I went to Baltimore Data Day on Friday knowing I’d find facts and figures. But I wasn’t quite prepared for how many people I’d encounter who were so angry about them.
It was . . . energizing.
“This Data Day – can it really help a community like Cherry Hill?” asked a skeptical Michael Middleton of the Cherry Hill Development Corporation, addressing the audience.
“These are people who can’t afford to pay that monthly fee [for high-speed Internet]. How are you going to communicate this data to 8,000 people? We can’t send out 8,000 letters. My question to this group is, how are we going to get information to the folks who need it?”
The message was friendly, but pointed. Bravo!
Middleton was the first speaker I walked in on at this year’s gathering of community leaders, nonprofit organizations, civic and faith-based institutions and governmental entities, put on for the third year in a row by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance – Jacob France Institute.
What’s Important to Neighborhoods?
Organized in partnership with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, and with the support of a host of local foundations, state and city agencies and the University of Baltimore, the event was aimed at sharing the latest trends in community-based data, technology and tools that could be used to support worthy city projects.
Kicking off the day with a session on “What’s Important to Baltimore Neighborhoods,” Mel Freeman, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA), brought Middleton and several others up to speak.
“There is so much money to be made pimping poverty,” Steva A. Komeh Nkrumah of the Marble Hill Community Association, said to the gathering of about 200 attendees. She was talking, I think, about the people from religious groups or non-p7rofit entities who run organizations in city neighborhoods like hers but don’t live there.
“These are people who use our statistics to justify their salaries to run organizations that have an adverse effect on our communities,” she said.
Her provocative remarks just flew by. Pretty soon, Freeman was telling her her time limit was up. Another steamed-up speaker was Diane Corbett of Douglass Homes. She talked about her efforts to ensure that longtime residents and residents of city public housing are included in discussions about the supermarket being planned for the decrepit Old Town Mall area. Redevelopment projects like this, she said, too often “misplace people, they don’t include people.”
“The mayor says we need 10,000 new people? We have those people! We are those people!” she said, going on to tell the room that after losing her job, she’s had to move back in with her mother. “I just want my mom and her friends to be able to sit outside and not be shot,” she said.
Hats off to the Data Day organizers for making sure the meeting began with this chorus of diverse, dedicated and challenging community voices ringing in their ears.
An Appearance from BSW!
One of the most challenging speakers was the final person I want to mention from my Data Day experience, a fellow member of the media panel I sat on, a person we’ll refer to here as “Baltimore Slumlord Watch.”
Known as “Slummy” to some of her Twitter friends and “#$%^&*%” (or some other unprintable name, no doubt) to the landlords and city officials she outs, BSW didn’t pull any punches. (Well, except her identity. She’s been keeping that out of the public eye since she’s a mom and has received some threats.)
BSW talked about how she got started with her blog, which shows pictures of dilapidated properties and includes details like the owner’s name, the number of prior housing code violations and the city council member whose district it’s in. She was blunt Friday about the city’s role in the problem, as the owner of thousands of these properties, a point she later followed up on in a comment on a Brew story.
“Until the City decides to stop selling off its blight to ‘investor’ types who want to sit on a home until the market turns, or to turn it into marginal overpriced rental housing – nothing will change in these communities,” BSW wrote.
Box Cutter and Camera
The project, which she started in 2009, grew out of her frustration over a problem property in her neighborhood, after she found herself discussing it at a community meeting and realized that the same trashed-out vacant property had been an agenda item for that same group three years earlier.
“I thought of the book ‘The Lottery.‘ Maybe not a public shaming exactly but something like that was needed,” BSW recalled to the rapt audience. In the case of this first called-out property-owner, she thinks, her citizen journalism worked. “In a few months, it was cleaned up.”
But, of course, given the surfeit of slummy parcels in Baltimore, her work documenting persistent blight is never done.
“I get up in the morning, with my cellphone, my camera and my box-cutter and head out,” she said, drawing a bit of a gasp from panel moderator Sheilah Kast. Under questioning from WYPR’s morning news show journalist, BSW explained that she works mostly on her own and gets no financial support for the work. (The box-cutter is for protection; she’s never had to use it.)
“People are really nice once they hear what I’m doing,” BSW said. “I come across people all the time. They tell me stories about what the neighborhood was like when they first moved in. It propels me to keep going.”