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The Great East Baltimore Raze-and-Rebuild

After Faltering, a Johns Hopkins-Led Development Project Reorients Around a School

Story by Dax-Devlon Ross

Photography by Jati Lindsay

Published on Jul 29, 2013

“If EBDI fails, then my presidency at Hopkins fails.” With those nine words, Ronald J. Daniels, 14th president of the world’s leading medical institution, staked his legacy on an urban renewal project that, a decade in, many believed was too entangled in racial tensions, accusations and financial setbacks to salvage.

The event that occasioned Daniels’ intrepid declaration was a February 2012 board meeting of the Baltimore Development Corporation. BDC oversaw downtown development while East Baltimore Development Incorporated (EBDI), in essence its younger sibling, had been created 10 years prior by Johns Hopkins University, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and then-mayor Martin O’Malley. The development organization’s sole mission was to ensure the progress of a $1.8 billion facelift for an 88-acre neighborhood, known as Middle East by its African-American residents, just north of Hopkins’ downtown hospital.

It’s a rare day when the leader of a private institution openly acknowledges its moral obligation to “share our bounty” with the public, let alone hold himself personally and professionally accountable to do so. After all, town-gown tensions trace back to the Middle Ages and continue to be a common feature on campuses across the country. Many schools have enacted policies and programs to address the disparities between the university and the surrounding community. But let’s be honest — a college president’s success is typically judged by his or her ability to raise an institution’s profile, ranking, enrollment and endowment, not the degree to which he fixes the surrounding community.

In other words, as good as Daniels’s intentions might’ve been, they would have seemed gratuitous, unless you knew the context in which they were situated.

A little more than a year earlier, the Daily Record, Baltimore’s prize-winning business publication, had published a damning five-part investigative series on EBDI by Melody Simmons and Joan Jacobson. Titled “Too Big to Fail? Betting a Billion on East Baltimore,” the series painted a picture of a ballyhooed urban revitalization project gone terribly awry. The piece reported that few contracts had been issued to minority businesses and even fewer jobs had been created for East Baltimore residents. Meanwhile, the organization’s executives and its pricey consultants had been hauling in hefty salaries and commissions for close to a decade without any public oversight due to EBDI’s non-profit status. Nearly all of Middle East’s residents had been removed and more than half a billion dollars in public and private money had been poured into the project. However, 700 abandoned homes still stood and plans for the 1.1 million-square-foot biotech park, which EBDI promised would produce nearly 7,000 permanent jobs and resuscitate the neighborhood, appeared stuck. A 30-acre rectangle consisting of a lone biotech building, a couple of hundred rental units for seniors, a handful of condos, an unfinished graduate student housing facility and an incomplete parking garage were all EBDI had to show.

The series became a rallying point for an assortment of the controversial project’s detractors — people who thought it unfairly targeted minorities for removal, or excluded minorities from contracts, or enriched outsiders at the expense of the public, or unfairly benefited Hopkins or East Baltimore, or was simply just a bad idea. Though the piece never identified a smoking gun, it hinted at grave wrongdoing. The project had overpromised and underdelivered. In a city that was already a modern-day symbol of municipal incompetence, even the whiff of corruption stirred an outcry. Protests ensued. A group of indignant African-American leaders called for a halt to all work until a thorough investigation had been completed. Elected officials called EBDI to City Hall for a pair of public hearings on the project.

It was against this arguably desperate backdrop that Daniels made his remarks. But perhaps even more unexpected than the Hopkins president’s commitment to the redevelopment’s success was the tool he planned on using to get there: A struggling public elementary school that had only been in existence for two years, didn’t have a permanent home and didn’t appear in EBDI’s original plan.

“In an environment where human and financial resources are strained, choices such as these are unavoidable,” Daniels said in a speech at Hopkins’ gleaming new Carey Business School on the Harbor East waterfront. “And it was in this context that we elevated the rejuvenation of the school as a core priority for EBDI — as well as for the university. We did so because the school stands as a poignant, vivid and galvanizing place for us to demonstrate our core belief in the community and its future.”

With its campus of temporary trailers, below-average test scores and 90 percent low-income student body, East Baltimore Community School now held the key to EBDI’s $1.8 billion gamble. Under Hopkins’ wing, the school would attract young, middle-class families to the community. Those families would in turn bolster the housing market and attract businesses and outside investment. In short order the neighborhood would be thriving again. There were signs that school-centered community revitalization was an untapped frontier. Columbia, Md.-based Enterprise Community Partners had published a report highlighting an assortment of piecemeal initiatives around the country. They were a mixed bag. Some were redevelopment that included brand new schools built from the ground up; others were school reform projects intended to catalyze neighborhood transformation. Still others were public housing redevelopment projects that leveraged federal housing subsidies to develop new education programs or charter schools. None were tied to such a massive, high-stakes urban renewal undertaking.

