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Failure by Design: How “Urban Renewal” Fueled an Uprising, and How “Economic Ecosystems” May Prevent One

Lawrence Grandpre

Lawrence Grandpre

Director of Research
Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle

Part I: "The Big Bang"

As a lifelong resident of West Baltimore, community activist, and educator, I’ve found that the people who live in neighborhoods like Sandtown often have their lives, experiences, and even their bodies theorized upon without proper analysis of indigenous efforts, talents, and structures that are critical to putting events in context. From images of down-and-out dope fiends stuck on The Wire (a subject I have written on the past) to the litany of black and brown crime victims and perpetrators trotted out on the nightly news, the dominant narratives of inner city Baltimore and media frenzy to capture the spectacle of interpersonal violence fail not only to capture the complex humanity of the people who live here, but also drown out the inherent violence of the system.

When Freddie Gray, a lifelong resident of Baltimore’s Sandtown, was killed by police, the neighborhood become ground zero not only for the first major urban uprising of the 21st century, but also for academic theorizations around “what went wrong” in urban America. This former middle class West Baltimore neighborhood, once home to Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday, became a testament to urban abandonment (50% unemployment, 30% poverty rate). Sandtown was dissected and scrutinized as a case study for how to improve America’s inner cities. What many of these studies described was a people who are pathological, riddled with drug use, and violent and whose needs could only be addressed through some sort of beneficient, charitable investment from the city’s government and philanthropic institutions, sometimes framed as some sort of massive investment in the neighborhood. 

As someone who has worked with grassroots activists throughout the city and written extensively about the politics and history of Baltimore, I see the issue quite differently. There is not a lack of engagement and collective will in Sandtown. Despite its appearance on cable news, and media efforts to keep the so-called Baltimore Riots to a relatively small scale in comparison to other American urban flare ups, there is ample evidence of the community organizing peacekeeping actions after the uprising, forming civic organizations, and creating and renovating businesses.

Moreover, a critical analysis of Sandtown’s history reveals that the roots of the uprising can be seen in the factors that have served to undermine these forms of organic community development and leadership. These include disinvestment, but also the well-intentioned (but perhaps culturally-biased and disruptive) “investments” made in the community in the 1990s. Instead of viewing the people of Sandtown as victims of intra-communal violence, this piece seeks to the shift our gaze towards the actions of those with power, men and women who had vision of a better world and designs for Sandtown but who instead created the conditions that served as the roots of the uprising there. 

The extensive coverage of the events of April obscure the fact that this was not first “Big Bang” to hit Sandtown. The early 1990s saw the birth of the Nehemiah project, a collaboration between local/federal government, the Enterprise Foundation, and a coalition of faith based organizations and community activists called BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development).

“Nehemiah was a partnership of BUILD, and Enterprise Foundation and Kurt (Schmoke) and that was, obviously Nehemiah in terms of where it gets its biblical name from,” says Diane Bell McCoy, currently of Associated Black Charities and former leader of Baltimore’s “Empowerment Zone,” a federal program that funneled economic development money into cities during the Clinton Administration and was one of the many organizations coordinating on the Nehemiah project. “There was this desire when Kurt came into office of wanting to invest on the east side, but BUILD was a strong supporter of Kurt and had a strong interest in building out on the Westside,” commented McCoy on the $120 million housing redevelopment project named for the biblical leader who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.

With a staggering 41% of the population under the poverty line and an attractive location in proximity to Baltimore’s downtown, the area seemed prime for investment. Yet the tangible benefits can’t be the only framework through which the project’s genesis is understood, especially as the project name suggests that there was a distinctly spiritual framework that reflected a specific vision. Speaking at a BUILD convention in 1994, Grady Yeargin spoke of Nehemiah in term of rectifying community schisms:  

“One day it will be said that in the city of Baltimore in the last quarter of the 20th century, strange and unusual things began to happen. The upper crust began to meet with the middle crust and with those who have no crust at all. It was a peculiar people: a strange and unusual coalition that negotiated and fought and worked together.” 

BUILD clearly saw the work as more than just building house. It was about (re)building a community. While Johns Hopkins hospital and other white ethnic neighborhoods traditionally anchored the city’s Eastside, the city’s Westside had historically been neglected as Black Baltimoreans moved west in the face of restrictive housing covenants that restrained their access to the county and other Baltimore neighborhoods.

