Gilmor Homes under construction in 1942. The public housing project consumed several blocks of West Baltimore. It's set to be partially demolished next year. Getty Images

Baltimore plans to partially demolish Gilmor Homes, the public housing complex that was once the focus of protests.

On a day that is mockingly cold and overcast, a wrecking crew is tearing down a block of rowhouses in West Baltimore—part of a massive citywide effort to demolish vacant properties. As the machines rip and churn, Sharon Parhan stands in her doorway, watching.

Parhan lives on the northern edge of Gilmor Homes, a 532-unit public housing development that sprawls over several blocks in Sandtown-Winchester, one of the city’s most chronically poor neighborhoods. Gilmor also faces a wrecking ball in its future: Several buildings in the complex have recently been targeted for demolition. If the city gets its way, six of the taller four-story structures will bite the dust. The remaining three-story townhouses and the apartments above them will remain intact, for now. Under the proposal, 123 families will be relocated.

Parhan’s gaze shifts to the east, where dozens of men huddle in a sheltered doorway. Drug runners yell out names—“John Wick!” John Wick!”—announcing the availability of free “testers” of heroin. “You see what’s going on out there,” says Parhan, 63, an Army vet who lives on a small disability check. Her arm traces a 360-degree circle. “They need to tear all this down too.”

Among the current residents and neighbors of Gilmor, feelings tend to be similarly unsentimental. But this is also a place of great local significance: The complex served as the set for the first act of a story that has defined Baltimore’s recent history.

One block west of Parham’s unit sits Bruce Court, where two more buildings have been tapped for removal. It was here on the morning of April 12, 2015, when city police caught up with a 25-year-old Gilmor resident named Freddie Gray, who had fled their approach a few blocks away. Bruce Court residents watched as Gray was wrestled into a police van; he died of the injuries he sustained in that van a week later, on April 19, touching off a wave of protests and unrest. In the days and weeks that followed, Gilmor Homes found itself at the center of a national debate over police brutality and urban poverty.

Today, three years later, Bruce Court residents have other problems to deal with. Monay Stewart uses her oven for heat, months after reporting broken units in her apartment. The former UPS worker keeps her 16-year-old daughter, Keyasia, close at hand, and closely monitors her two-month-old infant, Kamari, as he sleeps in a back room. “The baby’s room faces the back, where there’s drug dealing all night and day,” Stewart, 42, says. “They hide drugs in his windowsill. If they get arguing and shooting out there, who knows what will happen?”

Shootings happen regularly, Stewart says. She and Keyasia are familiar with the drill: Get flat on the floor. “There’s no community here—not really,” she says. “A lot of your neighbors are on drugs. They promote nothing but negativity. It’s not like people are looking out for your kids. There’s no supermarket near here. That’s not a good neighborhood.”

In the next building down, David Carlton works on the abstract painting and hammered-metal jewelry he sells at art markets around town. Like Stewart’s family, he rarely ventures out. “I have no friends in this neighborhood,” says the 68-year-old retired maintenance man. “I do that purposely. You can’t let the outside come to the inside, into your apartment. You’ll be victimized.”

Public safety was one of the reasons Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City targeted the project’s four-story buildings: Partial demolition would increase sightlines for police and ostensibly help rid the area of its drug redoubts. But it’s also one facet of a larger citywide effort to transform, redevelop, or simply eliminate its public housing, much of which dates back to the mid-20th century, and a different era’s social housing vision. Last month, the city announced an emerging plan that could result in the demolition of 1,300 public housing units on the city’s east side.

The current waiting list for receiving public housing in Baltimore is about 25,000, according to the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. A plan last year to move people from the poorest neighborhoods in the city to the suburbs stopped taking applications because it was flooded with them. Nevertheless, city officials say they will find places for everyone. “There will be a plan for relocating residents during demolition,” says Tania Baker, HABC spokesperson. “Residents of the [to-be-demolished] six walk-up buildings at Gilmor Homes will not be displaced.”

Much of the city’s most notorious public housing consisted of high-rise towers demolished two decades ago. A few of the remaining older projects are up for private development schemes. Even after wholesale redevelopment aimed at improving or eliminating public housing, Baltimore contains the fifth-highest public housing density in the nation, far outstripping its rank as 26th in population among U.S. cities overall. While many high-cost cities consider ramping up efforts to build more public housing, Baltimore continues going in the opposite direction.

A graffiti memorial to Freddie Gray marks a wall across from Gilmor Homes. (Tanvi Misra/CityLab)

Gilmor Homes, which took in its first tenant in 1942, embodies a problematic housing legacy. In the Jim Crow era, this city pioneered some of the most restrictive and explicitly racist residential regulations in the nation. The new complex was named after Harry W. Gilmor, a former Confederate cavalry officer and city police commissioner, and its construction filled a large portion of a housing map made by the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), an agency formed by President Franklin Roosevelt to refinance failing mortgages during the Great Depression. The HOLC deemed some areas too “undesirable” for anyone but the poor—and usually, black—to live in. Sandtown-Winchester and some surrounding neighborhoods were included in a 1937 map made by an HOLC inspector who gave the region a “housing security” grade of “D,” and overlaid it in red—hence the term “redlining.”

