Black-Led Community Garden in Cherry Hill Faces Eviction, Poppleton Challenges Developers

The remote, deeply segregated Black neighborhood neighborhood of Cherry Hill does not even have a grocery store, but the Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden has been remedying that problem, providing fresh food to a community that has little access to it—and now they’re facing eviction. 

Last month, The Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) issued a notice to vacate the land where Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden exists. People at the Black Yield Institute, who have been running the farm since 2017, have been organizing in opposition to the eviction. Over 30,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the eviction, and Black Yield Institute is holding a rally on July 3, 2021 to call attention to the issue.

A spokesperson for the HABC said that the Black Yield Institute never had permission to use the land. 

“We cannot overlook the fact that the Black Yield Institute is occupying the land without permission. Our hope is they will be able to relocate and continue their farming elsewhere. Importantly, in keeping with our mission, HABC’s longer-term plans call for building badly needed affordable housing on the property.”

The Cherry Hill CDC at one time had a now-expired agreement to use the land in question. A July 8 meeting has been scheduled where the HABC, the Cherry Hill CDC, and the Black Yield Institute will meet to discuss the issue. 

Eric Jackson, Servant Director of Black Yield Institute, said it’s unclear why the HABC wants to eviction them now. He said it will only hurt fresh food access in Cherry Hill.

“Until there is affordable housing, the land will be unoccupied,” Jackson said. “I don’t see a reason why the people can’t use it for good use. We’re not over here doing vandalism. We’re providing jobs, we’re providing opportunities for young people to learn agriculture, we’re providing opportunities for people to laugh and have joy on this space.”

Jaisal Noor, Cameron Granadino and Brandon Soderberg produced this report for Battleground Baltimore this week.

Cherry Hill was born from one of the ugliest episodes of white rage in Baltimore’s history, resulting in the relocation of a proposed public housing project for African Americans after World War II to the city’s southern tip—a move that civil rights groups protested because of environmental hazards. Today, Cherry Hill has shocking levels of poverty and inequality. People living there have a life expectancy some 20 years shorter than their wealthier counterparts in other parts of the city.

In a recent video, Black Yield noted they played a key role in neighborhood food distribution when the pandemic deepened existing food insecurity issues, and said they expect to produce 4,000 pounds of produce this season. Representatives say they have produced and distributed 110,000 tons over the past decade, a significant contribution to a neighborhood with few options for healthy food.

Black Yield is looking for city leaders to step in and stop the eviction. “We haven’t been able to connect directly with Mayor Scott, but we do have reason to believe the mayor’s office is in support of [Black Yield],” Jackson said.

On July 1, a Safe Streets outreach worker named Kenyell Wilson was killed in Cherry Hill. Safe Streets seeks to interrupt violence before it turns deadly. The murder happened just days after the neighborhood celebrated one year without a fatal shooting, highlighting just how precarious life can be in one of Baltimore’s disinvested neighborhoods—and one that could soon lose its community farm.

Black Yield Institute and others in Cherry Hill are not the only ones currently fighting against the capricious and discriminatory policies in Baltimore.

Residents and allies of Southwest Baltimore’s Poppleton neighborhood are also fighting displacement; in this case it’s due to a luxury development they say will force longtime Black residents from their homes. For decades, Baltimore has sought to stimulate the economy, create jobs, and build housing by offering subsidies to wealthy developers, but many residents argue those policies have done far more harm than good.

“In Poppleton, the City of Baltimore is exploiting eminent domain laws and failing to protect Black families. We demand that the City of Baltimore stop enabling La Cité Development’s displacement of longtime residents in the name of a wasteful redevelopment project,” reads a petition started by the group Organize Poppelton.

The historic Black community, which dates back to the 1860s, is fighting to keep their homes, and for their own vision of development.

“We ask the City and the developer Dan Bythewood of La Cité/Center West to meet with the community and housing activists to provide transparency and accountability. The community is long overdue for transparency on a redevelopment project that has frozen the neighborhood’s revitalization for over fifteen years and led to disinvestment and decline,” said UMBC Professor of American Studies, Nicole King in a press release. “The development is heavily subsidized by public funds—including a $58.3 million in tax increment financing (TIF) in 2015. The developer and the City must be accountable to the public.”

Poppleton residents and allies are holding a rally to Save our Block on Saturday, July 10 from 6-8 p.m. at the Sarah Ann Street Park (1100 Sarah Ann St.).

A fight over green spaces is also happening in the East Baltimore neighborhood of Waverly. An op-ed by Battleground Baltimore’s Jaisal Noor, co-authored with numerous local residents of Waverly and Ednor Gardens, was published in The Baltimore Sun this week, calling for greater transparency from the Weinberg Y of Waverly after it fenced off the community’s primary green space on June 27, for a year, with no virtually no notice to residents. The Y controls the land, and is adding a daycare center and pavilion to their 33rd Street campus. But residents wonder if it’s truly necessary to fence off the entire green space for a full year, and question the lack of notice, which could have provided time to find an alternative solution. 