The theory of Nehemiah was to use a combination of federal, nonprofit, and private money to create attractive new housing developments that would create the economic activity needed to sweep abandoned Black masses back into the mainstream economy and generate the sort of tax revenue needed to fund the sorts of social programs that would foster further community uplift. 

With civic leaders and Black churches on board, all that was left to secure was a non profit housing developer. Enter Jim Rouse’s Enterprise Foundation, which brought not only his sterling reputation and extensive resources, but a particular ideological framework that shaped the context of Nehemiah’s implementation.

After successfully transforming Baltimore’s inner harbor and creating the urban design darling of Columbia, Rouse brought the full heft of his “visionary: reputation, and extensive networks of connections, into what many hoped would be a flagship success after failed rounds of ‘urban renewal’ of the 70s (including the massively disrupting failed transportation project known locally as the ‘highway to nowhere’)” (ibid). A Smithsonian article entitled James W. Rouse’s Legacy of “Better Living Through Design” outlines the ideological framework of his previous work:

“the only valid ultimate purpose of any civilization [is] to grow better people; more creative, more productive, more inspired, more loving people.”

This statement frames Rouse’s role in the world of urban design, with Columbia being cited as a showpiece “Shining City on the Hill” for what some called the “Garden City” Movement, where through comprehensive integration through planning and zoning, the isolating effects of suburban sprawl could be reversed through a new, more social, city. Howard Gillette in his book Civitas by Design places Rouse’s planned community of Columbia as the center of a moral vision of the urban renewal: 

Described, accurately enough, as a city built around a shopping mall, Rouse’s new town of Columbia, Maryland, evolved not just from his own shopping center experience, but extended a Garden City tradition that stressed placement of commercial activities at strategically located points as enhancements to sociability. It was more than that, too. Stemming from concerns, stated in the President’s Advisory Report and Washington’s workable plan, that minorities desperately required better housing opportunities and that markets should be expanded on a metropolitan-wide basis in order to relieve congested conditions in the worst areas of center cities, Rouse conceived Columbia as another element in what he continued to call urban renewal.” (Gillette, 2010) 

In these statement we find the ideological beginnings of what Rouse’s Enterprise Foundation would do with Nehemiah, and an analysis of design becomes necessary. In Rouse’s vision, people, like plants, grow best in fertile soil; through economic and political design, communities can be created that foster these types of “creative, loving” individuals.

The Smithsonian article describes Columbia as Rouse’s “city on the hill,” a space where racial and economic harmony triumphs through the intentional creation of an autonomous community that respected the land and avoided the sort of haphazard, fracturing development that characterized previous suburban “sprawl” style development. In the bucolic splendor of Howard county, Rouse had a prime location to create his garden, a blank canvas on which to produce his social design. With proximity to DC and Baltimore, Columbia integrated businesses and multiple levels of residential zoning and commercial space into a cohesive whole.

As the Smithsonian article concludes, despite being criticized for its conservative design choices and liability to increase crime and traffic issues, Columbia continued to rank among on the best places to live, and it was in this hope that Rouse’s Foundation sought to achieve similar successes in Sandtown. 

Town Center in Columbia, Maryland

When applied to Baltimore, his logic of urban connections took on a new context, centering on Rouse’s belief that only by connecting the inner city to the market could there be proper incentives for sustained investment in aggrieved communities. Animated by his experiences in philanthropy in Baltimore in the mid 20th century, Rouse argued that it was through the creation of conditions for enterprise that slums could be transformed. In her 1996 Washington Post article, Anna Borgman wrote that the “prophetic” Rouse was part of a larger movement that emphasized the practical value of inner cities, specifically citing their proximity to urban employment centers as a mechanism which could drive economic investment.   

What was the goal of Nehemiah, then? A little slice of Columbia in inner-city Baltimore? While advocates descended on Baltimore in the early 90s with the sort of evangelical fervor appropriate for a program (literally) tasked with building a “New Jerusalem,” there are a few fundamental questions raised through an analysis of the design philosophy of Rouse as shown in Columbia. What exactly are the implications of theorizing development as a “garden for growing people” when applied to inner city Baltimore?

