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T.E.A.M. Players

A Grass-Roots Group Wants in on a City Redevelopment Deal in Upton, But Only on Its Own Terms

The City Paper Digi-Cam™
GOTTA PAY TO PLAY: For $10 per week per homeowner, John Gasque's neighborhood association keeps crime and grime at bay in Upton.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 5/11/2005

The new brass stoop lights gleam in the sunshine along the 700 block of Dolphin Street. “See these coach lights we’re putting up?” says John Gasque, an Upton neighborhood activist. He buys the $40 lights himself, he says, with “money out of my own pocket.” He and members of his community organization affixed them to the houses, free of charge, he says, as a badge of hope.

Behind those lights, some houses are tidy, some are renovated. Others are boarded up.

The city wants to revitalize this block and several others in this triangle of inner city along the 700 block of Dolphin Street and the 800 blocks of of Harlem and Edmondson avenues. In this neighborhood, just northwest of downtown, dozens of three-story buildings are boarded up, stenciled with no trespassing warnings by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

Gasque says he’s earned the right to help with this effort by founding a neighborhood group that cleaned up the drug dealers that once swarmed here and by rehabbing several properties along Dolphin and Harlem, some of which are under renovation now. His grass-roots neighborhood group, which claims more than 50 members, goes by several names, including T.E.A.M. (“Together Everyone Achieves More”), the Harlem Blossom Neighborhood Association, and the Dolphin Pool. The organization wants the city Housing Authority to give it 76 city-owned houses in this area of Upton. It plans to build its own library out of two combined rowhouses. It wants to put a health-food store in the abandoned store on the corner of Dolphin and Freemont Avenue. “We could rehab this place in 18 months,” Gasque says.

However, Gasque says the city has ignored him and his group in favor of carpetbaggers.

“Two years ago, the city brought in people who don’t live here,” he says, referring to the Upton Planning Committee, an umbrella group of volunteers that works with the city to coordinate the smaller neighborhood groups. “They put a planning committee together and they never built nothing. We’re down here building the community.”

And, Gasque warns, if his group doesn’t get the houses, he’ll let the drug dealers come back. “We’ll paint all the buildings black and the steps green,” he says. “And that’s a promise to the city.”

The city has no intention of giving the houses to T.E.A.M. Last summer the city Housing Authority published a request for proposals offering a total of 72 houses (since increased because of more city takings) in the Harlem Avenue area. The RFP culminated a two-year effort coordinated with the neighborhood-based Upton Planning Committee to push forward with a broad-based redevelopment. Gasque says his group was not notified of the plans until it was almost too late to respond, but city officials and members of the Upton Planning Committee say all were notified.

“Everyone was given the same amount of notice,” says David Levy, the Housing Authority’s assistant housing commissioner for land resources. In fact, Levy says, his office “reached out” to Gasque’s group and tried to help it, in part by splitting up the city properties into three chunks manageable for a group of T.E.A.M.’s size.

“We have invited T.E.A.M., Dolphin Pool, to be a part of the committee,” says Teresa Stephens, president of the Upton Planning Committee. “Some of the things that Mr. Gasque and [T.E.A.M. member] Ms. [Catherine] Herd are doing are excellent.”

In September, the Dolphin Pool submitted a proposal to acquire 49 city-owned buildings and seven vacant lots. But the city rejected it in favor of a New York-based developer, Apex. “We’re now exclusively negotiating with them to figure out how we’ll get some market-rate and some affordable housing components,” Levy says.

But Gasque says that T.E.A.M. would create all affordable units.

T.E.A.M. members say redevelopment really only costs about one-third the amount usually spent through government programs and incentives. For example, projects using state and federal grant money typically spend more than $100,000 to gut and rebuild each urban rowhouse.

“We can set the house up for less than $15,000 per person,” Gasque says, showing a reporter through the home of Catherine Herd, who owns eight properties on Dolphin Street. “We give you the basics.”

Herd runs down the costs: gut the place for $1,000, put in new windows for $2,400, install four security doors for $1,120, and so on. The total comes to less than $10,000.

“This way, if you can afford $400 per month you can own this house,” Gasque says of Herd’s three-story home, which features a club room in the basement and a jet-massage tub in the master bath.

“Because people don’t have a lot of money to give, it’s done room by room,” says Christopher Wise, a T.E.A.M.-associated drywall contractor working on Herd’s home and several others on Dolphin and Harlem.