Now known as Stadium Place, the development occupies old Memorial Stadium, where crowds watched Orioles, Colts and Ravens. As the piece notes, the pandemic highlighted disparities in access to green space between Baltimore’s “white L”, and those communities in the “Black Butterfly”, a term coined by Dr. Lawrence Brown to illustrate the city’s deep geographic disparities. 

Twenty years ago, after the stadium was torn down, the community won a rare victory by defeating a bid to turn the area into a satellite campus of Johns Hopkins, the world renowned institution that has earned the distrust of many Black residents. Instead, the community secured badly needed affordable housing for seniors, currently being developed by Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation (GEDCO), a soon-to-be-completed hospice, along with youth facilities provided by the YMCA. But the project did not include a Community Benefits Agreement, so today the community has little leverage to hold the developers to their word if they ever renege on their pledge to include publicly-accessible green space at the site. 

“After the pandemic upended daily life, the Stadium Place green space transformed into an essential resource for the community — a safe space to reconnect with neighbors. Historically, low-income communities of color, like those in East Baltimore, have been denied access to quality green space,” the op-ed reads in part. “Residents say it’s vital to their well-being, and multiple studies have confirmed that green spaces in urban environments can improve physical and mental health, reduce stress, increase life expectancy and provide relief from extreme heat spurred by climate change.

Residents of Harlem Park Put On Unconstitutional Lockdown In 2017, Receive Settlement

In November of 2017, when Baltimore Police Detective Sean Suiter was killed in the neighborhood of Harlem Park, the West Baltimore community was soon swarming with police and was swiftly locked down. Baltimore City Police claimed it was because of an all-hands-on-deck search for Suiter’s shooter, who they said wore a black and white jacket. 

For reasons that were never quite clear, representatives for the department said they believed that suspect remained in the neighborhood days after the shooting. 

Meanwhile, many people believed that Suiter, who was set to testify against the corrupt cops in Baltimore’s notorious police gang the Gun Trace Task Force, was likely killed by police rather than a resident and the lockdown was a purposeful distraction. The unconstitutional lockdown of Harlem Park lasted days as police officers searched residences and businesses, demanded that people show identification to enter and exit, and instituted what could be seen as martial law. 

Now, Baltimore City has settled with four Harlem Park residents who, with help from the ACLU, sued because their constitutional rights were violated. The settlement totaled $96,000 dollars. For more information about the settlement, check out Baltimore Brew’s coverage.

But the effects of this lockdown were community-wide and not relegated to four people. Battleground Baltimore’s Brandon Soderberg spoke to a Harlem Park resident, who we’ve chosen not to name and who was not part of the settlement, about what it was like living in the neighborhood in the aftermath of Suiter’s death and the lockdown of the community.

“When they locked down Harlem Park after Suiter’s death it was actually horrible. You couldn’t even go in and out your house without showing ID,” he told Battleground Baltimore. “They want to search your car every day and they want to know who you are and why you’re down here. They just was harassing people for no reason, you know, kicking in people doors.”

Many residents didn’t leave their homes or cancelled plans during the lockdown.

“Everybody was on, like, a standstill. People weren’t going out their house. People were staying home. We would stay home. If I wanted to go out to go to my mother house or pick my daughters up I would send for her in a cab,” he said

He said that it was clear to everybody in the community that Suiter was killed by police because he knew something about police corruption or was involved in it himself.

“’The police department had something to do with it, those officers that he was supposed to testify against had something to do with it.’ That’s what everybody in my neighborhood was saying.”

And Suiter’s shooting, he explained, had an even more chilling effect on residents calling attention to police misconduct and trusting the police in general.

“They can’t be trusted, none of them, you know,” he asked. “If they do something like that to their own, you can imagine what they’ll do to us. So, who’s gonna testify against someone like that? Like who’s actually gonna put their family in harm’s way to testify against police? No one.”

He said that the mobilized response to Suiter’s death illustrates what Black Baltimoreans, who endure the majority of the city’s gun violence, have been saying for decades: The police care about their own but not the residents.

“If it comes to them and theirs, they’re gonna protect their own with all their force. But when it comes to someone who has a family or friend or whatever that’s not part of the force? ‘Oh, we can forget about him, whatever happens to him happens,’” he said. “It’s like animal-eat-animal. ‘You kill each other, we don’t care. We’ll just go down there and we’ll tape the area off and tell your family where the body’s at, in the morgue.’ It’s no care from their perspective. There should be more care—they should be more considerate of that. A person just died.”

Settlement For Korryn Gaines’ Family Still Delayed

Five years after 23-year-old Korryn Gaines was killed by Baltimore County Police after a standoff at her Randallstown apartment, her family still has not been paid the $38 million awarded to them by a jury in 2018, a decision that was overturned by a judge in 2019 and then reinstated by a Maryand appeals court the following year.

Gaines’ son Kodi, who was five at the time, was also injured in the shooting.