If Columbia is the garden, and the people there are the flowers, isn’t it logical to assume that Sandtown would be seen in this analogy as the wilderness, with the people there thus becoming the thicket and underbrush to be cleared out for these new “better” people to be brought forward? After all, Nehemiah would not be produced in the blank canvas of Howard County, but in a city already full of people, workers, artists, hustlers, mothers, and fathers, all of whom created unique strategies to survive in their environment.

How would Rouse and company evaluate these sorts of creative designs to survive, as buds to be cultivated or weeds to be plucked out? It Nehemiah is the “Big Bang,” doesn’t that assume that there was there before, and wouldn’t that make the people who brought about this “Big Bang”, in point of fact, God-like in their actions? 

These questions are interesting to address in theory. However, given my previous experiences in Sandtown, I felt I would have to look deeper into the area’s dynamics to understand what they meant in practice. 

Part II: The Grievance and The Gift

(Left) Burned out home in Sandtown (Right) Rows of rebuilt houses steps away from the burned house
Community resident Athena Young carried on a street survey of Sandtown, with my assistance, in the summer of 1991...The diversity that we observed in our first assessment was amazing… We passed evidence of Muslim and black nationalist activity: a Muslim carryout on Carey Street, the Nation Builders (2) bookstore on North Avenue, and the home of a Rastafarian, with a Haile Selassie emblem and handwritten, apocalyptic messages posted in his windows. On ‘black business row’ on North Avenue across from the Nation Builders (2) bookstore, black street vendors who live in the area come out around lunchtime and stay until dusk. Arabbers (black vendors who sell fruit, vegetables, and fish from horse-drawn wagons in West Baltimore) gather on Winchester Street, at the stable of Sandtown's senior Arabber, whose street name is Fatback. There they collect their produce and merchandise to sell on the streets of Sandtown. Fatback's stable was later bulldozed to make way for the Nehemiah Project.
Harold McDougal
Black Baltimore: A New Theory of Community

Almost everyone who speaks about Nehemiah says that the people involved said almost all the “right things” at the start of the project. As the report commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation outlines, the Sandtown initiative started off with principals such as “community capacity building” and “organizing ourselves out of a job.”

This rhetorical commitment accompanied an assortment of institutions built in Sandtown, including The Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) to coordinate construction and provide technical support; The Vision for Health (VFH) consortium, community-based health care collaborative; The Compact Schools, a partnership among Sandtown’s three public elementary schools; the public school system; and a job readiness program called “Sandtown Works” located in New Song Community Church. Even then mayor Kurt Schmoke was on message, he made a public commitment to focus as much on “building human infrastructure” as on building “high –visibility physical development projects” (McDougal, 1993). 

To understand the limitations of the design of Nehemiah, it is important to precisely identify the problem with Schmoke’s statement. The assumption is that, under the pressure and the limitations of big developers and political interests, this commitment was stretched to the point of breaking.

To some extent it was, but a more salient critique reveals that the very definition of “human infrastructure” may be the problem. John Morris has worked in the community development field for over 30 years, and has dedicated much of his life to rethinking what he sees as a fundamental in the model of urban development reflected in Nehemiah. He argues that Nehemiah’s vision of “community capacity” and “human infrastructure” reflect a fundamental tension within community economic development”: 

“There are contradictions we don’t necessarily highlight… On the one hand we say ‘we value people’, but at the same time we say ‘people are needy’. And there this inherent tension between those two thoughts, so that if people are valuable and there is capacity we’re trying to develop, trying to elevate, trying to tap in some fashion, you can’t treat people as if so in needy that they aren’t able to be worth anything. You begin to make choices about how you structure the solution that reflect that tension.” 

A look at the map for Nehemiah reveals how this assumption of “neediness” impacted the design choices of the project’s architects. The map includes cores of housing redevelopments with a variety of aesthetic enhancements (gardens/playgrounds), social services administration (schooling investments, drug interdiction/treatment, and general social service provision), and a smattering of economic ventures (defined exclusively as “retail”). 

Map of Nehemiah Project - Lines drawn to areas marked for "Drug Nuisance Abatement"

Here it is once again useful to interject the concept of design and juxtapose the work being done in Baltimore to work being done in Columbia. While in Columbia, Rouse was able to build the town from the ground up, controlling all factors, in Baltimore the location and political structure behind health and schooling infrastructure in ways simply not possible in major American city. These intuitions were proverbially (and literally) “off the map” of Rouse’s belief that by isolating a small geographic area and concentrating resources there, he would have a level of control akin to what he was use to in suburban areas where he was building from scratch.

