-chairman of Rebuild L.A.], calling from L.A. and saying, 'We need this,''' said Elise Eplin, a staff member for the Atlanta Project.

Earlier this spring, in fact, former President Jimmy Carter; Messrs. Rouse, Sweat, and Ueberroth; and other representatives of the three initiatives met in Washington with Vice President Gore and the Cabinet.

The projects' representatives wanted to advise the Administration on how it could advance private-sector urban-renewal efforts by making better use of existing public resources and eliminating regulatory red tape.

Last month, the Clinton Administration unveiled its "empowerment zone'' proposal. If approved by Congress, it would create a competitive grant program that would grant 10 communities special tax incentives for both businesses and residents. In addition, the measure would provide funds for such "investment programs'' as community policing and innovative schools.

"The President believes that community-based, bottom-up strategies are the only ones that will work over the long term,'' said Bruce Reed, the deputy assistant to the President for domestic policy and a co-chair of the working group that developed the proposal.

Here in Baltimore, residents involved in the Sandtown-Winchester project agree with the philosophy of empowering local communities and residents.

"I see things progressing, and I feel good about it,'' Ms. Bannerman said. "The best is yet to come in this community.''

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