To demonstrate how serious Hopkins was, Daniels laid out his vision. Not only would Hopkins be recruiting the teachers and designing the curricula, but Daniels was throwing the full weight of the institution’s vast intellectual stockpile behind its success.

“In addition to the school of education’s prominent footprint,” Daniels told the audience, “the medical institutions will offer mental health counseling and family support services, the Peabody Conservatory will operate a prep branch out the school, the Center for Talented Youth will work with high-achieving students and the athletics department will run after-school programs.”

The showstopper was the school’s new home. In fall 2013 it would take up residence along with the Weinberg Early Childhood Center on a 90,000-square-foot campus inside the freshly reborn neighborhood’s footprint. The renderings offered a thrilling glimpse into a possible future of public, primary education — atriums gushing sunlight, lush green spaces, open classrooms, leisure areas, stock images of children from all races with their arms draped around each other. It would house a gym, auditorium, family resource center and library, all open to the community.

The school would “fundamentally change the way we educate children,” the narrator of a promotional video promised. None of that comes cheap. A tax increment financing agreement — which would divert tax revenue generated in the 88 acres from the city’s general fund and, instead, allow it to stay within the district to support development costs — would cover the $25 million land clearing price tag on the school site. Private investors, including Casey and Hopkins, would foot the $42 million in construction costs. Once completed, Hopkins would contribute $1.5 million annually in operating funds. The school would be a public-private partnership, with Hopkins and EBDI at one end and the Baltimore City Public School system at the other.

The belief in local “anchor” institutions — in this case, Johns Hopkins and its partner school — as primary partners for urban revitalization has been gaining currency in policy circles for more than a decade, with most analysts focusing on the power of so-called “eds and meds,” like Hopkins. Nationally, this category of “eds and meds,” including hospitals, universities and research centers, is credited with providing 11 percent of all inner-city jobs, according to a 2011 report issued by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. When leveraged properly — meaning when they intentionally engage their local economies — anchors stimulate local businesses, support economic equity for disadvantaged groups and even create environmentally friendly businesses such as local food producers and community-based clean energy and weatherization companies. Oh, and they tend to stay put, hence the “anchor” tag.

But how on earth could an unproven school in a city renowned for its broken, segregated public education system serve as the anchor for a diverse, mixed-income community’s revitalization?

Private investors, including Johns Hopkins and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, will cover Henderson Hopkins’ $42 million construction tab.

The answer was about a hundred miles up the road, in the West Philadelphia neighborhood that is home to the University of Pennsylvania. In the late 1990s Penn began looking beyond the walls of its University City campus and tried to improve surrounding blocks. It started with programs providing home repair to abandoned properties and mortgage assistance for its faculty and staff. There was a strategic economic inclusion plan for minority- and women-owned businesses, and countless other community-based economic development efforts. Finally, there was a new partnership school designed to serve the area, a census tract with a growing number of university faculty households and a 37 percent poverty rate. Penn’s school of education helped design curriculum for the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School (Penn Alexander), and contributed $1,300 in extra funding for each student per year.

EBDI had sent a delegation to visit the school during its planning phase and watched it sail smoothly into operation as Baltimore’s own project stumbled. By the time Daniels made his announcement about Hopkins’ partnership with its own community school, 85 percent of Penn Alexander students were acing state exams. The school had become so popular among families that realtors attached a “Penn Alexander Premium” of $100,000 to homes within its catchment.

Needless to say, these results excited Hopkins and EBDI. Could an elementary school attract the families and foot traffic that the biotech industry couldn’t? In short order, EBDI and Hopkins studied the Penn model closely and began putting pieces in place to replicate Penn Alexander’s success in East Baltimore, incentivizing Hopkins employees to buy within the project footprint and even renaming the community school Elmer E. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School — Henderson Hopkins for short.

But the real sign that Hopkins was taking its cues from U. Penn was Daniels himself. He served as Penn’s provost from 2005 to 2008. One of his duties was to oversee the school of education.

You could say EBDI and Hopkins were taking the long view, deliberately bypassing a flashier path to revitalization. Which made sense. Baltimore had always been a blue-collar town, a company town, the sort of place that attracted folks who preferred familiarity and security to the ambiguity and volatility that came with living in other cities along the I-95 corridor. But even pinning the neighborhood’s long-term prospects to a school that would serve a predominately low-income and African-American population wasn’t enough to dispel the perception that Hopkins was a covetous tyrant fixated on scrubbing every indication of poverty from the neighborhood. If anything, the creation of Henderson Hopkins merely convinced the project’s fiercest critics that Hopkins had sunk to a new low in its longstanding effort to make Middle East an oasis for its employees and students.