The lived experience of the community besides the institutions directly affected by Nehemiah became “Unknown Unknowns”, and folks were impacted by the project in ways which made it impossible for the venture to have a lasting impact. The goals of community unification and empowerment that BUILD centered on became re-framed by the very structure of the program, and in 1992 BUILD would eventually end its role as the chief community liaison organization to the Nehemiah project to focus on other community organizing ventures. The nature of community engagement would change markedly after this, leading one executive from a foundation Enterprise who solicited funding for Nehemiah to note the power dynamics inherent in this shift:

They're [Enterprise] developing relationships with banks, not with people. They're not about empowerment, or if they are, they don't know how to go about it. They should be creating capacity in communities. Instead, they're developing capacity in themselves, and the communities that they go into have to keep asking them to come back to do the work. My impression of Enterprise in Sandtown is that they're being very heavy-handed. The community people that they trot out look like window dressing. It seems as if Schmoke's people are hardly involved at all. Enterprise is running the whole show.
Harold McDougal
Black Baltimore: A New Theory of Community

Whereas in their work in Columbia, Enterprise built, literally from nothing, an ideal community, in Baltimore their design, despite ambitious attempts to include community, led them to take more control over the project in order to fulfill their ambitious, “prophetic”, vision. 

That this so called “comprehensive” vision would limit its economic infrastructure solely in order  to line the pockets of retail development, yet have an intensive focus on social services, reflects a view of people as being in need of forms of charity, rather than being empowered to control their own destinies. Looking at this map, you wouldn’t know that there were Black book stores, community meetings places, or a “FatBack’s” stable anywhere in this neighborhood, and you would assume that these new developments are being created in a neighborhood without any of the pre-existing institutions McDougal and Murray discover in their analysis.

It, in fact, looks similar in conceptual schema to the Columbia map, but the blank spaces on the Baltimore map were not empty; they were already filled with people, businesses, and institutions. This seemingly benign act of representation becomes an act of erasure that creates the blank canvas necessary for Rouse’s vision to come to life. This representational violence mirrors the discursive violence that leveled Sandtown through representations of the project.

The same article that hails Rouse as a potential philanthropic prophet describes Sandtown as “the worst of America”, Rouse as having the plan to “Save the Slums”, and described Nehemiah as “an all out attack on Sandtown’s brokenness”. While ostensibly talking about conditions of Sandtown that must be “attacked”, there is a slippage here that proves Morris’s argument; the design of the projects shows that people of Sandtown are being framed exclusively by their conditions, to the point where the residents themselves begin to look like “the worst of America” and in need of social services to be “saved”. Rather than community leaders who could turn investment into the creation of autonomous capacity, people began to be seen as so “needy” that they can only serve as appendages to the larger economic framework (i.e. retail employees).  As Bell-McCoy put it: 

“Jim wanted to invest in everything, in terms of the schools system, the health system, all that’s not possible on the ground in a small geographical area. All those things are much more controlled by the system and systemic challenges, including systemic racism built into all that, and if you’re not going to dig into that you don’t get to [neither] the resources necessary nor the sustainability.” 



Rather this seeing this systemic racism as merely embedded in the Sandtown community, a weed this well-meaning project just couldn’t quite dig up, this implicates the vision itself as reflecting the larger constellation of racialized assumption simply taking a new form. The demolition of “Fatback’s” stable is emblematic of this, as the logic of creating a “new community” devalues and potentially necessitates the destruction of the existing communal infrastructure. 

With the departure of BUILD, the project would lose the biblical name given to it by the Black pastors, and became referred to more often by the Enterprise’s chosen “Neighborhood Transformation Initiative”. Yet, ironically, it was the exit of these religious organizations that allowed the almost religious vision of Rouse and company to create “new people” through integration into the market to become the guiding force behind the project. It is difficult to understand the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative in strictly objective terms. As Yale professor Doug Rae pointed out just a few years into the venture, the plan’s New York-based economic vision didn’t make logical sense for a city like Baltimore and was ripe to backfire from the start:

“You can’t build your way out of a housing surplus…That is often like pouring gasoline on a fire, because it competes with the remaining units and causes them to go blank”.

