Thursday, April 30, 2015

Freddie Gray's neighborhood -- a sad story of failed good intentions -- April 30, 2015 column


Freddie Gray didn’t have a chance.   

If the start of a good life means a nurturing home, safe surroundings and successful role models, Gray struck out. 

Gray grew up, lived and was arrested on April 12 in the neighborhood called Sandtown, just west of downtown Baltimore.  Police dragged Gray into a van, the last of many times he was taken into custody for minor offenses. He died a week later, after suffering severe spinal cord injuries. He was 25. His death is under investigation.

The riots that followed his funeral sent a clear message: Whether America offers opportunity to all depends greatly on where we live.

Some commentators blamed the riots on a reaction to aggressive police tactics and on the endless war on drugs that criminalizes and reduces job prospects for low-level offenders like Gray. Others blamed opportunistic thugs who chose to loot.  

We can retrain police. We can change policy about the crimes that merit prison terms. But how do we end the cycle of hopelessness? When generations of young people don’t believe their lives can be better than their parents or grandparents, that hurts everyone.  

In brighter times, Sandtown, officially Sandtown-Winchester, was a thriving black community where jazz legend Cab Calloway grew up and Thurgood Marshall went to high school. By the late 1980s, though, Sandtown was 72 square blocks of crime-infested despair.

Into that netherworld, Freddie Carlos Gray Jr. was born on Aug. 16, 1989. His mother was single, poor, a heroin user.  Pushed out of middle school, she says she never learned to read.

When Freddie was 2, the family moved into an old house, with paint peeling from the windows and walls, in Sandtown, and stayed four years, according to reports by The Baltimore Sun based on court records. 

Freddie and his two sisters suffered lead poisoning, which led to behavioral and developmental conditions, a lawsuit the family filed in 2008 against the landlord alleged. The lead paint case was settled out of court, its terms not released. The sisters bought a house for $112,000 in 2011, The Sun reported.

Freddie was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Known for his sunny disposition, he attended a vocational high school. He got into trouble with the law. Sentenced in 2009 to four years in prison for drug possession with intent to deliver, he was paroled in 2011, returning to Sandtown, where one in four juveniles was arrested between 2005 and 2009.

Gray’s last arrest was for having a switchblade -- in his pocket, not in his hand menacing anyone. That charge was, in the phrase of the court, “abated by death.”

President Obama says we could solve the problems of entrenched poverty if we really wanted to.

“It’s just that it would require everybody saying, `This is important. This is significant,’” the president said Tuesday.

But here’s what makes Gray’s story heart-breaking: Thoughtful people with ample resources did try to turn Sandtown around decades ago.  

In 1990, Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore’s first black mayor, and developer James Rouse, who created Baltimore’s Harborplace and Boston’s Fanueil Hall, launched the Sandtown-Winchester Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

The public-private partnership would test comprehensive strategies to revitalize the crumbling neighborhood’s dilapidated and vacant houses,  lack of jobs, poor health and education, substance abuse, high crime rate and low community pride and spirit. More than $130 million was poured into the project over two decades.

Former President Jimmy Carter showed up in 1992 to hammer nails into Habitat for Humanity houses. In 1993, President Bill Clinton named Sandtown an Empowerment Zone, bringing grants and tax credits for employers who hired residents.

The result?  A thousand substandard houses were rebuilt or replaced. But Sandtown’s unemployment and poverty rates are still double the citywide average, and one quarter of the buildings still are vacant, the city health department reports.

Worse: More people from Sandtown go to state prisons than from any other census tract in Maryland. It costs $17 million a year to keep the 458 inmates from Sandtown in prison, the Justice Policy Institute and Prison Policy Initiative reported in February.

Studies analyzing why the ambitious renewal failed cite such reasons as not preparing residents for the slow pace of change and difficulties in delivering jobs and economic development.

Sandtown’s experience shows it’s easier to replace structures than it is to build hope and opportunity. But that’s what needs to happen now more than ever, with the commitment of spiritual, business and government leaders.  

It’s too late for Freddie Gray, but the United States cannot afford to lose future generations.

© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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