The Creation of the Ghetto: An Interview with Glenn Ross

The Creation of the Ghetto: An Interview with Glenn Ross

Summer 2006 Issue Cover
Summer 2006 Issue Cover

Glenn Ross is a community consultant and activist. This interview was recorded at his home in East Baltimore in April 2006. 

Nicholas Wisniewski: Can you briefly introduce yourself? 

Glenn Ross: I’ve been living in East Baltimore all my life, and I’m fifty-six-years young. I’ve been living in this house, in this neighborhood, for about twenty seven years. I started organizing around the rat problem that was in the area. I joined the neighborhood association, got very active, joined a number of different boards, and I realized there was a lot going on in this area that a lot of residents weren’t aware of. As a new homeowner and a single parent for twenty-six years, I’m the type of guy who needs to know what’s going on in my community. And this is what really started me and got me involved in becoming a community advocate. So when people ask me what got me started I can honestly tell them a rat; now here it is a few years later and I’m dealing with the two-legged rats. 

NW: In many ways, this interview is informed by discussions we have had over the last several months where you have talked at length about the creation of the ghetto. The general perception today sees large pockets of hollowed out urban neighborhoods as ghettos created solely by the people who live in them. Of course, these perceptions are conditioned by racist stereotypes of certain minority populations as being lazy, ignorant, and criminal.  However, you have suggested a more complex set of social, economic, and politi- cal factors that contribute to the creation of the ghetto. Can you describe some of these factors? 

GR: Well, I think it all starts with planning. A lot of the neighborhood organizations plan from season to season, year to year. But when you look at Baltimore City, when you look at some of the major institutions like Johns Hopkins or The University of Maryland, they have their twenty, forty, sixty-year plans. I have had the opportunity to see long-term plans working with the city and in my twenty-three years working with Johns Hopkins. Years ago, you could walk into Johns Hopkins and they had this huge map of East Baltimore, and you could see the future development plans that were going to happen. 

As you see, I’m a map person, and so what I did was I cross-checked what I saw from the City and from Johns Hopkins and just looked at the similarities. Some people in the neighborhood don’t understand done deals. Some development projects are going to work, and there’s not much you can do about it, but with the neighborhoods so fragmented and unable to work together they are able to come in and just dominate the whole area. Years ago when I looked at this map I saw all these blacked-out spaces throughout the city, and especially in East Baltimore.  And I knew that whatever was blacked-out meant that whatever was there wasn’t going to be there in the future. And in other areas, especially public housing, we saw only a dotted line, which meant something was going to happen but we didn’t know what. 

 A related factor to consider is how the drug culture shifts, and here in East Baltimore it happened in a South-East pattern. It has moved from the Greenmount/Barclay community, the Oliver community, the Middle-East community (which is now the biotech park area), it came here in the McElderly Park community about fifteen years ago, and now that drug culture movement is just east of Patterson Park.  Now saying all that is to point out that up on Greenmount and North Ave. was a blooming neighborhood forty or fifty years ago with well-to-do African-Americans and a lot of live entertainment up in that area.                                                                                        

And there are two ways of destroying a community and forming ghettos: one is that you take the resources out of the communty–you get poor city service which creates a lot of confusion among residents; or you can take the people out, like they’re doing down in South-East (the Canton area, Fells Point, Upper Fells Point) where because of high-priced housing many Latinos and Native Americans are being forced out, and being forced into a predominantly African- American neighborhood that has problems.  To me, that’s by design. And if you follow the history of all these neighborhoods that have decayed, you will find that the resources leave the neighborhoods first, there is a change of administration in the public school system, you start getting poor city services; and what normally happens is that any responsible family, when they see their neighborhood decaying, they will move out, and the people that remain most of the time are senior citizens who can’t go anywhere, or the renters. So with this drug pattern you can also see the decay of neighborhoods, and why the drug culture follows ghettos. For instance, lets look at the Middle-East community where the bio-tech park is going to be. 

Years ago you could go up there and buy anything twenty-four hours-a-day, and this is only blocks away from Johns Hopkins, and you have to ask the question: how can the neighborhood be that bad, that crime-ridden, and it’s only a couple blocks away from Johns Hopkins? Because they knew years ago that they were going to come in with this bio-tech park, so they let the neighborhood decay. The residents moved out, the houses remained vacant, and people weren’t buying them. The houses were in bad shape, some were torn down and before you knew it entire blocks were demolished, and what happens now is you’ve got vacant lots with high weeds and nothing being done. 

NW: As we look around East Baltimore we see many abandoned and boarded-up buildings. For many people, this image of vacant buildings signifies the ghetto. But I understand that the majority of these properties are in fact owned by the City, private investors, and large institutions like Johns Hopkins. What would be the economic incentive for all of these parties to land bank so many properties in East Baltimore? 