This skepticism has been backed up by subsequent research that shows the statistically significant, lasting impacts and failures of the project in terms of poverty abatement (Rosenblatt and Deluca, 2015). As this process had so many flaws in its material framework, understanding the ideological framework behind Rouse and company’s vision is essential. Howard University Professor Harold McDougal, whose book Black Baltimore used an in-depth study of the Nehemiah/Neighborhood Transformation Initiative as a central example of historical power dynamics that undermine Black communal empowerment, describes Enterprise Foundation’s “community engagement process”:

“Their only nod toward citizen participation is a series of what they would call charrets. You have these meetings where you consult with the community what’s the design of things. That’s a much more robust and vigorous process in middle class or upper middle class museum where you’re talking about designing about a museum or something like that, but here we’re talking about housing projects. They say ‘we want to talk to you about what we’re going to do with all this money that we have’. 
These folks with a lot formal power, kind of come like Zeus among the mortals.” (McDougal, 2016)

McDougal goes on to say that this is not “hellfire and brimstone” on Enterprise. They just did what they were accustomed to, actions that were not “culturally appropriate” for this community since the world of “charrettes” and people who channel Zeus were fundamentally different from the BUILD’s model of community unification and the channeling of the Black religious tradition. 

The superficial results of this “community participatory design process” can be seen in the Upton Market. It is heavily influenced by the stereotypical “Afrocentric” color schemes, and it sticks out like a sore thumb among the abandoned building and conservative, 1950s style architecture in the rest of Sandtown-Winchester. While the façade reflects a simulacrum of what Enterprise charrett interpreted community desires to be, the larger power relations, the civic infrastructure of the market, were not engaged as deeply.

Most of the stands in the market are not owned by community members, and right next door a large chain dollar stores (complete with police substation) extracts profits from the community in exchange for cheap products and low wage jobs while simultaneously extending the footprint of over policing deeper into the community. Yet, because the building looks like it reflects the community, and people from the community could be a “part” of this economic ecosystem (cashiers, janitor, etc.), this was largely seen as a “win” through the lens of the Enterprise model. As McDougal explains: 

“I talked to the lead fixer for the Nehemiah project… He was candid, he said: 
‘Look, I work for foundation and these are people with a lot of money they are used to investing it in a certain way. And what they are looking for is what we call deliverables.’ 

In other words, they want something physical so they can say ‘we brought this building’. 

They can’t say ‘we brought a better relationship between John and his wife’. 

They can’t say ‘we brought a better experience in school’ unless they can trace him in every grade and his grades were higher. 

That was too soft of them. They were looking for clear, physical evidence i.e. ‘put up a building’. (McDougal, 2016)

Left- Upton Market- Designed in “African” Style. Right-Dollar Store, complete with police substation, Upton

Where was the community in all this? The Annie E. Casey foundation report commissioned in 2001 gives some idea how they interpreted the process. While some might wonder why anyone would see people trying to “help them” as bad, the community described in the report is one that clearly understood the conventions inherent in the process and grated against  the racist assumptions of brokenness and inferiority:

“First, residents often feel that outsiders discount their competencies, especially their leadership skills. ‘Leadership happens by being connected to the residents,” one resident explained. “You get a bond with the resident, you are out in the community, you talk with the people and you take questions, and they see your commitment and then they put you there [in a position of leadership]. They look up to you. But when you get to the table with these outside folks, you are nobody.’
…Reported another, ‘I tell the young people, `They are finished with us [men of his generation]. . . . They’re building those prisons for y’all.’ ” (Casey, 2001)

While the larger historical factors that descended upon Sandtown were either santaized or “off the map” for Enterprise, these elements of Neighborhood Transformation were directly impacted in the community.  In the midst of the 90s “War on Drugs” (federally incentivized mandatory minimums sentences, grant money for increased drugs arrests), to suggest that NT promoted “drug nuisance abatement” clearly had a greater implication on the residents of the community than the architects of the project could imagine.