Boarded-up Homes, Litter and Drug Dealers Like You See On TV

Over the past 40 years few neighborhoods in America have experienced as much devastation as Middle East, even fewer enterprises have risen to such heights as Johns Hopkins and, perhaps, no two such sharply contrasting realities have stood side by side all the while. Hopkins, directly or indirectly, accounts for nearly $10 billion of the economic output in Maryland, and 96,861 jobs — about 3.8 percent of all wage-and-salary jobs in the state. Harvard, the world’s best-known institutional brand, accounts for roughly half that percentage of economic activity and jobs in Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, Middle East was in the midst of a public health crisis when the revitalization began. You could literally pick any chronic illness — asthma, depression, STDs, hypertension, diabetes — and find Middle East sitting at the top. It had the state’s highest infant mortality rate and highest rate of homes with lead-based paint. It also owned the city’s highest crime rate, fastest shrinking population (a 45 percent drop between 1990 and 2000) and the highest percentage of vacant homes (more than five times the city average). In a city known for its hauntingly bare streets, Middle East was the mecca of abandonment. Eight out of 10 neighborhood homes were empty, and the 700 inhabited residences would have been lucky to fetch $30,000 on the market.

One noteworthy distinction (aside from a name that became synonymous with the War on Terror, that is) was that the neighborhood served as the landscape for what it arguably the greatest television drama ever produced. Although The Wire was principally set in West Baltimore, it used abandoned Middle East blocks to produce the ghostlike aura that gave the show its post-apocalyptic gravitas. The absence of trees and people freed its producers from the typical on-location concerns like seasonal changes and hordes of onlookers. The blocks of boarded-up houses, the ubiquitous garbage — that was all real. It was the set that television could never in its wildest dreams create without a Peter Jackson budget, and it was brought to all of the bloggers who raved about The Wire’s authenticity courtesy of urban decay and an assortment of poverty pimps, poison pushers, corrupt officials, slumlords, unscrupulous property flippers, land bankers and predatory lenders.

Some in East Baltimore would have added Hopkins to that list. Back in 2001, when the private university’s plan for redeveloping East Baltimore was taking shape, it owned roughly 100 of the 1,000 abandoned properties in Middle East.

“There was an intention behind the project,” Marisela Gomez said when we spent an afternoon together in Baltimore last spring. “It was becoming too unsafe for the Hopkins community. Making it safe meant moving out the black people, because that was what the public perceived as the problem.”

Gomez, a native of Belize who grew up in New Orleans and New Mexico, was uniquely positioned to offer her indictment. She spent 14 years at Hopkins earning an M.S., M.D., M.P.H. and Ph.D. and 17 years living, working and organizing in Middle East. She was an outsider and insider in both worlds and was able to observe how the two interacted with one another. When she heard residents referring to Hopkins as “the elephant,” “the goliath” and “the plantation,” she began to wonder what was at the root of the bad blood. People told her urban legends about the healthy neighbor who went to the hospital and never came back, the mysterious Hopkins van that abducted residents at night and delivered them to labs, the homes the hospital took to pay overdue bills. She discovered that while these stories may have been fictive, they had a basis in fact. Hopkins researchers had admitted to spreading Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells across the globe for two decades without her family’s knowledge or consent, and Maryland’s highest court had compared a lead-paint study conducted on more than 100 Baltimore families by Hopkins affiliate Kennedy-Krieger Institute in the 1990s to the infamous Tuskegee experiments.

“Communities do not exist in isolation, separate from their neighbors,” Gomez said. “They exist relative to each other. While this grand institution of health care teaching and services has continued to grow and expand its mission, its neighbor has continued to deteriorate. Why this disparity between these two neighbors?”

Last fall, Gomez published a book on the topic, Race, Class, Power and Organizing in East Baltimore, with Lexington Books, an academic imprint. The hardback book chronicles Hopkins’ aggressive expansion into East Baltimore, beginning in the early 1950s when 1,100 families living on 39 acres west of the hospital were informed that their community was being cleared. Like the current project, that community was 90 percent black and largely poor. It was sold as a landmark project that would result in a beautified neighborhood that included the first new housing for blacks in the city’s history. The city demolished residences and businesses and cleared the land, only to allow it to sit undeveloped for the next four years.

When work did start up again, plans had changed: 100 percent of the development would belong to the Hopkins community. No new homes would be built for black residents. Local activist groups protested the change to no avail. The completed development contained housing for students and staff, a shopping center, a hotel and a medical office building. A fence arose around its perimeter, making it impossible for local residents to walk the very streets they’d once lived on.

Eight out of 10 homes are empty in the Middle East neighborhood that Johns Hopkins hopes to redevelop.

