Look Beyond What You Perceive: Introducing “The Gem of Oldtown”

Written by Nehemiah Hall, Youth Unlocked Youth Leader

“We had everything! We ain’t have to leave this community for nothing!”, he said proudly of his neighborhood: Oldtown in East Baltimore. I stood behind the camera conducting an interview with my Youth Leader coworker for our Youth Unlocked Summer 2014 film project. In front of the camera he stood, enthusiastically pissed. His body language was eager to tell us the story of the community where he grew up, and where he still lives. His face was stressed – enraged at the city that had abandoned this former staple of Baltimore. I understood his frustration. I knew what people thought of Oldtown. I knew community residents were and still are being pushed out. Police occupy the streets while trash scatters across them. Drug dealers take up the formerly popular mall – now in shambles. Johns Hopkins is buying up space like the community is a penny store.

I share the anger because I know that Oldtown is not the only formerly great community now labeled as “ghetto“ and “hood”. A common impression is that the Black residents who live in this neighborhood are solely responsible for making it into a present day wasteland. We make assumptions that these communities were forever destined to be this way. These assumptions are flat out wrong.

The universe that we occupy didn’t just come into being. Neither did Oldtown nor communities like it. These communities were the glue that held Black America together. When Black parents went off to work and black children went to school in an oppressive, racist, white-supremacist system they had their communities as a refuge to return to. “We had a bank. We had nice clothes (nice, clean, sharp). We had different places for the community to go,” explained elder resident Mrs. Jean Booker -Bradley. Sitting beside her was another elder resident, Mrs. Devon Wilford-Said, who, like the gentleman mentioned above, had seen her beloved community decline. This decline was not solely by the hands of the residents, but in part by investment choices made by developers and facilitated by City government. “With the demolition of Somerset, Flag house, Lafayette Courts and things of that nature, and Belair Market. When the Market left, so did the people.” Mr. Keith

The grounds of what use to be Belair Market.

The grounds of what use to be Belair Market.

said about the City’s choice to divest from Oldtown. According to a Baltimore Sun article published on September 27,2014 “Nothing New with Old Town”. “In 1995, the City tore down six high-rise housing projects south of the Mall, to be replaced with safer, low-rise units. Thousands of residents were displaced while the city rebuilt – and many never returned. Such a sharply eroded customer base was devastating to the already struggling businesses that remained.”

The assumptions we make may ignite our curiosity to seek and learn. But when we state — and believe — our own assumptions as facts we often end up ignoring the truth. Recently, city residents were quick to run to Baltimore’s defense while national and international media made assumptions about our city. People highlighted their truths about Baltimore. This film project was produced to share the real story of what happened to Oldtown and to open the possibility for a future that does not equal the past.

Watch the film below to take a look at Oldtown’s past, present and aspiration for a future.

Gentrification in Baltimore: An alternative model

Gentry map

According to a new article published in Governing Magazine titled “Baltimore Gentrification Maps and Data” The gentrification around the Inner Harbor is creeping toward Oldtown. Surrounded on the South,  East, and West by gentrified neighborhoods  Oldtown is poised to become one of the next neighborhoods to gentrify.

What does this mean for Oldtown? It depends…

According to the article, gentrification brings “significant growth in both home values and educational attainment,” definite positives for any neighborhood. However, gentrification implies the replacement of the current decay with fresh, new wealth — not the elevation of the current neighborhood to amass wealth and achieve ownership and educational goals.

Instead, Ingoma would like to foster a process of Regeneration and Rejuvenation. Rather than allowing the tide of change to sweep the neighborhood clear, we would like to utilize the tide of change to attract investment into rebuilding the economic infrastructure of the neighborhood. This means ensuring that housing is affordable and inclusive, that infrastructure is created to seed new low-cost startup enterprises, and that supports are integrated and enhanced to allow families and individuals living in Oldtown to enhance their education. So, rather than the standard model of investing in condos to attract single, wealthy thirty-somethings or high-end national chains that siphon profits to far-away corporations we must develop models that encourage investors to build quality, affordable family housing and provide capital to low-cost local start-ups who provide goods and services to their own communities. By changing the investment model this way, wealth can be generated to benefit both the developers and investors AND the current residents of Oldtown while simultaneously improving the quality of life.