GR: For one thing, as long as all these houses stay vacant, the property values depreciate, and people don’t want to live there. If you come to the Middle East area you may have 30 to 40 houses on a block with only 6 houses occupied, so how much do you think those properties are worth? So they deliberately do this and deteriorate properties. There are a lot of interests in here because the “so-called powers-that-be” here on earth–because that’s the only place they’ll ever have power–they know where these areas that are going to be decayed are, so they invest in these areas and they milk these properties for rent and put no repairs back in them. For example, when Jack Reed was the general Superintendent of Housing Code Enforcement, his job was to crack down on slum landlords. And in this area here in McElderly Park, we knew he was one of the biggest slum landlords because we knew he owned property. And when we would talk to other slum landlords and tell them we were going to report them, they would say, “we don’t care” because Jack was the biggest slum landlord. So I went to The Baltimore Sun newspaper and exposed it. And the investigative reporter there found out that this was going on citywide. These areas were being allowed to decay. And through the investigation we found out that it was not only Jack Reed who was land banking, but City agency people, people affiliated with Johns Hopkins and family members of politicians who all knew what was going to happen.  So this is how Dan Henson, the housing Commissioner at the time, was put on the hot seat in front of the city council. So a lot of things had to change and City agency people had to make it known what properties they owned. So that’s one investment reason why they would do this: they are milking these properties. And once the neighborhood is decayed, they want to come in and do a biotech park. 

NW: There are many obvious disadvantages that face residents in the most impoverished neighborhoods of Baltimore. But one which many people don’t always think about, and which I know you are working hard to bring visibility to, is the poor health conditions residents suffer from as a direct result of their environment. Could you describe some of these environmental health problems that exist in poor neighborhoods? 

GR: Well, with environmental problems, it is environmental and health racism as I see it, because it is always around poor people. To the East of us there is a lot of industry and even down south in the harbor. At one time, the harbor used to be known as one of the ugliest areas in the city. And almost all your immigrants used to live around the harbor, and they all had environmental problems. As the harbor developed, they forced these lower-income people to move, and they steered them into other neighborhoods. Now those neighborhoods that they’re in now are having environmental health problems. They are taking a lot of contaminated soil and materials from out of these brown-field sites down by the harbor and trucking them back up into these poor neighborhoods. Pat Tracey and myself have just put together an environmental Toxic Tour where we take people to these sites so residents can see it for themselves. If you look at some of the houses in the area you have rats, garbage, drug-use; that’s a serious health problem. So for us to be right here between the a.m. shadow of Hopkins Bayview and the p.m. shadow of East Baltimore Johns Hopkins, and yet we have some of the worst living and health conditions in the nation? It really shouldn’t be like that. 

NW: As you have said before, the removal of public resources (schools, trash collection, police, etc.) along with private resources (grocery stores, banks, and other businesses) are the physical forms of dispossession that constitute the creation of the ghetto. What is the local political atmosphere that allows this disinvestment of resources to occur? What is it that keeps poor communities fragmented and unable to organize against these forms of dispossession? 

GR: First of all, if you look at Johns Hopkins (and Hopkins gets blamed for everything), but Hopkins isn’t the only culprit that we see here. Hopkins would not have been able to come in and dominate East Baltimore and buy up as much property as they did if the politicians didn’t allow it. For years, politicians have told community organizations, “do not deal with Johns Hopkins,” only for the politicians to go in the back door and ask for political and financial favors. If you look at the politicians here in East Baltimore, these people have been in power for the last thirty to forty years. And when Hopkins wants to distribute funding for a research project, they ask the politicians who to give it to, and they always recommend some community organization that is “politically correct,” and by doing that they keep people divided and keep these different groups in competition with one another. 

NW: In the midst of Baltimore’s “urban renaissance,” with renewed interest in real-estate, many of these blighted neighborhoods which were systematically deconstructed over the last three decades are now in the cross-hairs of speculative investors and developers.  What proactive steps, strategies, and actions can be taken by residents to avoid the seemingly inevitable gentrification of neighborhoods and the displacement of people in the name of progress? 

GR: As I said earlier, community organizations have been taught to be territorial, they are taught to not work together. This city is afraid of coalitions. I’m from a predominantly African-American community, and for years I have tried to form a coalition of neighborhood leaders and organizations, but couldn’t get through. Still I was able to form the South-East Stakeholders Coalition. We brought together neighborhood organizations, service providers, libraries, commercial businesses, all just to come to the table and talk about the different things going on. Development, the environment, health–all the things that are going on in our neighborhood and what we need to do to protect our neighborhood so we don’t get caught up. But community people need to learn to play the game, because if the “powers-that-be” find out you’re trying to do something positive, they’ll cut you off. 

So if we can put together a South-East Stakeholders Coalition then it can be done in other parts of the city too. But as long as we stay fragmented like we are, there’s nothing we can do.