Thirty years later a Hopkins-led group called the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition (HEBCAC) leveraged $34 million in federal financing from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to rebuild homes in Middle East. Under the plan, Hopkins would buy properties from residents and sell them to HEBCAC for $1. HEBCAC would then fix the properties up and sell them to residents in exchange for their old ones, which would then be torn down. HEBCAC’s leaders believed this process would facilitate a smooth transition from blight to brighter days. In six years the program built fewer than 50 homes and the neighborhood vacancy rate doubled. By late 2000, HEBCAC’s executive director conceded that he had miscalculated the rate of disinvestment in the community. It was just a few months after HEBCAC’s admission that Middle East residents opened the Baltimore Sun and read that Hopkins would be spearheading a new type of renewal experiment in their neighborhood. This time around, the entire neighborhood would be leveled and rebuilt. Everybody had to go.

“I think history will point out that lots of mistakes were made in the early going,” said Hopkins’ school of education dean, David Andrews, in a phone interview this past spring. Daniels recruited Andrews away from Ohio State specifically to lead the Hopkins’ efforts in East Baltimore. Andrews was so drawn to the idea of helping build a school from the ground up that he and his wife bought a home in the new neighborhood rather than in one of the upscale enclaves close to the harbor. Once they moved in, their new neighbors gave them the same education Gomez had received two decades earlier. He learned about the community’s tooth-and-nail fight with EBDI to enforce safe demolition protocols and fairly compensate residents for their property.

“Clearly actions were taken that damaged the trust between Hopkins, EBDI and the community,” Andrews said. “We’ve learned that we can’t do this without building trust in the community. It’s important to understand the constituents and the community you are working with. I think what we’ve learned is to be overly inclusive and careful. What’s important is doing it with the community, not to the community or for the community.”

Andrews told me that he and his team had spent an enormous amount of time listening to what residents wanted the school to be. He assured me that community members had been part of the delegation that visited Penn Alexander and other schools and had participated in the selection of the architect to build the school. Community members even held seats on the school’s board, chaired by celebrated Hopkins surgeon and author Ben Carson.

“This school will not be a success if it becomes a private enterprise for Hopkins employees,” Andrews said. “We could do that on campus. That model is not innovative. The challenge here is to think of this as Hopkins did originally by creating a link between a community-based hospital and a university.”

Gomez challenges the notion that Middle East was meaningfully involved in the creation of the school. She said Hopkins, along with Annie E. Casey, handpicked trusted residents to cart out for public events in order to maintain an image of inclusivity and consent. From her vantage point, Henderson is just latest and most disquieting attempt to put a racially inclusive gloss on the project without addressing the process of exclusion and discrimination that allowed the gap between the institution and the neighborhood to grow so wide in the first place.

“Who can argue with kids?” she asked incredulously. “It’s not going to be for everyone. The data in Philly shows that the school becomes a gentrifying magnet. Hopkins just needs a buffer to make the neighborhood look like them.”

Andy Frank, Daniels’ special advisor on economic development, didn’t exactly contradict Gomez’s view. In a 2012 interview with the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, he was asked whether hospital employees were moving to the area for the school.

“Last year, we had six Hopkins families apply,” Frank responded. “This year we had 22, almost a fourfold increase. We expect that number to increase when we open the new school in 2013, when we also will have housing product for non-income restricted families.” I twice reached out to Frank for comment but never received a response.

It was the set that television could never in its wildest dreams create without a Peter Jackson budget.

But to fully understand how Henderson Hopkins figures into the politics of redevelopment, it helps to look at its differences from Penn Alexander in West Philly. For instance, the area Penn chose for the school’s catchment was comprised of tree-lined Victorian homes, relatively inexpensive apartment buildings and some abandoned housing. Blacks, whites and Asians accounted for a respective 60 percent, 20 percent and 8 percent of the child population. Henderson Hopkins, on the other hand, rose in a far less diverse environment. As of 2010, blacks were 88 percent of the population, Hispanics 6 percent and whites 5 percent. Also, Penn Alexander for its first 12 years guaranteed entry to every child living in the catchment on a first-come, first-serve basis. (This year, overwhelming demand for kindergarten seats forced the school to adopt a lottery system for children in the catchment.) Hopkins, on the other hand, elected to go with a more complex lottery system that ranked those who lived in the enrollment area and those displaced during the redevelopment period highest, siblings of current students second highest and the children of people who worked in the community third.