What could have been seen by Rouse and company as an open invitation to participation, in light of systemic violence applied to Black communities, became a tacit ultimatum; “participate in our processor or else”. As one person interviewed in the Casey report put it: “You have to learn to function in society or they will house you”, referring not only to newly built housing in the neighborhood, but a perhaps more salient and likely outcome for many in the community: being “housed” in the penitentiary. Here, the street knowledge of residents was backed by data, and just as ironically, while NT was designed to increase value within the neighborhood, it is during this time that Sandtown and adjacent areas becomes a so called “million dollar block” referring to the massive amounts of public money used to incarcerate individuals from this zip code. 

Residents also understood that the nature of racism went beyond the skin color of the people they were interacting with and identified the underpinning ideological frameworks and structural power relationships that were made manifest through the project. As another resident put it: “They have the money, they set the standards, and they design the project”.

While this statement was specific to the design of the NT project, it could well have been applied to the larger society’s vision of Sandtown, with a structure of power descending upon the community beyond what the folks at Enterprise could control, or apparently even envision/map. Yet, their ignorance tacitly strengthened the ideological apparatuses of policing and economic exploitation that they had initially sought to undermine. 

Again, design can serve as a heuristic for the larger power relationships in play. It is wrong to see Nehemiah/NT as a failure; in many ways it did what it was designed to do, specifically as the design of the project shifted when BUILD stepped away and Enterprise Foundation and Rouse took control. The problem existed in the very design of the programs that were formed. Bell-McCoy goes on to note:

 “They did realize their dream of becoming a homeowner. But they didn’t buy into being a homeowner in the midst of all the devastation which was allowed to happen to Sandtown-Winchester over time”.

After Schmoke chose not to run for re-election in 1999, Mayor Martin O’Malley switched his development focus to the East Side around Hopkins Hospital. After being sold visions of massive communal change, he was met with what Bell-McCoy called “benign neglect”. Dr. Rea’s hypothesis was proven in practice, as the pockets of improved housing now stand next to large swaths of abandoned housing stock around it. This juxtaposition of pockets of relative stability and structural devastation have become more and more visible over time. 

Even the program’s “success” belies its fundamental failures. As Diane Bell McCoy notes, there has been a measurable increase in workforce retention rates for those who went through the program.

Yet McDougal and McCoy agree that this success was due largely to the grassroots work commitment of community members in many ways despite, not because of, the top down/building focused structure of NTI. This serves then as a testament to the existence of the communal capacity the project nominally sought to build but more often, in fact, undermined. NTI did build some communal capacity,but only in small pockets. What the architects seemed to not understand was that this was a zero-sum gain, with these pockets of capacity coming at the cost of the larger cohesion throughout the community. As McDougal explains, most of the folks engaged by the project “were more respectable” the types of  the folks who “swept their stoops”, folks who had the subsequent middle-class cultural skills to fit Rouse’s design for a “new, better city”.

Rather than investing in the existing infrastructure, the Fat Backs, the Muslim carryouts, creating the sort of intra-communal unity some on BUILD was seeking to foster, NT sought to integrate Sandtown into the larger, macroeconomy, hoping to cultivate a housing market that would naturally bring jobs: the invisible hand giving these communities the helping hand as opposed to the metaphorical “brush aside” of market isolation. What this philosophy failed to understand was that this integration itself was a violent force, creating the sort of communal disruption that would prevent existing grassroots institutions from flourishing. Indeed, it created a sort of “astroturf” politics where communities were made to go through an institutional gatekeeper and “leadership” selected by institutions external to the community. When they left, even this was torn away, leaving nothing but the concrete reality of intensified poverty in its wake. 

While for a select few their American Dream might have come true, the resulting hollowing out of indigenous institutions created a nightmare for the larger community, a community  John Morris argues was unintentionally designed to explode:

“You get the training and the job doesn’t materialize or doesn’t yield the outcomes I need. I question the value of the training. I question the effort to move forward. I question whether I am in charge of it. 

As result of these questions I get all sorts of resentment and at some point more and more people begin to withdraw from the solution. What you get are more and more people operating outside the center of things at the margins, further resentful of the life they’ve been dealt, waiting for a spark to send them off. When you get an incident like the death of Freddie Gray you then get the result that you have.” 

Rouse’s design framework presupposed that he could address the grievances of the people in Sandtown by creating an elegant social design that could incentivize changes in “broken” people through the power the market. By bringing this design to fruition, Rouse and company disrupted the natural “ecosystem” of Sandtown in order to funnel resources into his enclave “gardens” of “new” people, people changed through the beneficent intervention of Rouse and other “Zuse” figure of the Neighborhood Transformation, those who had conjured an engine for growing roses from the concrete.