To keep costs down, Gasque and Wise say they pay former drug dealers between $40 and $50 per day as they learn the trades—an amount far below the prevailing wages paid to construction tradespeople but typical pay in Baltimore’s underground day-labor economy. “We have our own licensed contractors,” Wise says. “We train people.”

But Wise, who claims to have “worked for every big drywall company there is,” is not licensed by the state of Maryland as a home-improvement contractor.

In fact, none of the companies or their principals listed on T.E.A.M.’s proposal is licensed by the state in their respective fields. For example, LHJ CAD Consultants of Towson is listed as architect and engineer, although neither the firm nor its principal, Lamont Jackson, is listed as either an engineer or an architect. Basic Contracting of Baltimore, listed in the group’s proposal under General Contractor, is not an active corporation, according to state records. Its principal, Emory White, is not licensed in Maryland as a home-improvement contractor, according to records kept by the state’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.

H&W Architecture, which T.E.A.M. lists in its proposal as the “management company” for several would-be rental buildings, is also unlicensed by the state in any real estate- or construction-related trade. The firm’s co-owners, Thomas P. Hovington and Mark E. Walker, do own several city rental properties, including 702 Dolphin St., and manage several more. And neither lives in Upton. Both men own houses in Bowie listed in state property tax records as their homes.

Gasque insists that all the organization’s contractors are licensed. “They’re part of the black network,” he says. “Everything we have got to be part of that. We got our own black network, just like the Hispanics have their own network, the Jews have their own network, and the Italians have their own network.”

Despite his group’s disdain for outsiders and his claim to have been a neighborhood resident for “all my life, over 65 years,” Gasque apparently doesn’t live in Upton either. According to court and motor-vehicle records, John Wade Gasque, 61, resides in Northwest Baltimore’s Cheswolde neighborhood on the 3300 block of Ludgate Road, a 5.8-mile drive from the Dolphin Pool headquarters. As of April 2004, his driver’s license listed that address, which is also the home of Juanita Boyd, T.E.A.M.’s president and founder. Neither Boyd nor Gasque are listed as property owners on the Dolphin or Harlem blocks T.E.A.M. seeks to redevelop.

Boyd says questions about where Gasque lives are “personal,” and declines to confirm her address. “I don’t agree when you get all involved into the personal in it,” she says. “When reporters get all involved in the personal of it, I say drop the story.”

Gasque says that he does indeed live in the Upton area.

“I live on Dolphin Street for seventysomething years,” he says. When asked for his specific address, he says, “You digging in something here, so the association says drop the story. Drop it.”

Michael Reed, Apex’s Baltimore representative, says he wants to work with T.E.A.M. and other community groups to find local contractors and workers for the Upton project.

“That group in that area is phenomenal,” he says of T.E.A.M. “It’s a diamond in the rough. Whatever they’ve done—and he’s told me the many things they’ve done—it’s successful. I praise them to the ends for that.”

But at a recent community meeting, Gasque pledged not to cooperate with the out-of-town developers.

“I told that man from Apex, save your money,” he said. “You put $100,000 in those places, you’re gonna lose it all and get run out. You’re not coming into this community. We’ll just pull our hands back. The drug boys come here looking for work, we’ll say [there’s] no work. Any minute you’ll see crack hidden behind the steps.”

Reed confirms the conversation but says threats like that are not unusual in the community-redevelopment business. “And a lot of it,” he says, “turns out to be chest pounding.”

For all of Gasque’s talk about community, it turns out that not everyone on the block he’s working with has joined the T.E.A.M. neighborhood associations, whose dues are $10 per week. Those who don’t are ostracized. On the street tour, for example, Herd points to 846 Harlem Ave., bought last year by an out-of-town investor who refused to join the association. It’s the house “with the round lights” that differ from the brass coach lights the association prefers.

“She wanted to rehab it herself,” Herd says. “Then she tried to rent it out for $1,000 a month.”

Today the building is empty. Plywood covers the first-floor windows.

“She will be persecuted for not cooperating,” Wise says.

The building’s owner, Stacey Kittles, says she didn’t know the T.E.A.M. porch lights meant so much.

“I’ve gone through so much with this, and this is just another layer of the onion,” she tells City Paper. “The light—I have one like the other ones [the association prefers] but it’s just so low on the totem pole. I just never got my electrician to go and swap it out. I was riding around with the light in my trunk for so long.”

Kittles declines further comment before consulting her lawyer.

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