In theory, guaranteed entry was a better bargaining chip for urban revitalization. It put the ball squarely in parents’ court and promised their children a great education if they stayed in the city and registered for school. In practice, however, the guarantee created a bubble of advantage surrounding Penn Alexander that squeezed out the poorer families and fueled a bitter opinion that the school had always been intended for the children of U. Penn faculty. For example, when the school opened in 2001 more than 91 percent of its students were eligible free or reduced meals. Four blocks away at Lea Henry C School, 90 percent of students were also eligible for free or reduced meals. But from that point forward their paths diverged sharply. As Penn Alexander’s reputation soared, so too did family incomes. In 2011 only 24 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced meals. At Lea the figure still stood at 90. Not surprisingly, Lea’s student performance ranked among the worst in the state. As a matter of fact, the same could be said for every other public elementary school within a one-mile radius of Penn Alexander.

Race, naturally, stood out glaringly in Penn Alexander’s economic inversion. When the school first opened, whites were a majority of the residents in the catchment but black children occupied a majority of seats. Even in 2004, the school’s first full capacity year, the student population was 65 percent black, 19 percent white and 11 percent Asian. A decade after it opened its doors, the school was 38 percent black, 30 percent white and 16 percent Asian. This may seem like the picture of diversity now, but it can’t last — not when between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of white and Asian children ages 5 to 9 living in the catchment grew by more than 150 percent, while their black counterparts dwindled by 61 percent. The number of black and white children aged 0 to 5 was reverse what it was a little over a decade ago. At the catchment’s current burn rate, Penn Alexander’s 2030 graduating class could be without a single black or economically disadvantaged student.

Hopkins was hoping to accomplish something different through Henderson. Or, it had to. Too many lives have been disrupted. Too many promises have been made. Too many eyes are watching, waiting for the next gaffe.

An Oasis of Calm

On a sunny Friday morning in early May, a fourth-grader entered Katrina Foster’s office choking on her tears. The first year principal of Henderson Hopkins paused our interview to attend to the student.

“What happened, Kiara?” Foster asked. [Note: The names of students have been altered. – Ed.]

“Makayla hit me.

“And why would Makayla do that?

The pretty-eyed and frailly built girl sobbed. “She did it for no reason.”

Foster expressed her sympathy for the student and sent an eighth-grader serving in-school suspension to retrieve Makayla while Kiara took a seat at the conference table with us.

“Now, before Makayla comes in here, is there anything else you want to tell me about the incident?”

Kiara bowed her head and shook it. Moments later a taller, fuller cinnamon-colored girl wearing a single puffy braid arrived. She took the seat next to me and started to swing her legs. Her grin registered a mix of mischief and nervousness.

Foster allowed both girls speak their peace. There may have been a balled up piece of paper tossed from Kiara’s direction that landed on or around Makayla prior to the assault. Kiara may also have written on another student’s paper. What wasn’t in dispute was that a third student dared Makayla to hit Kiara, and Makalya felt compelled to accept said dare because Kiara had a habit of defying classroom rules that typically escaped the teacher’s notice.

“So you felt Kiara needed to be disciplined and you took it upon yourself to be the one who administered it?” Foster asked. Makayla nodded.

The crux of the story was settled. Foster, who was barely out of her 20s, mustered a glowering principal stare through the top of her glasses. Anyone who’s ever been sent to the principal’s office knows that the stare usually signals the penalty phase. Makayla was scheduled to perform her song, “Backpack Flow,” for kindergartners, first- and second-graders during a post-exam celebration that afternoon. The entire school knew the song by heart. They all screamed whenever Makayla and her rap partner performed it.

Foster gave Makayla two options. She could either apologize or sit out the celebration. Makayla chose option number one, but Kiara didn’t think Makayla really meant it. Instead of exercising the nuclear option, Foster chose a different approach: She invited the girls to solve their own problem. We watched them sit next to each other in the office waiting area and begin to talk.

Lack of prior experience as a principal notwithstanding, appointing Foster may prove to be Hopkins’ shrewdest move to date. She was an all-around ideal fit: A black woman who grew up in the city, attended its public schools, graduated from Pepperdine, served in Teach for America and earned a Master’s and certificate in school administration from Johns Hopkins. She was personable and confident, energetic and intelligent.

Above all, she didn’t feed into the politics surrounding a school on which a community’s reinvention and an institution’s reputation as a redevelopment authority were pinned. When I queried her about the construction of the new school, she said Andrews and his team were in charge of that. When I asked how often Hopkins representatives visited the school, she said they were around but it was her job to run the place. When I told her about a rumor I’d heard that students would be kicked out if they didn’t achieve a certain GPA, she simply laughed. When I said some people didn’t believe children from families who’d been displaced were actually attending the school, she pulled out signed letters from EBDI confirming that those students were, in fact, enrolled. I later learned that EBDI was paying transportation costs for those students to travel back and forth to the school.

“I can’t worry about all of that,” Foster said of the swirl of rumors and pressures. “My job is to stay focused on the kids. I want to make them excited about school, to make them love school from an early age.”

