Far From Home
Wisconsinite Takes Helm at Save Middle East Action Committee
Each morning the slam of the steel door echoes dramatically, announcing to no one in particular the arrival of Nathan Sooy in the halls of the St. Wenceslaus School in East Baltimore. The school itself has been closed since 1986, but a classroom in the building has been converted to serve as the headquarters for the Save Middle East Action Committee (SMEAC), of which Sooy is now executive director.
In November Sooy accepted the position with SMEAC, a nonprofit founded in 2001 to give residents of the Middle East neighborhood being displaced from their homes to make way for a biotechnology park, a voice in urban redevelopment. Sooy took the job after the departure of the organization's previous executive director, Marisela Gomez.
Sooy, 52, has years of experience working with communities, beginning at Kent State University in the 1970s, just two years after four students were gunned down there during anti-war protests. He has worked with church-based organizations and led voter-registration drives, and his last job was director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. There he organized the largest voter-registration drive in northeast Michigan in 20 years.
He also spent time in the 1980s working in Detroit, working to convince the mayor of that city to dish out community block grants to poor neighborhoods. His work in Baltimore, he says, reminds him of his efforts in Detroit. But where Detroit is still suffering from disinvestment, the neighborhoods north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus, where he's working now, are the focus of millions of dollars in urban-renewal money. That doesn't mean that Sooy's job is easy, though.
Each day he trudges up the empty stairwell in St. Wenceslaus, past a statue of a sad-faced Mother Mary, to the SMEAC office. It's a pretty ominous greeting for Sooy, who takes the helm of the organization at a rather vulnerable moment. East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI), the nonprofit organization that's leading the $1.2 billion revitalization of an 80-acre chunk of East Baltimore that will become the biotech park, has finished relocating nearly 400 families whose homes were demolished in the project's first phase ("Moved and Shaken," Feb. 22, 2006). The process took five years and much negotiating on the part of SMEAC to get those displaced families workable settlements for the loss of their homes.
Now the organization has to prepare for another round of massive relocations. This time it's estimated that 300 families living in the 40 acres just north of Chase Street in between Patterson Park Avenue and Broadway will have to move out. Unlike in Phase 1 of the project, some of the residents affected will be allowed to stay in the neighborhood and rehabilitate their homes as the new neighborhood sprouts around them.
To the outside world, what's been happening in East Baltimore seems like a bold economic booster shot to an area of the city that had been infamous for its drug trade and boarded-up buildings. (The boarded up and run-down rowhouses that have now been demolished provided the grim backdrop for the recent seasons of HBO's The Wire.) But to those who lived in the neighborhood, the process has been a fraught and grueling ordeal, marked by endless meetings and painful negotiations with the city. Some residents still like to point out that it was not crime and drug dealing that forced them to leave their homes--it was EBDI, which claimed to be doing it for their own good. According to EBDI and other proponents of the biotech park development, the project is an example of how to do urban renewal the right way, complete with support services and help from such nonprofit do-gooders as the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The residents, the developers insist, will end up better off once they've been moved than they ever were in their old neighborhoods. But the displaced do not see it that way.
"I wish people would say it like it is instead of dressing it with bows," says Donald Gresham, chairman of SMEAC's board. Gresham lives in one of the neighborhoods slated for redevelopment in the next phase of the project. "We are suffering here," he says, noting that everyone is sitting tight, waiting to hear from EBDI what their fate will be.
From SMEAC's classroom window, Sooy used to be able to look out over East Baltimore and see the neighborhoods that were plowed into the earth in Phase 1, just like last season's dying crops. But recently, plastic sheeting has been placed over his windows to provide some insulation for the building, so his view is now obscured. He spends his days meeting with residents and ferreting out potential allies in the city who might be interested in easing the frustration felt by the East Baltimore residents negatively affected by economic development.
"SMEAC needs to be a part of the larger fight against irresponsible paternalistic development," Sooy says.
There is a strange quiet in the air in the neighborhoods now, as EBDI has been slow to let residents know what will happen next. Last September, the organization held a community meeting detailing the plans for the next phase of the project, including talking to residents about who would get to stay and who would have to move out. That meeting created quite a murmur among the hundred or so residents who showed up. But since then, there has been little follow-up.
EBDI president and CEO Jack Shannon says the organization will be ready to purchase homes and begin the relocation process by spring. "There is a commitment to do everything possible to assemble these necessary resources," he says. "However, we still need to dot I's, cross T's, and check the numbers so once we begin this we will be able to deliver everything."
Gresham says that once the project is under way again SMEAC will insist that residents be given the same relocation packages offered to residents affected by the first phase. EBDI spent an average of $153,000 to relocate each displaced family to homes of comparable value in different neighborhoods throughout the city, Shannon says. This time around, he says, he expects the organization will have to spend more than that.
Gresham says the organization is counting on Sooy to keep the pressure on and make sure EBDI delivers on its promises.
Sooy says he sees himself as "a hired gun" that will help organize the community to advocate for what it wants.
Unlike the efforts he's been involved with in the past, this time his fight is not against right-wing politicians or conservatives. Instead, he's fighting the do-gooders.
"These are liberals bringing their paternalistic vision of a neighborhood and we know what's good for you," he says. "There has always been a tension between, let's put it this way, the interest of working-class people and people with color and what liberals think is right and proper."
He says SMEAC needs to grow from its power base and tap into the anger that's simmering in the community.
"There is no getting away from [the fact that] EBDI or the city can accuse SMEAC of creating trouble," he says. "At the same time there needs to be attention. There needs to be a voice of that anger, that dissatisfaction, that needs to be focused and shaped into achievable goals."
In East Baltimore's case, Sooy says the anger is already out there, and it's SMEAC's job to tap into it.
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