Like a “Raisin in the Sun” or a “Phoenix Rising from the ashes”, out of all the darkness in a place called Sandtown, there is light!! That light is in the form of residents and leaders from the greater West Baltimore community who are determined to demonstrate what engagement is all about.
This past week as part of my annual EastCoast trek, I needed to revisit the Fannie Lou Hamer community agriculture garden. Luckily several leaders were present and I was warmly greeted by Durreshahwar Smith who affectionately goes by “Durre.” I was at ground zero and witnessed first-hand how the group embraces basic self-awareness principles to reclaim a sacred portion of the Sandtown community.
Durre is Vice President of The Tubman House organization also known as “1619”, a fledging group of community activist dedicated to cobbling together resources to benefit the residents. It is of consequence the group formed around the time of the Freddie Gray take down and one of their primary plots of land (the other is on Mount and North Calhoun Streets) is directly across the street on the corner of Presbury and North Mount streets. The mural provides a powerful image that is worthy of reflection.
“Our leadership understood the importance of building relationships with the residents. This was critically important for those who operate on the other side of the law. An agreement was reached where our projects were labeled as safe havens or areas where the youth would feel free of danger.” Durre
A critical strategy of the organization is to leverage the expertise of adult leadership while focusing on creating opportunities for the youth of Sandtown to take a direct role to participate in a variety of projects.
Sandtown is a community in West Baltimore that full of blight and neglect. It is not the type of place you venture into with naivety, gullibility or lacking common sense. In other words, it is not a place for those considered “weak or feeble.” Typical to many communities in what is known as urban or inner city, you see failed public policy, drug infestation, crime, high unemployment, apathy among residents, lack of personal accountability and other negative attributes all which lead to very deplorable conditions.
As bad as the conditions may be, it’s the type of environment where it is easy to offer assumptions or make stereotypical comments with very little basis of facts. As an example, when Donald Trump boasts about the “Inner City” with a very condescending and ignorant voice suggesting it is a place where ONLY blacks live, places like Sandtown come to mind. No doubt places like Sandtown have generational effects where segregation and the lack of positive public policy have helped to perpetuate a sense of despair. To the point, I have friends who are black who would be a nervous wreck or scared for their lives if they were forced to venture down the many streets in places like Sandtown. That is because so many have been conditioned to be fearful of those considered poor or “less-than” That is not to say because you are black you should have some type of immunity to poverty or crime as that is where people like Trump get it wrong, as blacks live in all types of environments and many of them enjoy thriving lifestyles. However, to deal or understand the urban core and feel comfortable in engaging the people you simply need inner courage and humanity so that you can deal with them at a basic level.
When asked a question to a Baltimore Policeman who knows Sandtown well as to why there appears so many young people just hanging out or otherwise appearing to be loitering his response was, “you gotta understand Baltimore is a city where after 15 years of age youth are allowed to emancipate or otherwise drop out of school. So those without options are easy prey to the streets.”
April 12, 2015
Civil unrest or riots is not a new phenomenon. Oftentimes you will be able to document conditions which have festered for years and like lighting a match, it takes only a flame to allow all that pent-up frustration felt by local residents to explode in the form of outrage. During that April day in 2015 many who unleashed their emotion against a system they deemed to marginalize or keep them mired in the negative position didn’t personally know Freddie Gray. What they did know is his death was the spark plug that ignited the riots. That is a fact for most uprisings. The person or focal point of the issue may have some controversy, right or wrong but like the Freddie Gray incident, it is a metaphor and justification of a reaction.
You don’t want to go there!!
I first visited Sandtown in August 2015, just four months after the day of destiny on April 12,2015. I recall many insisting I should not go to Sandtown, let alone by myself!! As a matter of fact, I was in the Inner Harbor section of the city and needed to jump on the Marc subway so I could get to Sandtown. At the Shot Tower Marc station, I asked the transit worker, who happened to be an African-American female which stop I should exit to get to Sandtown? Her look was one of bewilderment, “oh! You really don’t want to go down there – it’s very dangerous.” All while shaking her head as to admonish me for asking what she felt was a question that could result in great peril for me. Being the hard-headed, if not determined person I claim to be I finally made it to the Penn North Station and once I came up to the street level, you could still smell the effects of the CVS store which was looted and destroyed during the riots.
