The $1.5 billion State Center Project hopes to revitalize several neighborhoods in West Baltimore. The development's implementation of an Economic Inclusion Plan – perhaps a first of its kind in the city – is attracting attention from other urban communities grappling with similar issues.
"From 1930 to 1950 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh's Hill District was one of the swingingest places in town. Not only did many of the world's greatest jazz musicians grow up on the Hill; other prominent Pittsburgh blacks made names for themselves that stretched far beyond the boundaries of the city's own version of Harlem," wrote veteran music journalist Lynne Margolis for the Observer-Reporter of Pittsburgh in 1991.
The Hill District in Pittsburgh, like so many other vanguard Black American communities of the past, has been crumbling for decades under the weight of ill-conceived urban renewal policies and various other strains of inner city wretchedness. "The city of Pittsburgh decided to tear down and displace at least 15,000 residents, about 5,000 families. They tore down what was then the real business center of the community and…they did it to build what became the Civic Arena," said Pittsburgh City Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who represents the city's Sixth District, about former home of the National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins, closed in June 2010 and demolished in March 2012.
"What I've always said … was if we look to rebuild the lower Hill District, I didn't care about what was actually built. I care about the economics of the building,"
Lavelle said. "There's no way that we are going to rebuild 28 acres of land in the most impoverished African-American neighborhood and not recreate some wealth in this community," he added.
For residents of West Baltimore who still remember the heyday of iconic Pennsylvania Avenue the saga of the Hill should have special resonance.
The re-boot of the massive State Center Project promises thousands of jobs for residents of several West Baltimore neighborhoods, which is part of what some characterize as a landmark Economic Inclusion Plan. Other communities of color around the country, like the Hill District of Pittsburgh, are watching closely.
"When we first started talking to Caroline (Caroline Moore the lead developer of SCP) a few years ago about the local hiring piece [there] really wasn't a strong model for us to kind of build a template off of," said Pastor Sheridan Todd Yeary, of Douglas Memorial Community Church, on Madison Avenue within one of the nine neighborhoods touched by the State Center Project.
Douglas is one member of Community Churches for Community Development and Yeary, along with the Rev. Alvin Hathaway of Union Baptist Church (a member of CCCD) have been integral in constructing the Economic Inclusion Plan.
Community leaders of the Hill District have reached out directly to Hathaway, Yeary and the CCCD for guidance as they navigate the development process in Pittsburgh. "We've got to deliver for the community we've got to deliver for other communities that are looking at this for a model," Yeary said.
"We are really, as part of this Economic Inclusion Plan process, trying to change the national conversation around how you do collaborative development that engages the community … from start to finish," he added.
Yeary believes the evolving paradigm of collaborative development has far-reaching consequences beyond West Baltimore. "There is going to be a fundamentally significant transformation of Baltimore City as we know it and its going on (in) real time and if we don't get engaged in justice as a lifestyle what you're going to find is that there is going to be mass displacement of some communities to the preference of other types of communities; some of it may be intentional some of it may be unintentional, just part of the process," Yeary explained.
"But, what we have to make sure is that stakeholders and advocates for the beloved community, that we make sure that the least amongst us have as much of a share of the stake in the good outcome of the project as anybody else."