But in the work to grow these exceptional individuals, the “everyday people”, the grassroots people all through Sandtown-Winchester, were either seen as “weeds” to be starved in the name of preserving his flowers, or not seen at all since Sandtown’s concrete jungle was such an infertile landscape, nothing beautiful could already be growing there. In the crabgrass created by starving the grassroots, the fuel for a wildfire was born. As one resident put it: 

“We recognize our powerlessness in the eyes of the world. But we also recognize our strength. . . . In the end, the real agenda is not how much stuff gets bought. It’s how much dignity we will be treated with.”

Faced with conditions devoid of this dignity, and given a clear target for who they felt took it away, the death of Freddie Gray was the spark for a fire decades in the making, with many of those left behind in this transformation striking out at claiming a piece of “dignity” their environment denied them.

Part III: From Broken Dreams to Dream Weavers

The events of April were seen by some as an apocalyptic event, challenging the notions of social control that were embedded not only in the forms of policing tactics prevalent in places like Sandtown, but ironically in the messianic logic of “Big Bang” developments like the Nehemiah project. In response to the events in April 2017, Maryland governor Larry Hogan announced a plan of demolition and investment in Baltimore City. Yet if Nehemiah has taught us anything, it’s that these forms of investment risk breeding the forms of economic stratification they aim to solve, thereby creating the sort of resentment that may ironically sow the seeds of another uprising. How do we end this cycle of failure?

If an expanded notion of design can be a lens to understand the failure of economic development models, design can also offer a solution to the repetitive cycle of investment, extraction, and explosion. The vision of economic development presented by John Morris presupposes the structural inequities that folks like Rouse sought to simply ignore, and understands the adaptive strategies people have used to respond to these conditions not as a pathology to be cleaned in the name of a “better” world, but as assets to be cultivated and invested in so the indigenous economic activities of community, not external “Big Bang” projects, become its economic foundations. 

While Schmoke’s statement about “human capital” presupposed rendering human resources ready to engage in the larger economy, the model Morris has created, one he dubbed “The Promissorium”, views the people in these neighborhoods as already invested in potential and capital. The goal of economic development ventures thus shifts away from the “Big Bang” model, a moment of spontaneous generation from the cosmic void. The universe of the Morris’s ghetto is already populated with stars, and potential super stars, and thus the goal of economic development is to allow these stars to come together and form new connections and constellations. As Morris puts it: 

“If in fact I say people have capacity, and I begin to customize my solutions to their capacity, as oppose to customizing solutions to their neediness, then their things you do that have an impact on the outcomes. So if I think people have capacity, I’m investing in their institutions, in those structures, in those approaches, and those practices that advance the productive things that I acknowledge people do, so that those productive activities produce a higher yield that ultimately goes back to benefit then and expand the possibilities for their lives. 

I’m just simply expanding the world so they can see what they can do and achieve, and I just await the surprise.” 

From folks who do hair to those who watch the children of their friends and relatives to those have specific skills like computer repair, graphic design, and social media, an area typically seen as “poor” and destitute in reality have a bevy of indigenous entrepreneurial activities.

Morris uses the example of the Oldtown neighborhood where his organization, Change 4 Real, is seeking to establish their Promissorium model as a proof of concept. In Oldtown, despite high rates of poverty, there exists an annual aggregate economic activity of $141 million. For Morris, what you have in neighborhoods like Oldtown and Sandtown are a misallocation of resources, facilitated by the inability of people to successfully locate the people around them who can get them what they need and engage them. This, in addition to businesses like dollar stores that extract money from communities, prevents these communities from becoming economically self-sufficient and keeps them as appendages of the larger economy. This inspires perhaps Morris’s more intense criticism: the fetishization of “job access” as the center of economic development. 

“A job is perhaps the least significant arrangement of work. Morris says, with an analytical precision tinged with evangelical fervor. 
“A job is an opportunity for work in which the opportunity for work is determined by the lowest available cost of labor to replace that person. It’s not a framework by which people can rise to embody their potential.

A job is what you do that you hate. A job is what you show up for to be counted.” 