Her family, civil rights leader Al Sharpton, and other supporters gathered on Wednesday in Patriot Plaza near Baltimore County’s Circuit Courthouse to bring attention to the case, discuss what the loss of Gaines’ life meant to them, and highlight the fact that Gaines’ family still has not been paid the money they are owed.

“Baltimore County has put my healing process on hold,” Gaines’ mother, Rhanda Dormeus, told the crowd. “It has not allowed me to move forward in my life emotionally, psychologically, which affects my physical [health].”

The case is now back in the hands of Associate Judge Mickey Norman, the same judge who overturned the jury’s decision, a detail which highlights how impossible it is for Black Americans to seek something resembling justice in the legal system. WBAL-TV reported that Norman declined to recuse himself from the case, nor did he set a date for another hearing relating to the money owed to Gaines’ family. That means that, for now, the case remains in limbo.

“A jury that sat for three weeks and listened to harrowing testimonies, these people did not come to this decision on a whim, they heard the testimony, officers stating…we don’t know why this happened,” Dormeus said. “Mickey Norman inserted himself into a jury’s decision, overturned the decision of six people who listened, and now he gets to decide whether he can recuse himself? How does that work?” 

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski released a statement that seemed to put distance between his own administration and the incident, while also offering a laundry list of reforms ostensibly aimed at ensuring an incident like this doesn’t happen again. 

“This administration created the county’s first comprehensive body worn camera release policy and is finishing the job to bring body worn cameras to all police officers. This administration identified and released concerning data to the public to strengthen transparency, and created an Equitable Policing Workgroup to examine that data and lead a community-driven effort to improve accountability. After the murder of George Floyd, this administration was the first jurisdiction in Maryland to advance police reform legislation, passing a ban on chokeholds among other meaningful reforms. And this administration built on all our work by supporting (Maryland House Speaker Adrienne) Jones’ landmark legislation in Annapolis, now hailed as a national model.” 

It’s important to note, however, that even though decades of attempts at police reform, killings of Black people have not stopped or even slowed. 

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger declined to charge any officers in Gaines’ death. Baltimore County police say that the officer who shot Gaines, Cpl. Royce Ruby, is no longer with the department. 

Governor Hogan Sued For Ending Unemployment

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

On July 3, 2021 a judge issued a last-minute, temporary restraining order blocking Republican Governor Larry Hogan from ending $300-a-week federal unemployment for hundreds of thousands of people at midnight, two months before they are set to expire. Plaintiffs and attorneys are holding a press conference at 12:30PM over Zoom. 

“This is welcome news for the thousands of hospitality workers in Maryland who are still laid off due to the pandemic,” said Roxie Herbekian, President of UNITE HERE Local 7, whose members were part of one of two lawsuits challenging Hogan’s order. “The Convention and Visitor industry has not fully recovered. This will give people a little more time to be recalled or find other jobs.”

“If my benefits are cut off, I don’t know what I’ll do,” said plaintiff Shad Baban in a press release. “I am the breadwinner for my wife and nine-month-old, and I won’t be able to cover my family’s expenses. We’ll almost certainly lose our home, and I’ll lose my car, which I would need to work. I thought these benefits would see me through the next couple of months until I can get on my feet. I can’t eat or sleep with the anxiety this is causing.”

While working people suffered through a public health and economic crisis, the rich saw their wealth skyrocket. Hogan and two dozen other Republican Governors claim ending unemployment will help the economy recover from a so-called “labor shortage”. But many, including the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute, have argued there’s very little evidence that enhanced unemployment benefits have contributed to reported staffing shortages. 

Businesses like worker co-ops, that offer living wage jobs with decent benefits and working conditions, aren’t facing those same challenges.

Cutting off unemployment benefits early will have a far reaching, and disproportionate effect, six Marylanders argued in a June 30 lawsuit filed by Public Justice Center and Gallagher Evelius & Jones LLP. 

“Of the more than 300,000 state residents who receive unemployment benefits, 84.7% will be left with no unemployment assistance at all. In addition, 46,522 Maryland recipients of regular unemployment benefits will have their weekly benefits cut by $300 per week. This will further exacerbate existing inequities laid bare by the pandemic:  the latest data shows that nearly 59% of Maryland unemployment insurance recipients are Black, Latinx, or other people of color. In total, the early termination of unemployment benefits will cost the state of Maryland approximately $1.9 billion that would otherwise sustain people while they look for work, help businesses reopen, and create jobs.”

Now, 860,000 households, or more than 1 in 3 Marylanders were already struggling to make ends meet, before the pandemic, and 1 in 5 Maryland residents are now behind on rent, according to a recent United Way survey. The state’s eviction ban expires in August. 

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.

Former Managing Editor and Baltimore Editor

Lisa Snowden has been working in news for over 15 years. She specializes in reporting on race, policing, and Baltimore City. She is also the editor of Baltimore Beat, a nonprofit news outlet in Baltimore City.