Baltimore’s Poppleton Neighborhood Confronts New York Developers

Local television news crews descended on West Baltimore’s historic Black Poppleton neighborhood on the afternoon of July 12, after bulldozers knocked down several vacants whose construction dates back to the 1840s. After the cameras were gone, Parcha McFadden embraced her 8-year-old daughter on the steps of her home where she has lived for the past four decades. She fears her home could be the next to go. The McFaddens are among the last longtime residents the city wants to clear out to make way for luxury developments, but the community is fighting to preserve their home. 

Residents and organizers of Organize Poppleton who gathered to speak to the local media said the demolition was retaliation for their organizing efforts, which have aimed to pressure the city to allow them to stay in their homes. They noted that it took place just hours before the community was set to argue that those very buildings must be preserved. Less than two days earlier, 100 people had rallied at the adjacent Sarah Ann Park to listen to live music and to learn about the fight against the two-decade-old deal the city made with La Cité Development, a well-connected New York developer that was supposed to revitalize the economically depressed area that’s close to downtown amenities. 

“It seems like it’s not fair for the homeowners who have invested so much, whose homes have so much history and meaning for their families,” Mcfadden said. 

A petition supporting Poppleton residents’ efforts to stay in their homes had just 619 signatures on July 9th but had surpassed 2,200 four days later.

During Saturday’s rally, many said the displacement of longtime Black residents sends a clear message about who has a right to the city; a two-bedroom apartment at La Cité Center/West Apartments starts at $1925.

“The people from this neighborhood can’t afford that rent,” said Sonia Eaddy.

Eaddy is a third-generation Poppleton resident whose family has lived in the same house since the 1940s. She decried the years-long destruction of her community as the bulldozers razed the surrounding city blocks—the majority of that cleared land remains vacant.

Having received $58 million in tax breaks from the city, the developer is required to make 20% of 2,800 overall housing units affordable to low-income residents, but it’s unclear if any of those units have been made available. 

Eaddy said community plans for their neighborhood, which they dubbed “The Poppleton Plan” and submitted to the city in 2016, have been ignored. Ten residents worked with the city planner to create an alternative vision for the neighborhood that preserved its architectural character and prioritized the needs of the community. The plan included an expanded public park, a job training center for local residents, space for locally-owned small businesses, a grocery store, an early childhood learning center, the preservation of historic homes, and the creation of townhomes that would be affordable for local residents. 

“There’s unity, we look out for one another, we make sure everybody is alright. It’s been a good community for us. There’s not a lot of drama, it’s a good safe environment,” McFadden said

In a video posted to YouTube on July 15, Baltimore Heritage Board Chair Krista Green made an unusual appeal to save the remaining historic houses in Poppleton. “Should we build new houses in Poppleton? Absolutely. But we must find a way to do it that doesn’t evict the longtime residents and destroys their irreplaceable homes,” she said. 

McFadden has lived in her home on West Saratoga Street for nearly four decades but has been told to leave by Sept. 24. Along with other residents, McFadden lost her legal battle against the city’s use of eminent domain. She worries the money she is supposed to receive for relocation expenses won’t allow her to stay in the area; she wants to remain close by so her daughter can stay at the neighborhood school she fought hard to get into. 

“I have no choice,” McFadden said.

On the evening of July 12, Mayor Brandon Scott finally acknowledged the Poppleton residents’ demands, tweeting that he “directed the Acting Housing Commissioner to engage area residents and the developer in dialogue around these concerns.” Scott added that his “administration is committed to reaching an equitable solution that prioritizes community voices, and will present recommendations promptly.”

Eaddy told Battleground Baltimore that residents don’t want a dialogue with the developer, they need the mayor to intervene. The city has previously told residents it can’t change the development plan on their behalf, yet plans have been changed to accommodate the neighboring University of Maryland and the Transform Poe development projects. “But there’s not been an addendum for the residents of Poppleton whose properties have been affected,” said Eaddy.

