For a sense of the neighborhood in which Freddie Gray grew up, and which has been set partly ablaze over the last several days — the plot of West Baltimore known as Sandtown-Winchester — one need only read the relevant portion of the Baltimore City Health Department’s 2011 Neighborhood Health Profiles.
According to the department (which included in its analysis the adjacent neighborhood of Harlem Park), the 10,000-person neighborhood, which is almost entirely black (97 percent), had a median household income of $22,277 as of 2011– 40 percent below Baltimore City’s average. One in five residents age 16 or older were out of jobs, compared with one in ten in Baltimore City. Almost one in three families were below the poverty line, half of eighth-graders were not “proficient” readers, and a quarter of ten- to 17-year-olds could expect to end up in handcuffs.
By nearly any criteria, Sandtown-Winchester is among the worst neighborhoods in Baltimore. But it is not for a lack of trying to turn it around.
Throughout the early 1990s, Sandtown was Ground Zero of one of the largest, most closely watched urban-reinvestment projects in the country. Having done much to help revamp Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, mayor Kurt Schmoke, elected in 1987, turned his attention to Sandtown. The neighborhood was the preoccupation of one of his campaign’s key organizational supporters, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a West Baltimore–based community-action group under the umbrella of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. Schmoke raised almost $30 million in federal and state grants and private funds to construct 210 new housing units and overhaul 17 others. For a nonprofit partner, Schmoke hit on the Enterprise Foundation (now Enterprise Community Partners), founded by real-estate magnate and Marylander James Rouse, who created Baltimore’s Harborplace and had turned his attention to low-income housing needs.
With the help of significant subsidies, those 200-plus houses, which each cost $83,000 to build, were sold at $37,000 apiece. Three hundred more units were planned for a federally funded “Homeownership Zone” nearby. In 1997, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded the city $5.2 million for that purpose.
#related#It was little surprise that HUD smiled (repeatedly) on Mayor Schmoke. He had close ties to department officials — too close, it now seems. In 1998, the inspector general of HUD announced that he was launching an investigation to determine how Baltimore had wasted $24.6 million in federal housing aid. The investigation, eventually shut down by HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo, never implicated Schmoke personally, but the embattled mayor declined to run for a fourth term.
But all of that was far in the future when, in 1992, former president Jimmy Carter visited, spending a day pounding nails alongside other homebuilders. During his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton also visited, bringing national attention to the “urban laboratory” of Sandtown.
Yet by June 1997, when he entertained some 400 Sandtown residents in what he thought would be an adoring meeting at Gilmor Elementary School, Schmoke was chagrined to discover that Sandtown residents were not happy. They saw little progress.
Frustrated by an increasingly hostile business climate, employers left. And, exhausted by rising crime, so did residents.
And the residents were largely correct. By 1998, Schmoke had channeled approximately $60 million into revitalizing Sandtown, but almost all of it was devoted to housing construction and rehabilitation. And, as Barry Yeoman wrote in a 1998 article for City Limits, “Left Behind in Sandtown,” there was a problem with that strategy: “Nobody . . . was looking at demographic trends to see if they could fill 600 additional units of housing.” The city and its partners somehow failed to take into account that Baltimore’s population was not growing, but shrinking — and, in fact, had been shrinking, sometimes rapidly, since 1950. Between 1970 and 1980, a staggering 13 percent of the city’s population moved away. Frustrated by an increasingly hostile business climate, employers left. And, exhausted by rising crime, so did residents. By 1999, 10 percent of the city’s population was drug-addicted, and there had been almost a murder a day through much of the 1990s. In the 2000s, the trend continued.
In 2001, aid from the state and federal government accounted for a full 40 percent of Baltimore’s budget. The Abell Foundation, which targets problems in low-income communities in Baltimore City, estimates that $130 million (private and public) was pumped into Sandtown-Winchester through 2000, before the city’s money and attention were focused elsewhere under new mayor Martin O’Malley.
In his impromptu remarks on Tuesday about Baltimore’s riots, President Obama called for increased investment in urban America. House minority whip Steny Hoyer echoed his recommendation later in the day: “We’re going to have to as a country invest, if we’re going to have the kinds of communities we want.”
Insanity, it is said, is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Taxpayers have invested heavily in Baltimore, and in Sandtown-Winchester, for decades, and it has availed them little. Perhaps it is time to try something different.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.