When the girls returned they had reached a truce and come up with a plan to prevent future confrontations. Makayla did the talking, but before Foster gave her blessing, the principal turned to Kiara.

“Are you okay with this?”

“Yes.”

Once the girls left for class Foster explained the school’s philosophy to me. Kiara, Makayla and their 270 classmates come from neighborhoods where physical confrontation is the typical and often acceptable problem-solving strategy. Not fighting, in fact, was often a sign of weakness. Interrupting that custom and replacing it with constructive behaviors was part of the school’s mission. One of the ways it accomplished that was by teaching students how to peaceably solve their problems and giving them the space to do so. Another way was by managing student behavior through a rigid code of conduct.

“We make the small things big,” Foster bluntly said.

Uniforms were strictly enforced, except on Fridays, and even then most students wore theirs out of routine. Students must pass between classes single file and wait in lines outside of their rooms before being invited in by their teacher. Failure to follow those and other school rules resulted in demerits. Six demerits required detention, held on Tuesdays and Thursdays only. Cursing equaled automatic detention. Alternatively, students could accumulate merits for good behavior and exchange them at the school store for prizes and events. None of what Henderson was doing was radical — new age school proselytizers, most notably KIPP, have been championing the same basic approach to behavior modification for years, and for good reason. Foster told me that fewer than 25 suspensions had been handed out all year, and attendance for the year sat at 95 percent.

Henderson Hopkins principal Katrina Foster grew up in Baltimore and earned a Master’s in school administration at Johns Hopkins before taking the job at the new school.

Equally commonplace in this era of education reform is a ready-to-wear literacy curriculum produced by a corporate non-profit and sold to schools and districts for a six-figure licensing fee. Henderson’s program of choice was Success for All. Used in more than 1,500 schools in 46 states, SFA has been shown to increase student performance, close the achievement gap and outperform other reform models. Under SFA, teachers group students by reading ability rather than age for scripted 90-minute literacy blocks each morning. Every eight to nine weeks, each student is assessed and can be moved to another reading group or receive additional tutoring.

SFA was actually created at Johns Hopkins by Richard Slavin and Nancy Madden, a husband-and-wife research team. At the time Daniels announced that Henderson would be employing the model, however, it hadn’t been used in Baltimore in a decade, in part because No Child Left Behind had funded states that used a rival initiative called Reading First.

SFA has its critics. In his 2005 book The Shame of the Nation, celebrated school reform activist Jonathan Kozol called SFA a “stick and carrot pedagogy” for poor, inner-city children that sucked life out of the classroom. Kozol compared SFA to an authoritarian regime in its demand for robotic uniformity from students and rote instruction from teachers. Slavin issued a tart response to the book, questioning Kozol’s journalistic integrity and defending his program’s merits. Kozol, in turn, unleashed a furious tirade characterizing SFA as a “bottom feeder” preying on inner-city “misery and hypersegregation.”

No matter what was happening among the adults, Isaiah and the rest of the kids who attend Henderson would grow up with an entirely different relationship to the hospital on the hill.

During my visit to Henderson Hopkins, I sat in on two separate classes during their literacy blocks. As far as I knew neither the teachers nor the students had been forewarned about my presence. I was invited to sit with students and talk to them about their work. I listened to them read and analyze language and texts. I watched teachers carefully guide their students through the day’s lesson. And the picture Kozol painted of SFA, albeit in the Bronx circa 2005, didn’t match my experience in East Baltimore in 2013. The children weren’t miserable and the teachers weren’t straight jacketed. I saw learning. I saw lively interaction between teachers and students. For the record, at least one teacher I spoke to was unhappy with the program. She said she didn’t become a teacher to read a scripted lesson. Her beef was a perfectly understandable. However, since September the percentage of Henderson students reading on-grade level had jumped from 55 to 66. At that clip the number stood a chance of climbing up to 70 percent in the remaining seven weeks of school.

As I explored the building on my own, students walked right up to me and asked my name, what I was writing down in my notebook, why I was there. They told me all sorts of things: Which kids behaved badly in class, which teachers they liked, what their favorite books were, what they liked and disliked about school, what they wanted to be when they grew up. One third-grader told me he wanted to build houses for the homeless people in his neighborhood, another said he wanted to be president, a third chose teacher. An eighth-grade girl said she was going to miss the school because it was such a calm place. She was part of the first graduating class, several of whom will be attending some of the most selective public high schools in the city next fall.

But it was what a boisterous, confident fourth-grader named Isaiah said that made everything click for me. He told me his school was special because it was — and these are his words — “a Johns Hopkins Partnership School.” When I asked him what he thought that meant, he shrugged. It didn’t matter, though. I got it. No matter what was happening among the adults, Isaiah and the rest of the kids who attend Henderson would grow up with an entirely different relationship to the hospital on the hill. They had no memory of the “plantation” or the displacement, for that matter. The rumors and stories that for generations had swirled around East Baltimore about Hopkins would fade, and then die altogether, as would the history of struggle that took place.

