Helena Hicks talks about institutional neglect in Freddie Gray's neighborhood

City Paper

I grew up at 306 Presstman St., just across Pennsylvania Avenue, near Gilmor Homes in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where Freddie Gray was arrested a week before he died April 19 from injuries apparently sustained while in a police transport van, sparking ongoing protests. I’ve seen that area all my life.

The story of Sandtown-Winchester is about the most un-American story I have ever heard of in all my years. Even as a college professor, I don’t remember picking up a book that had anything about this country as bad as this. The Deep South with segregation wasn’t any worse that what we’ve done in Sandtown. That’s a pretty heavy indictment, but at my age and with my experience, I’ll stand behind it.

Sandtown-Winchester has just been left to its own devices all these years, and the devices unfortunately have been destructive ones. It was war housing in the ’40s for the families of military men. So you started out with a deficit: You didn’t have a lot of fathers there. Even then it started going in the wrong direction. You had the gangs starting, you had the murders, you had a drug cartel. There’s never been any justice for people who have committed murders there. As for the Western District police station, it was well known you buy those cops off for $5. It’s had a history of violence, and violence over drugs, since the 1940s.

In the years since, virtually no resources have ever been put into the neighborhood, and it became a drug neighborhood. My sister, Lillian Jones, fought to have something different for the kids in those projects, and the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center there is named for her. But she died, and the center just fell apart.

The city has consistently done nothing to help this area. There is no active drug-rehabilitation program. You have nothing in terms of education, nothing to build self-pride or desire to rise above the situation there. You don’t have any job training programs. People don’t finish school, they don’t make any money, they have nothing to do with their time. Torn-down houses. No food stores. Vacant houses. Open drug markets, 24 hours a day.

So where do you start? You don’t blame the victim. You plan services. When I ran services for public housing, we worked to set up integrated systems to connect all the resources to help families and communities. We set up child day care in Sandtown. It ran well for a while, and then we lost funding and got kicked out. Nothing has worked because the city won’t invest permanently in that neighborhood. It once had responsible citizens, and it still does, but you don’t have enough of them and they have no direction and no City Hall support.

There was the Empowerment Zone in the 1990s, and then it dissipated. The developers got a hold of that. It was all about how they could use the neighborhood and the money that was coming in on federal grants to supposedly help that area. The federal grant money dried up; it never did a whole lot of good anyway.

The police have been a part of the problem and not the solution in that area since I was a child. Former Mayor Martin O’Malley didn’t help. He started the “zero tolerance” policy, so half of the people who were hanging around got locked up, even if it was for no more than standing on the corner. Now they have a criminal record, so they really can’t get a job. Plus, they put the bottom of the barrel down there. Not good teachers, not good police—and if they get anybody good down there, they don’t last.

It’s possible to do something constructive in Sandtown-Winchester, but you’ve got to get City Hall to understand the mess they’ve made, take responsibility for it, and start planning to go in another direction. When you have a problem, and you don’t solve it, it just escalates. It’s a bad situation. If you want to get rid of a weed, you dig it out from the root. Nobody is looking at how we got here and what do we need to do to turn it in a different direction. They just concentrate knee-jerk reactions to whatever’s happening in the present.

Marches won’t do it. I don’t have any faith in these ministers leading things. They’ve been there all this time and haven’t done anything. They just want a platform. You need to understand the history. There are people who know what’s going on and could be asked for help. But City Hall is not going to ask for that. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake doesn’t think anybody over 50 knows anything that she can use. They think nobody knows anything but them, and they have the answers and they’re going to resolve it. And they’re not. It’s just going to get worse and worse.

If you don’t want to repeat the past you have got to do something in the present. In my last years, I’m trying as hard as I can to say, please, somebody pick up this mantle and carry it forward. History repeats itself, and we’re about to repeat something very bad if we don’t get in there and do something fast.

I’ve tried to pass the baton, but many young people don’t see any future. And I understand why they don’t see it: They don’t get many examples of good things that are happening, so they don’t believe that it’s possible. But I know that it’s possible. I know that there are groups in the community that can get in there and turn things around, but City Hall needs to listen to them. I think there is some hope. But it’s getting harder and harder to find people who believe that, and it’s been harder and harder to point out where there is some reason to hope.

As a Morgan state student, Civil rights activist Helena Hicks participated in the 1955 sit-in at the Read’s drug store in downtown Baltimore that led to its desegregation and went on to become a professor, policy-maker, and preservationist.

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