Among the reasons for a “downward” forecast of livability there were “obsolescence” and “Negro concentration.” The home ownership rate in the area then was 15 to 20 percent. Many of the neighborhood’s brick rowhouses, then about 50 years old, were eliminated in a federal plan to improve housing stock; for decades afterward, federal housing policy made it nearly impossible for blacks to get mortgages in Baltimore—an issue that persists today.

Alethea Booze’s family was one of the few that managed to buy homes in Sandtown during the Depression. Now living around the corner from Sharon Parhan—and directly across the street from the house where she grew up—Booze remembers the opening of Gilmor Homes in September 1942.

“The soldiers were at war and the wives moved in,” says Booze, 74. Every one of them was black. “There was no welfare. People hung their clothes out to dry and kept things clean.”

As a child, Booze would play there with Gilmor kids—at a basketball court on Bruce Court, a little gym area on Spray Court (also to be demolished), and a playground. When the soldiers returned, families would move out, presumably to better places.

“Nowadays, if you walk through there, they’ll arrest you or give you a citation,” Booze says. “I used to know everybody in there. I only know a very few now.”

For her, the neighborhood seemed to turn in the 1980s, when city rules regarding Section 8 housing changed, and more low-income residents arrived: “People could live there and pay no rent. Then, the drugs came.”

In the 1990s, Sandtown-Winchester became the focus of an ambitious $130 million revitalization program masterminded by developer/philanthropist James Rouse—an effort now deemed largely ineffective. After Freddie Gray, the neighborhood and its ills earned a fresh wave of attention from researchers struggling to understand the roots of West Baltimore’s anger. Not long after his death, the city paid an $8 million settlement to women residents of Gilmor Homes who were told by city maintenance men they would receive repairs on their apartments if they performed sex acts.

Despite the chronic problems at the complex, some experts wonder if breaking it up could make things even worse. “We talk about communities in these areas in almost a saccharine way, but they do often run on these tight-knit social and economic webs,” says Nathan Connolly, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins, and a researcher and author on Jim Crow’s effects on housing policies. “If you break up these informal networks that congregate around housing projects, then you run the risk of breaking the bonds that underpin these communities, as we’ve seen in neighborhoods in Chicago and elsewhere. It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw crime increase around West Baltimore because the social fabric has been frayed.”

There’s abundant evidence in favor of that theory in local history. About 1,000 West Baltimore families faced wholesale relocation in the late 1960s to make room for a highway that was never completed, destabilizing the neighborhoods around it.

The city has pledged to work with Gilmor residents to get them into other projects or federally subsidized Section 8 rentals, including those outside the city. Connolly doesn’t think relocation is an answer. Enthusiasts of housing mobility programs that move low-income people to “better” neighborhoods tend to ignore the downsides, he says: In some cases, the poor tend to land in distant suburbs that lack the resources to handle them, where they may be more isolated from jobs and family. Then, they are forgotten. “Urban renewal has always promised improvement in the lives of poor black folks. But the fact is, once you move these people out, they’re out of sight,” he says.

In Sandtown-Winchester, some worry about an entirely different threat: gentrification. The idea might sound ludicrous to Baltimoreans generally—the neighborhood has a vacancy rate near 50 percent. Still, flyers touting tax breaks and availability in the neighborhood have been popping up on some bulletin boards; on the eastern edge of Gilmor Homes, private residences are being gussied up.

“On the periphery, you’ll see improved transportation systems and ads touting how close we are to downtown and the arts districts,” says Tolu Sosanya, who serves as youth organizing director at No Boundaries Coalition, a West Baltimore group that advocates for more opportunities for people there. She lives in a rowhouse that faces the north end of Bruce Court, and often invites Gilmor kids into her home to help them learn to read. “Property values are very low here—that’s good for developers.”

But in a city with a long list of people waiting for housing, tearing down all of Gilmor would be irresponsible, she says. Like Connolly, she worries about a dispersal of crime. “We need to do more for these young men on the corner, who have no idea about how to build a future. We need to invest in them, get them education and job training.”

The city still needs to receive approval from HUD and the city’s housing board before going ahead with demolition next year. On May 22, HABC will present the demolition plan at Gilmor before its board.

Given the neighborhood’s history and Baltimore’s longstanding inability to fix it, Gilmor residents like Sharon Parhan are hardly optimistic about what happens after that. Daily fear keeps expectations low, too. “It’s all this snitches-get-stitches business,
she says. “A lot of people are scared even to look at each other.”

Her voice rises, both in tone and volume: “To tear down these high-rises and just leave everyone else sitting here—that don’t sit right with me.”

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