“When you’re in the neighborhood, it’s so quiet and peaceful. And who wants to leave that? I don’t,” said Carolyn Shoemaker, who sat outside of the home from which she faces eviction. A 28-year resident of the neighborhood, two decades ago she was part of a successful effort to oust drug dealers in the neighborhood. 

Nearby, children played on the swings of a playground Shoemaker helped to get built. 

“It’s a hurting thing, when you know you gotta get up and move,” she said.

Judge Prevents Hogan’s Ploy To End Federal Unemployment

On July 13, a judge blocked Republican Governor Larry Hogan’s effort to prematurely end federal unemployment benefits for tens of thousands of Marylanders. Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson “is bound by Maryland law … to maximize the use of any available federal unemployment benefits,” the court ruled.  

The ruling is the final setback for the state of Maryland’s quest to block money going into the hands of those who can’t find work and are relying on unemployment to make ends meet. 

The governor’s office said it won’t appeal the decision: “While we firmly believe the law is on our side, actual adjudication of the case would extend beyond the end of the federal programs, foregoing the possibility of pursuing the matter further.”

At a press conference following the ruling, Kevin Baxter, a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits against the state, praised the court’s decision. 

“I’m glad that we did win because now a lot of unemployed Marylanders do not have to worry about how they’re going to pay their rent, how they can pay their gas and electric, how they’re going to pay all their bills,” Baxter said. 

 Evidence is growing that additional unemployment payments aren’t contributing to the so-called “worker shortage” 26 Republican governors around the country have used to justify ending the benefits early. Morgan Stanley economists found little evidence that ending unemployment benefits has resulted in workers returning to the labor market. 

“There’s not a labor shortage,” said Baxter, who has been unemployed since he was laid off from the city-owned Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel in March 2020. Baxter has interviewed for multiple jobs but has not received any offers. 

Though the federal government is footing the bill for the extra $300-per-week checks and other benefits, the court rejected the state’s argument that it bears the burden of administering the program. 

“The court noted the personal magnitude of the harm associated with losing benefits for plaintiffs and other individuals currently receiving them is far greater than the purely physical impact on the state of being required to continue to administer these benefits,” said Sally Dworak-Fisher, Attorney with Public Justice Center. 

Robbie Leonard, who also served as an attorney on the case, told Bloomberg Law, “We learned just yesterday that the governor is using all of this taxpayer money to defend a lawsuit where the difference is a matter of just a couple of weeks. I hope that [Secretary] Robinson properly instructs the staff on what’s going on with the legal proceedings so that nobody falls through the cracks and people continue receiving their benefits.”

Alex Dame, a worker who was laid off from the Hilton last March and has been searching for but unable to find work, also challenged the “worker shortage” narrative. She has relied on the enhanced benefits to make ends meet. 

“It’s my lifeline to keeping a roof over my head, it’s a lifeline to putting food on the table, paying my bills,” she said. “I know a lot of workers need this money, even if it’s just a few more weeks, it’s vital. It’s a matter of people being evicted or not.”

Door-Knocking To Free Keith Davis Jr.

Kelly Davis, the wife of Keith Davis Jr., has been insisting that her husband was innocent since he was first shot by Baltimore City police in 2015 after they claimed he had attempted to rob a “hack” cab driver (a charge he was later found not guilty of). Months after the shooting, and once it had become a local activist cause, Davis Jr. was charged with the murder of a security guard—what followed was a winding and confusing series of trials. Next year, he will face his fifth murder trial for the same homicide charge.

All the while, Kelly Davis has been organizing supporters around the case, showing up to confront Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby at public events, and speaking out about what she calls a miscarriage of justice. Davis also regularly uses social media to challenge Mosby and other local politicians about how much their actions match their words when it comes to police accountability. This weekend, she began a different kind of organizing: door knocking. 

