In Baltimore, a curious kind of apartheid city, the haves and have-nots are often neighbors. And sometimes, those neighbors air their grievances on each other's doorsteps and bring a drumline along to ensure they're heard.
Consider the frequently ignored Poe Homes community, just a short walk from the University of Maryland BioPark, whose developer, Wexford Science and Technology, was recently given $17.5 million in tax increment financing (TIF) by the City Council.
The walk from the Poppleton housing project to the BioPark is so short that on Tuesday afternoon, a group of Poe Homes residents, along with local activists and, eventually, a robust drumline, gathered down the street and marched to the front door of one of the BioPark's buildings, in protest of developers getting more money while Poe Homes is continually divested.
Before the march, around 3 p.m., residents and activists convened at the Poe Homes Community Center where, among others, Joshua Harris, a community activist and Green Party candidate for mayor spoke.
"We sit here just one block away from massive amounts of wealth. Last spring, our city experienced unrest that was heard around the world," Harris said. "And I believe that unrest was caused by juxtapositions between massive amounts of wealth and massive amounts of poverty."
Around 3:30 p.m., the group of about 40 left the Poe Homes Community Center and marched to the BioPark building at 801 W. Baltimore Street with signs that read "We demand fair & inclusive development," "We don't have millions but our voices matter," and "Enough with corporate welfare, it ends now." Leo Burroughs, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Citizens, led the group up and down a small section of West Baltimore Street near the building's entrance. There were chants invoking Jim Crow and frustrated shouts about the millions of dollars out of the neighborhood's reach.
Activists say the BioPark, Wexford, and the City Council excluded representatives of Poe Homes, who had requested a "community benefits agreement" that would have solidified investment in Poe Homes. And according to a Change.org petition tied to the protest, the UMD BioPark has not followed through on "promises to create jobs and help to address issues of poverty."
Harris, who lives near Hollins Market, has been working on the TIF issue for the last year or so. He has had meeting with residents, the City Council, and those connected to the BioPark, arguing that the commmunity needed to be involved. He told City Paper: "Why after months of meeting with Poe community members and making verbal commitments were the requests not included?"
The approval of this TIF, and rejection of the involvement of Poe Homes community leaders in the decisions surrounding it, is further evidence of how one-sided the relationship between the BioPark and its nearest neighbors remains, he says.
"Wexford Science and Technology, the developer for the BioPark, is owned by Blackstone, who generated $7.5 billion in revenue in 2014 and has $31.5 billion in total assets. They did not need our tax dollars to complete the project," Harris says. "The project also did not meet the City's 'But For' policy, which says that if a project can be financed without the city then a TIF will not be granted. So again, our schools do not have heat and our roads need repair, so why is our council so swift to give our tax dollars to billionaires?"
This is the kind of toxic neoliberal logic that dominates Baltimore policy, by the way: Generous tax breaks to, say, Hollywood so it shoots its television shows here (often using Baltimore as a stand-in for D.C.) and most absurdly, far too kind tax breaks for downtown developers, which last year resulted in a loss of school aid for the city (the Sun's Luke Broadwater has been all over this topic for awhile now). On Monday, there was the City Council's brisk, preliminary approval of tax breaks for artists performing at Royal Farms Arena (one of the most profitable arena of its size in the United States)—though yesterday this vote was delayed after a flurry of outrage.
Around 4:10 p.m., Tuesday's protest got livelier. A few members of the Baltimore Christian Warriors Marching Band, led by a young girl holding a sign that read "The Bio Park was built on the backs of Poe Homes," marched toward the BioPark. This mini drumline's appearance perked up the protest—one activist excitedly danced and even put his hands up Ozzy-style and headbanged to the performance—and got the attention of passersby, police observing the protest, and even an HBO documentary crew who briefly swung through the protest and swiped some shots for their seemingly imminent Baltimore post-Uprising protest film.
Diane Smith, who was part of the protest and was petitioning for more jobs in the area, admired the drumline and bemoaned the lack of options for children in the area.
"The young kids have nothing to do, they have no recs to go to, they have no jobs," she said. "They have all this free time, so they sell drugs or kill one another."
Paula Colgate, a Pikesville resident who brings her kids back into the city "twice a week to march," praised the Baltimore Christian Warriors Marching Band as an example of the kind of investment the city needs to make.
"They need some funds down here—new uniforms. Fix some of the playgrounds for the little kids." she said. "[A lack of investment is why] these kids get into that street life."
Harris could not attend the actual protest—he had to briefly bounce back to his day job and then head over to Mount Vernon to for a 6 p.m. mayoral forum at MedChi, The Maryland State Medical Society.
Amid a dreadfully boring and boilerplate forum Tuesday, Harris mentioned the protest and highlighted his work along with the Poe Homes community in challenging this TIF—just one example of the uneven "distribution of capital" plaguing Baltimore, he explained.
"$17.5 million gifted to wealthy developers," Harris scoffed, though he kept a mayoral smile on his face the whole time.