And maybe that was what needed to happen.

From Middle East to Eager Park

“We have policies that address foreclosure. That wasn’t what happened here. What happened here was abandonment. We needed a model that would build equity for people who lost everything and the flexibility to figure out what it was.”

Chris Shea was surrounded by rolls of blueprints, evidence of the incredible scope and detail that had gone into creating an entirely new neighborhood from scratch. Today the much-maligned CEO of EBDI was in a reflective mood. Sunlight flooded into his spacious corner office. Kindergartners from Henderson Hopkins were at play in the yard attached to his building. A few doors down, on East Chase Street, contractors were renovating a pair of homes. From the window behind his desk I glimpsed the new Hopkins high-rise and the six-acre plot that had been selected for Eager Park, a fully amenitized community space patterned after New York City’s Bryant Park. In early 2013, a New York branding firm named Co-Op launched a website called Around Eager Park to market the park and its surrounding neighborhood to prospective residents. The site referenced all of the “green and vibrant” attractions and events Eager Park would accommodate. The name “Middle East” had been entirely expunged.

Things were moving along. EBDI had bought all but 32 of the 2,000 properties it had been created to purchase. More than 1,500 of those properties had been demolished. The remaining 300 slated for removal would be torn down in a few months. Roughly 600 houses had been built, 200 more were under construction and another 900 were simply waiting for Henderson Hopkins to fulfill its destiny before developers broke ground. Thirty thousand feet of retail space had been completed and new businesses were beginning to populate the main thoroughfares, although at the moment a 7-11 on North Wolfe Street was the main commercial draw.

As for the biotech park that was supposed to bring jobs that would fuel the resurgence, there was a nine-figure tax increment financing bill that said it would be completed as well. Shea just wouldn’t be around to oversee it since EBDI is slated to dissolve once the remaining buildings have been demolished, which could be as early as this fall. From that point forward Henderson Hopkins would manage EBDI’s family services division while the principal developer, Forest City-New East Baltimore, would oversee the ongoing renewal efforts.

Randolph Scott (left) with East Baltimore Development Inc. CEO Chris Shea (right) on the stoop of Scott’s new townhouse. The Middle East resident bought the home with relocation money he was paid when EBDI tore down, for redevelopment, the nearby building where he was a renter.

Aside from Jack Shannon, his predecessor, Chris Shea was arguably the single most divisive figure in East Baltimore — the face of the organization responsible for taking people’s homes, the putative Hopkins henchmen sent down the hill to do its dirty work. The 2011 Daily Record series had characterized him as an out-of-touch hired gun. But the afternoon we met the wispy-haired, middle-aged man seated across from me, wearing khakis and a pair of mud-caked boots, struck me as forthcoming, highly knowledgeable and deeply concerned about the future of the place he would soon be leaving. He knew people saw him as the villain: A white guy from out of town in charge of a project that involved the uprooting of a black community. But he was damn proud of his record.

“Not a single lawsuit has been filed against us,” he said. “Not one.”

Shea scoffed when I mentioned the two-year old series. In his view, it had overlooked and flat-out fabricated facts to make a sexy story. During the worst recession in 70 years EBDI started or finished three major projects, he said. Forty-one percent of the construction contracts it awarded — $123 million — went to minority-owned businesses, 49 percent if you included businesses owned by women. Thirty-one percent of all labor had been performed by Baltimore City residents and fully 17 percent by East Baltimore residents. Fifty former renters had used their benefits to become homeowners. Forty residents had exercised their right to remain in the neighborhood through EBDI’s House for a House and Home Renewal programs. Former residents had a right of first marketing on every new home built in the new community. He handed me a pair of Casey Foundation reports that he said confirmed all of the numbers he’d given me.

“What matters is how people land,” Shea said, “that they end up in better places and situations than they were before all of this began.”

In effect, he said, EBDI had facilitated a substantial wealth transfer to hundreds of people who had been historically restricted by law and custom from owning property, getting mortgages and building equity. It was a novel interpretation, one I was sure a few people I had met would take issue with, just as they had taken issue with the decision to create a school.

“You build communities around institutions that matter,” Shea said. “And nothing matters more for a redeveloping community than a school.”

Shea was the day-to-day operations chief when the school opened in 2009. Knowing EBDI wouldn’t be around forever, he pitched a takeover to Daniels, who was already open to the idea. “Now mom and dad will know the school isn’t going anywhere.”

The question neither Shea nor anyone else could answer was will the moms and dads they’re banking on to create their mixed income community will actually come.

