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WYPR Newsroom Series:On The Watch: Fixing the Fractured Relationship Between Baltimore's Police and Its CommunitiesUp With Neighborhoods: A Southwest Baltimore PartnershipRockets' Red Glare: the War, the Song, and their LegaciesDeconstructingVacantsSparrows Point: The Plan, The Cleanup, and The PromiseCommon Core: A Work In Progress

Greening Begins In East Baltimore

  Seventeen people are hard at work at a job site in the 2300 and 2400 blocks of E. Eager Street in Milton-Montford.  The site is right next to the Amtrak line and can be seen by train passengers.  The workers are salvaging what they can of the wood, brick and metal from one of the 35 houses being torn down.

At a table nearby, six people are chiseling mortar off bricks and setting them on a pallet.  The bricks will be sold to contractors along the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast.

It’s part of a demonstration project aimed at eventually clearing the blight of thousands of vacant buildings in the city while teaching job skills to the unemployed and recycling building materials. And as an added bonus, it should spruce up the view for train passengers coming into town from the north.

City economic development officials have said the blight visible from the train tracks makes it difficult to sell the city to investors from places like Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

Seven homes have been demolished since work began in September. It’s easy to track the progress by the Steven Powers - aka ESPO - mural painted on the fronts of the homes. Originally, it said, “Forever Together.”  It now reads, “Ever Together.”  There’s more on the project’s website, Baltimore Brick By Brick.

The Pilot

Baltimore Housing awarded the contract for the project to Details Deconstruction, a division of local non-profit Humanim.

Details has demolished dozens of buildings along the east coast in its two year history.

Jeff Carroll, the division’s director, says they saw an opportunity to address two needs; provide jobs to the East Baltimore neighborhood near their headquarters and create green space in the city.

“The site has already been slated by the city to become an urban forest as soon as we’re finished with the deconstruction process,” Carroll says.

The urban forest is part of a plan known within City Hall as Operation Green Tracks. It calls for green spaces to connect current revitalization efforts, such as the new Henderson-Hopkins School on Ashland Avenue and nearby homes already being rehabilitated.

It also would use green spaces to connect any future development projects involving the city-owned pumping station and the former Hoen Lithograph building at Chase and Chester streets.

“When you see this coming down and realize that soon, it’s going to be two blocks worth of forestation; it’s going to be a much prettier sight as people roll into our city,” he adds.

More than creating green space and a more attractive view for MARC and Amtrak riders, the project creates jobs for those who are looking for a second chance.

Rebuilding By Tearing Down

East Baltimore native Ricardo Grimes was kicked out of the house by his grandmother when he was 13.

“Grandmother wasn’t having it,” he says “she had other kids to actually raise and since I was a bad seed it was like, okay, you go where you were morally meant to be.”

At age 24 he was convicted of possession of drugs with intent to distribute and served 10 years in jail. He got out last year. The 35-year-old says he knew having a job would keep him from falling back into the drug world; something he does not want to do.

“[I knew if] I stayed still then, you know, the mentality of one pack of drugs can help me out, and then it lead to another pack and another pack, “ he says. “And eventually I’d be back into the drug game.”

Grimes’ first job was for Asian food distributor Rhee Brothers in Howard County, but it took him four hours by bus to get there.  Now, he works much closer to his home and he has his own vehicle.  Grimes is proud to show his family he is a different man who makes and honest living.

“It feel good to go home dirty and wipe off dirt.  You know, positive dirt,” he says adding that he no longer has to look over his shoulder and can pay bills “in confidence.”

The Benefits

Details workers start at $11 an hour and are eligible for benefits after a 90-day probation period.  Carroll says he plans on hiring eight more workers for this project.  If it’s successful, they hope to hire up to double that number for similar projects city wide.

He also says the project provides a benefit for minority businesses as well.

“It’s not just that we’re hiring more people,” Carroll says, “but we’re creating work for more of the minority contractors inside the city who in turn are hiring more people.”

L&J Waste Recycling, one of the minority contractors, provides dumpsters and removes debris from the site.  The company is one of the few African-American owned companies in the waste recycling business.

Lenzie Johnson Jr., the chief operating officer, calls the project a benefit to the city, economically, environmentally and socially.

“The biggest thing that I take pride in,” he says, “is looking at guys who traditionally [are seeking] a second chance in life – who has a mark against them – but want to change.”