I walked a good majority to Sandtown by foot, going street to street and it took most of the afternoon. The reason this was necessary was so I could get a feel of the community. I do not profess to be some bold, Shaft like character who is fearless but it’s a sense you develop. Either you are not afraid to venture into harsh urban areas or you are? I knew for me to be able to accurately offer a perspective of Sandtown, it was necessary to brave the elements and soak in as much information in the form of sounds, smells, or something as simple as hearing the chatter from people talking, etc.
“This work is not easy but it is something we felt needed to be done”. Durre
With a better idea of Sandtown I looked forward to visiting in 2016. Joining me was Judith and my aunt, Maryum. A figure across the street caught my eye. As dangerous as we were told venturing into Sandtown might be, I assured them everything would be alright. Again, Sandtown is the type of community where there are many people who congregate outside their homes or at various spots on the streets. Some, not knowing any better might define it as basic loitering. I approached the figure who caught my attention and he introduced himself as “Soldier.” He was tending the lot across the street from the Freddie Gray mural and proudly stated a group he was affiliated with was reclaiming parts of the community by starting basic farming projects on lots which were abandoned. Like the scene I witnessed during my first visit, adjacent the lot Soldier and I found ourselves were many row homes (typical housing stock in that region) which appeared to be in disrepair or ready for demolition. It was an incredible sight. Soldier confessed to me, but not apologetically that he had been incarcerated for a very long time and how he took pride in the agriculture project because it gave him a sense of purpose. I was impressed the group had the vision to name the plot of land after one of my heroines, Fannie Lou Hamer. Soldier agreed to pose for a picture with Judith and my aunt and proudly spoke about the determination the group had in being a positive force in what is good about Sandtown.
He spoke to me about “The Tubman House” and gracefully invited me inside. Once inside he directed me to the spot where there was a remarkable mural which one of the members had painted. It was an outstanding sight and tribute to Harriet Tubman.
The Freddie Gray connection
Urban blight is not new. Sandown’s are scattered all across the United States. You don’t have to be a social-scientist or social worker to see how generational behavior crisscross with public policy, or the lack thereof which leads to a stark and dangerous environment. Better stated, some define it as “life in the hood!”
Last Friday we were fortunate to gain access to a Baltimore City policeman who happens to be African-American. His name will remain anonymous as his remarks were unfiltered. He was very quick to state Sandtown is a very dangerous place. “There are pockets in the city, particularly in Sandtown where they hate the police.” Part of that sentiment could be because they are viewed as a disruptive force to the elements which thrive in a criminal environment where selling drugs and other substances is a lifestyle.
He went on to state it was then Councilman Nick Mosby who responded to pleas from Sandtown residents to crack down on all the illegal activity which held them hostage to those who benefited from the condition. Thus, more law enforcement was put in place with the goal of weeding out the negative forces.
His contention is the public did not have all of the facts regarding Gray’s capture and subsequent death.
“Freddie Gray was one of those who was known as a petty drug seller. One of the drugs he sold was heroin.” The officer offered the viewpoint that as Freddie Gray was being chased down North Mount he swallowed the product in his possession, rather than being caught “red-handed.” He further mentioned the officer’s capture and subsequent removal of Gray was done in a routine process. Additionally, he mentioned Gray was recently involved in an auto accident and was recovering from his injuries. Therefore, he offered the opinion that it was swallowing the heroin combined with a flair up of his injuries which caused him to mysterious die, not the behavior of the officers who took him into custody.
Gray is gone. Sandtown still has a dangerous feel and in some parts, you are at ground zero but people are people. In any community, you have the good and the bad. Sandtown did not get into the condition it is in overnight. As mentioned, it is generational and indicative of crime and unemployment. At the same time, you see streets being reclaimed as the standard row houses are rehabilitated or rebuilt designed to give hope to the residents.
The same is true for what is going on at the Tubman House. To see the youth taking pride in the project is encouraging. To see the tangible result of their work in the agriculture garden is inspiring. The notion the food they grow is donated to the local residents is not viewed as a hand-out but more of a gesture to motivate the community to embrace the project. The sight of having passerby’s stop by to see what is going on and to see watermelons that came from the garden which could easily be sold for a handsome profit as some of the more trendier markets is incredible.
Sandtown needs a lot of work. The Tubman House is just one group staying in their lane to provide uplift. As big as the area is, I am sure there are more groups with the goal of empowerment but they are just basic workers who quietly go about their business of doing their part.
In meeting Soldier, Durre and other adult workers as well as the youth there is no doubt they embrace the philosophy of Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Marcus Garvey and others to demonstrate to the community, bringing light out of the darkness starts with their passion, commitment, dedication and faith in each other.
More information on the Tubman House can be found here