Tipping for Whom

On a brisk, bright Saturday morning I met up with Ed Rutkowski for breakfast at Northeast Market, a historic indoor eatery in East Baltimore. In the mid-1990s, Rutkowski and his colleague Marcus Pollock self-published a book titled Urban Transition Zone. They’d read a piece by Malcolm Gladwell about tipping points and thought, why not apply the theory to neighborhood revitalization? The book argued that cities should stop investing in neighborhoods already in ruins and focus resources on communities on the brink of destabilization. Rutkowski and Pollock believed that if you caught communities before they slipped, you could stem blight.

The testing ground for this theory was Patterson Park, a neighborhood directly east of the 88 acres targeted by EBDI. Parlaying his theory into action, Rutkowski founded the Patterson Park Community Development Corporation. For a few years PPCDC experienced enormous success buying, renovating and reselling tipping-point homes. Then the recession hit, and PPCDC and went under. Yet the neighborhood had managed to remain intact, in no small part because a group of neighbors, including Rutkowski, founded Patterson Park Public Charter School in 2006. He was now the school’s executive director.

Over runny eggs and watery coffee, Rutkowski told me about growing up in what was then a predominately white, working-class Patterson Park, leaving for the suburbs as a boy, then for college, followed by a quick stint in Kentucky before returning to Baltimore in the 1980s. Seeing his childhood neighborhood in free fall inspired Rutkowski to dedicate himself to bringing it back.

Ed Rutkowski grew up in East Baltimore and now runs a community development corporation there. He thinks the Johns Hopkins redevelopment will succeed, but “shouldn’t become a model for other cities.”

After breakfast we toured the EBDI footprint. Rutkowski was a quintessential urban enthusiast, a genuine believer that cities were the height of civilization. He knew the history of entire blocks. He told me about the guy from Boston who’d bought up a few houses in the early 2000s and attempted to create a mini-community for his tenants. He showed me an art deco rehab next to the hospital two brothers had fixed up in hopes of selling it for a mint, but couldn’t. Whenever Rutkowski came across a house for sale he pulled out his phone to check the listing and who was selling it. If he knew of the builders, he told me whether they did good or shoddy work.

Eager Park was at an interesting tipping point of its own. Most, though certainly not all, of the blight had been cleared away, yet the new neighborhood still lacked an identity, a feeling of being alive. Although we passed dozens and dozens of homes that appeared ready for occupancy, we didn’t cross paths with a single person who wasn’t either working on one of the sites or was part of the private security detail that EBDI established for the neighborhood. All the inclusive pictures and promises in the world couldn’t make up for the absence of living, breathing human beings.

Ed and I paused when we came to the eastern edge of the footprint. Directly across from where we stood, a small team of builders labored leisurely on an unremarkable steel edifice. It was surrounded by a flattened pile of dirt. I was surprised when Rutkowski told me this was where the new campus would live. Given all of the spectacular artist renderings, I’d expected to see a more elaborate and active undertaking. Massive cranes and whatnot. I walked away thinking that Hopkins had its work cut out for it if it hoped to open the new school in the fall, as advertised.

The question neither Shea nor anyone else could answer was, will the moms and dads they’re banking on actually come?

Toward the end of our tour, Rutkowski and I spotted a real estate agent leaving a trailer. A pair of prospects followed closely behind her. Ed and I stopped to watch them. The agent, a black woman, made enthusiastic gestures toward the future park while the prospects, a youngish white couple, nodded and smiled. Rutkowski suggested we follow along. The party walked along Eager Street and hung a right on North Wolfe, where they entered the high-rise. We followed them inside. Billed the “Neighborhood Exhibition Center,” the building lobby had been converted to an Eager Park showroom. Blown-up photographs of old and new residents hung from the walls. A touch screen monitor allowed visitors to visually navigate through the development process. A six-minute video titled “Around Eager Park: Revival of a Historic East Baltimore Neighborhood” ran on a second monitor.

I asked Rutkowski if he believed the neighborhood would ultimately be a success.

“Oh, it will succeed,” he said. “But it shouldn’t become a model for other cities.”

The agent walked the couple to the scale model of the completed community. She pointed to the school and began a pitch that could have been lifted straight from one of the Casey Foundation reports Shea had handed me. The couple appeared impressed by what they heard.

I introduced myself and told them I was writing this story. They said they lived in D.C. but were tired of commuting back and forth to Baltimore for work. They’d been hearing great things about Eager Park. I couldn’t resist asking the all-important question:

“Do you have any children?”

They looked at me and smiled. No, the man said, they didn’t.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Dax-Devlon Ross is the author of five books and has written essays and articles for a range of publications, including Time and the New York Times. He is a non-profit higher-education consultant and the executive director of After-School All-Stars NY-NJ. You can find him at daxdevlonross.com.