Bridging the Opportunity Divide

How an East Baltimore School Has Become the Centerpiece for a Community Revival

March 24, 2014
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How an East Baltimore School Has Become the Centerpiece for a Community Revival
Henderson-Hopkins School
If you build it, they will come.

If you’re one of the many (obsessed) fans of the The Wire, the acclaimed HBO series that highlights the deep and disturbing struggles of an East Baltimore community — drugs, poverty, vacancy, violence, corruption and inequality — you’ll appreciate even more what’s being developed at the area’s newly redesigned Henderson-Hopkins School.

In the heart of one of the city’s most distressed neighborhoods — with a vacancy rate of 70 percent and poverty rate twice the city average — a coalition of local groups and government officials designed, developed, and built a new public school that doubles as a community center, library, auditorium and gym, all of which are accessible to area residents. This all-in-one idea acts as the centerpiece of a $1.8 billion plan to renew the blighted area, spur economic development, and give low-income families access to much-needed services.

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“Baltimore demolished many great old school buildings in the 1950s and ’60s and replaced them with incredibly depressing places,” Christopher Shea, president of East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit organization overseeing the plan, told the New York Times. “We wanted to go in the opposite direction. We wanted Henderson-Hopkins to be an inspiration and magnet for the neighborhood.”

The K-8 school, which opened last January and can accommodate up to 720 students, consists of several linked buildings, with each age group divided into separate “houses.” There are traditional classrooms, as well as common rooms, outdoor spaces and an early-childhood center for infants and toddlers. Operated by John Hopkins University in collaboration with Morgan State University and designed by Rob Rogers of Rogers Partners, the 130,000-square-foot space is open and bright, with windows that look out to the surrounding neighborhood.

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Right now, Henderson-Hopkins stands out amongst the dilapidated buildings that make up East Baltimore. And that’s exactly the point. As Michael Kimmelman points out in the New York Times, “Putting a cutting-edge school run by a great university in a historically troubled neighborhood flips the usual urban imbalance of power and changes the status quo of public education steeped in blight.” The question now, is how to revive the rest of the 88-acre area north of John Hopkins East Baltimore Medical Campus, which is slated for development. So far the plan includes retail stores, a park, at least one hotel, new science and technology buildings, and mixed-income housing — with one-third dedicated to low-income families.

Of course, the plan for Henderson-Hopkins and its surrounding area wasn’t without struggles. A total of 742 families were evicted in order to accommodate idea, most of whom were renters. About 40 families were relocated into newly renovated rowhouses, while 40 more moved in subsidized apartments. Still others moved out of the neighborhood, with a promise that they could return at any time. As a consolation, children of evicted residents were automatically given spots at the school, with all travel expenses paid. The developers hope the community center, gym, and library connected to school will quell protests. While that remains to be seen, one thing is for sure: East Baltimore will never be the same again. And that’s a good thing.

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