Gentrification Equals Racism to Me

Gentrification Equals Racism to Me

Photo by: Thomas J. Walsh
Photo by: Thomas J. Walsh

The footprint of gentrification is across the throat of my childhood neighborhood. It does not surprise me because I grew up in the shadow of Downtown Baltimore. The first home I remember was in the 700 Block of George Street between Fremont Ave. and Myrtle Ave. A short stroll down George St. took one to Pennsylvania Ave and a couple of blocks south on Green St. and I was at Lexington Market, the place of hot dogs, Konstant peanuts and their still delicious peanut brittle. I never thought my neighborhood would be anything other than what it was. 

At age three I moved a couple of blocks away onto Harlem Ave. where I could look out of my window and see the Washington Monument until the Murphy Homes Housing Project highrises were built in the early 1960s. During those days, gentrification was a word I never heard. Urban renewal was the catchphrase-I heard adults refer to it as Negro removal later on. 

 I lived in Harlem Park, the fi rst urban renewal district in the country with inner block parks and building code improvements that unfortunately included fi rewalls made of asbestos. I expected my neighborhood which included Lafayette Square, a church lined park area with beautiful flowers and a debating society made up of retired men on park benches, to remain a proud black neighborhood. It was a neighborhood full of black medical professionals and stable families whose breadwinners worked in places like Bethlehem Steel, General Motors, Armco Steel and other manufacturing plants like London Fog. We didn’t need gentrifi cation or renewal, so we thought. 

 Even the Murphy Homes, which displaced my fi rst home were not bad places to live when they opened. In fact, compared to some of the slumlord owned buildings, the Murphy Homes were quite a step up. When they opened they were occupied mostly by two parent families trying to make the transition from public housing to their own homes. Later when the poverty and dysfunction overtook the occupants and the heads of households became predominantly impoverished and poorly educated young single mothers, things changed for the worst. Still the Murphy Homes were very close to downtown as were their elder sister Lexington Terrace Housing Projects.

While the trend was to flee to the suburbs, those parcels of land close to downtown were left to poor black folks who were supposed to stay in their neighborhoods and expire out of sight of the upper classes and their middle class managers. The housing projects were used as dumping grounds and they were allowed to deteriorate in the most abject way. When they were unsustainable in the face of lawsuits about concentrating the poor and racially segregating poor blacks in areas already occupied by impoverished African-Americans, the projects were blown up. 

Where Lexington Terrace’s foreboding high-rises once glared at travelers along the Expressway that goes nowhere along Franklin and Mulberry Streets, now stand The Terraces a community of renters and owners. South of there is the neighborhood of Poppleton, which is being gentrified which, usually means moving in middle-class white people. My old neighborhood is now called Heritage Crossing. George Street is gone and the streets in that neighborhood that is almost surrounded by a wall are named after prominent African Americans. 

The question that must be asked is,“where are all the poor people who used to inhabit that area?” Gentrification, when it comes to black people means their removal with little or no input or compensation. The biotech park north of Hopkins is a perfect example. The bottom line is that whenever the power elites decide to take a black community’s property they fi nd plenty of collaboration in elected offi cials. 

Gentrification is class warfare, often with a racist element. Black property owners have historically been run roughshod over in this city. Many of them were forced out of their homes for the expressway along the Route 40 corridor from Green St. to Pulaski St. Others were forced off of Druid Hill Ave. for the McCulloh Homes Extension.

 I view all gentrification with suspicion because I understand that it is usually based in class warfare. That is the dilemma in gentrifying the older part of downtown. The underclass and the working poor are not going to stay out of downtown and the gentrification forces want them out. The nouveau downtowners don’t want to mingle with those failed by the education system and a job market shrinking by the day. They see the underclass as a threatening reminder of an unpleasant economic reality in 21st Century America. The under- class will not become invisible and they will not go to hidden locations to expire quietly. 

I hope I live long enough to see how gentrification is attempted in about 20 or 30 years when global warming has made some uptown neighborhoods waterfront property. That should be interesting.