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Sharp Focus

South Baltimore Neighborhood Goes "Hollywood" to Spotlight Decades of Civic Disservice

Christopher Myers
Project Greenlight: Sharp-Leadenhall residents teamed with the Megaphone Project to create a documentary film to attract attention to the neighborhood's plight.

Sharp-Leadenhall: A Promise to Keep

Director:Megaphone Project Inc.
Screen Writer:Megaphone Project Inc.
Release Date:2004

May 8, 10 p.m., May 9, 11:30 a.m. at Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Center

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 5/5/2004

If you don't know where Baltimore's Sharp-Leadenhall neighborhood is located, don't feel bad. Though this last vestige of the city's oldest African-American residential enclave has more than 200 years of rich history under its belt, it's never been an in-your-face kind of place.

Until now. Now the South Baltimore community, sandwiched between Federal Hill and I-395, is literally seeking 15 minutes of fame. Now the neighborhood has Sharp-Leadenhall: A Promise to Keep, a 15-minute video documentation of the community's decades-long struggle against invisibility and economic and urban-renewal pressures. And as the title intimates, the film focuses on the city's longstanding commitments to the buffeted-about neighborhood.

"I was really excited to be in the film," says Sharp-Leadenhall resident Linda Davis, whose familial roots in the community date to the Civil War era. "I was glad to tell my point of view. This was the first time that our community was really recognized--this was like a lost community."

Promise was produced by Megaphone Project Inc., a 2-year old Baltimore nonprofit that creates films and videos designed, according to its Web site, to "amplify voices for social and economic justice in Baltimore." The video, shot and edited last spring and summer, combines a fascinating history lesson (from Frederick Douglass to William Donald Schaefer) with contemporary stoop-front footage of residents detailing the problems they've had putting down permanent roots in a neighborhood most have lived in all their lives.

The film uses voice-overs and vintage maps to show that Sharp-Leadenhall can trace its heritage back to 1790, when a small colony of free blacks resided just about where the sprawling Baltimore Convention Center sits today. (Douglass attended this community's long-demolished Sharp Street AME Church in the 1830s.) By the time of the Civil War, however, urban growth had pushed the black enclave southward as far as West Street in South Baltimore. The film posits that destructive zoning in the 1930s (when industry was allowed to invade the neighborhood) and city-services neglect in the 1950s (when the neighborhood still had outhouses) sped the community's decay. By the late 1960s, the film intones, city, state, and federal officials had a solution for the community of mostly black, working-class renters: Do away with it altogether. Sharp-Leadenhall was slated to be bulldozed to make way for a new highway.

The roadway was part of same then-heralded highway scheme that would have also sliced through Federal Hill and Fells Point. The affected communities effectively rallied to reroute and/or stop the plans, but not before eminent-domain powers saw the city buy up the bulk of Sharp-Leadenhall houses, demolish 360 of them, and displace some 3,000 residents. And in the early 1970s, the northern half of the community was sliced off to become the now-upscale Otterbein neighborhood, one of the city's much-touted "dollar house" sites (wherein the city sold folks houses for a token dollar--if the buyers would commit tens thousands of dollars to rehabbing them.) Largely priced out of this scheme, many of the community's lower-income indigenous residents could only pack up and move--again. ("They took our houses away," one affected Sharp-Leadenhall resident laments in the film.)

During these tumultuous times, the city said it was committed to keeping affordable housing within the now-shrunken Sharp-Leadenhall. More specifically, as state Sen. George Della says in the film, the residents renting city-owned houses "would be given the opportunity to purchase those homes when they were ready." While some affordable and public housing was erected in the neighborhood, the renter-to-homeowner "promise" remained elusive. And by the late 1990s, market forces spilling over from the gentrified areas surrounding the community threatened to complete the decade-spanning displacement process.

These issues are what led Mike Bardoff, a community organizer with the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center (a nonprofit that assists first-time homebuyers), to contact the Megaphone Project seeking help in exposing the community's predicaments. "We didn't want to see the city lose one of the oldest African-American communities," says Bardoff, who's been working with Sharp-Leadenhall residents for a number of years. "We wanted to maintain a place for families that have been here, in some cases, for over 100 years."

Megaphone executive director Paul Santomenna says the neighborhood's plight was "right up our alley." He and some volunteers, in conjunction with the neighborhood association, the Sharp-Leadenhall Planning Committee, created the film for around $7,000. (Funding largely came from the Open Society Institute, where Santomenna has a fellowship.)

If anyone amounts to the film's "star," it's Janie White, a senior widow who raised eight children in the neighborhood while being bounced from house to house as the city snatched up properties for sundry renewal projects. The plain-speaking White is shown on the steps of the city-owned West Hamburg Street house she's rented for more than a decade--and has been trying to buy for at least that long.

The film also documents Mayor Martin O'Malley's appearance at a Sharp-Leadenhall community meeting in July 2003, where he acknowledges that the area's city-owned properties "are the worse-maintained" in the neighborhood. (The film tours one such property, documenting rat infestation, collapsing ceilings, and inoperative plumbing.)

The documentary was distributed to city officials last September and was screened at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson in January. While it's hard to gauge the city's reaction to the film--Baltimore City Housing spokesman David Tillman says he hasn't seen the film and couldn't provide departmental comment on it--the neighborhood feels it has already been a boon to their efforts.

"The film did have an impact," Sharp-Leadenhall Planning Committee President Betty Bland-Thomas says. "People realized that the city had made promises to this community and they need to keep them."

Indeed, much has changed in Sharp-Leadenhall since filming began a year ago. For one thing, White is finally going to be allowed to buy her house; she's in the process of relocating temporarily to allow the city to rehab her property prior to selling it to her. And a deal will soon be inked wherein the Sharp-Leadenhall Planning Committee will partner with a private developer to rehab and manage 24 city-owned neighborhood houses. There is now also talk of constructing additional affordable housing units on various city-owned vacant lots.

"The city has basically done everything we asked," Bardoff says . "The film helped keep the pressure on--it made us the squeaky wheel."

Now there's talk of creating a sequel production.

"In six months' time, if everything falls into place, I'd like to see us create another film," Bardoff says. "This one would be called Sharp-Leadenhall: Promises Kept."

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