It’s these type of arguments that defy simplistic categorization, clearly affirming the possibility of the market but reflecting the sort of critique of labor exploitation more characteristic of Marxism. This makes Morris’s argument hard for some to wrap their mind around, but his advocacy of grassroots microenterprise incubation offers the opportunity to produce the kinds of autonomous economic opportunity that gives folks the self-determination that could provide a more genuinely fulfilling economic relationship. 

The Promissorium has three parts that are designed to produce the sort of economic ecosystem that facilitates what those in the Community Economic Development industry calls “turns”, or revolutions of money, inside of a particular community. The first is to create a software platform that entrepreneurs can use to promote themselves to the community. Morris uses the example of a baseball players whose value increases as free agent through effective self-marketing.

In a world where Morris himself concedes we don’t quite have a language to talk about these issues, I offer that this can be seen a bit like a Dreamcatcher, where folks who have dreams of turning their so called “side hustle” can be aggregated into a central pool where people can access them and their work can find a receptive audience. Instead of disincentivizing this sort of “grey market” activity by claiming it as untaxed economic activity, the Prossium seeks to use the incentives of technical support and expanded market reach to bring folks into a “web” of intra-communal economic connections. With research showing up to 1 in 6 businesses starting as “informal” , the opportunity for genuine human capital investment is substantial.

Second, the Promissorium attempts to connect individuals who do similar or complementary forms of work into co-operative ventures. This 2nd “Dreamweaver” phase addresses the main criticism of microenterprise efforts in the past, namely that they recapitulate individualistic, competitive notions of business development that lead to a few winners and limited communal benefit.

Finally, the Promissorium proposes new organizations like credit unions in order to create formal entities that can become new economic anchors in communities. This final stage, what I’ve dubbed the “Dreambuilder” phase, proposes to use reallocated funds to the community to establish new co-operative economic ventures that have the potential to become community anchors. Morris concludes: 

“The local stakeholders are planning a locally-owned, locally based financial institution to provide people unused to dealing with a growing sum of money the assistance to maintain their own resources.  Imagine a “Bailey Brothers Building and Loan” for each and every local stakeholder, providing every stakeholder who is a member of Change4Real with an account, financial assistance in overseeing the account, and with the leverage of collective assets owned by Change4Real, expanded credit to finance income generating activities or life-changing activities.”

Mock-up of the Promissorium

One can imagine how this would look as an alternative to the Enterprise model. Rather than destroying FatBack’s stable in the hope of attracting a dollar store, what if there were cadres of locally owned, horse drawn carriages bringing produce into food deserts? What if the land cleared off for the demolition of abandoned homes were repurposed to grow the fresh, local produce for these “Arabers”? What if schools, instead of teaching business skills in the abstract, brought in the folks from the community to do after-school programing and gave youth internships partnered with locally owned businesses?

In raising these question, the Prossorium situates itself in line with the long history of Black cooperative economic ventures, as Blacks’ relative isolation of from the larger economy has for a generation been seen as an opportunity to unify and organically fulfill needs of the community. In this, the Prommissorium model is similar in some ways to the model advocated by “La Maestra” project in San Diego, which analyzed the informal economy of the City Heights and found upwards of 30% of economic activity happened in these unseen “Gray Markets”.

Their study goes on to argue that by lowering entry barriers to formal economic activity and injecting capital into them through microlending, these informal economic activities could grow into the types of small business that have been found to increase local hiring even in time of economic downturns, pay higher wages, and create an economic multiplier effect through the continual circulation of local money. While micro-loans and micro-enterprise incubation has been seen more often in the context of foreign nations with stronger intra-communal organizations structures, the Promissorium argues that history of cooperative economic activity in the Black community in America makes this solution most “Culturally appropriate” for these communities. 

These sorts of possibilities, expanding the mom and pop shops I still see in Sandtown into entities that can perhaps hire the folks, is why I was protesting on the streets within April 2015–not to mollify them, but to empower them; to build them as cooperative businesspeople, folks who can help build their communities rather than feeling the hopelessness that comes from feeling your community is not your own, a feeling that so often leads to lashing out as a last grasp at humanity. Perhaps in redesigning the flows of money in the community, the Promissorium can change the dynamics of the community. By flipping the notions of the economic development framework, it proposes to turn the “weeds” of Rouse’s model into the seeds of a new community and to escape the cycles of violence that threaten to render Baltimore barren.

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