“I have used social media as much as I could,” she said Sunday as she and her daughters walked past huge homes in the wealthy and white Roland Park neighborhood. She said that it used to be that elected officials cared about what was said about them on social media, and were responsive to requests—but that has changed. 

“Somehow along the way some divide happened and now, they could care less. They are kind of egregiously, willfully ignorant,” Davis said. “Some of them are rude. I just didn’t feel like the effectiveness was there.”

The state has its own apparatus for promotion. Mosby and other public officials have communications teams ready to tell their side of the story (Mosby utilized the SAO’s website to lie about giving a Keith Davis, Jr. supporter the middle finger, for example). However private citizens don’t have the same support available to them. Davis said she often finds that people have never heard about her husband’s case.

“These politicians are … able to exploit the gap of information and the gap of, basically, education—and that can be said even down to jurors, jury education,” Davis said.

The pamphlets Davis and volunteers handed out explained Davis Jr.’s complicated case.

“Baltimore State’s Attorney Maryland Mosby is lying to you,” the door hanger reads in bright yellow print. “Marilyn Mosby knows that Keith Davis Jr. is not a convicted murderer but insisted on publicly calling him one on May 24, 2021 on 92Q.”  

This weekend’s actions were designed to combat that. Teams made up of about five or six people spread out in two neighborhoods. On Saturday they were in Reservoir Hill, and Sunday they were in Roland Park. Volunteers were given care packages with water bottles and bananas along with big stacks of door hangers to pass out.

Davis hopes to expand this weekend’s efforts all across the city. She said that she wants more people with the desire to change things in the city to better follow a similar path.

​​”I’m hoping that other people when they have issues with these politicians, or they have issues with the city, that they get out and they organize and they let the community know that this is what’s happening. So when you go to the polls, you are as informed as possible,” Davis said.

Protesters Push Hopkins on Vaccine Patents 

Johns Hopkins University, which has helped lead the fight against COVID-19, is facing protests for awarding an honorary degree to German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week. Hopkins said it recognized Merkel for “her sixteen years of principled global leadership and her legacy of promoting international cooperation and stability amid unprecedented challenges.” 

But Hopkins students, professors, alumni, and community members wrote an open letter urging the university to reconsider. Merkel, after all, blocked a proposal from the Biden administration to loosen restrictions on coronavirus patents at the World Trade Organization in May, an effort aimed at boosting global vaccine production public health officials say is necessary to contain COVID-19.  

Both Merkel and the German-based biotech firm Pfizer—which reported over $3.5 billion in revenue from its COVID-19 vaccine in the first quarter of 2021—have come under fire for helping wealthy countries hoard vaccines, while many countries in the Global South are facing dire shortages of shots and the raw materials needed to manufacture and distribute them. The head of the World Health Organization has called this disparity “vaccine apartheid.” COVID-19’s unchecked spread in the Global South is giving rise to variants that have helped the coronavirus make a resurgence, including in Germany and the U.S.

“Angela Merkel’s opposition is preventing us from getting the comprehensive waiver that we need,” the letter says. 

During her acceptance speech on July 15, Merkel acknowledged the over four million people who have died of COVID-19, including the over 8,000 who died across the world on July 14. 

“I understand why so many only long for an end to all this horror,” Merkel said, before praising Hopkins for its leading work tracking and detailing the spread of COVID-19. She also paid homage to the late Johns Hopkins, who founded the University in Baltimore in 1876 as a place where all could receive healthcare, regardless of their race or ability to pay. 

No speaker mentioned that lagging vaccine production means poor nations won’t have access to the COVID-19 vaccine until 2024. But protestors in attendance chanted “free the vaccine,” as Merkel arrived at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

“[Merkel] is shielding powerful pharma companies in Germany, prolonging the pandemic, and causing the deaths of millions,” the open letter reads. “This is nothing less than an endorsement of vaccine apartheid and Merkel’s murderous pro pharma policies.”

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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.