If you see Damon Barnes with a beer on the steps of a boarded-up city-owned rowhouse, surrounded by other West Baltimore vacants, he’s not really there.
He’s lost in the Poppleton neighborhood of 40 years ago, sitting on the same stoop where his father would relax after work, with Al Green or the O’Jays emanating from his candy apple red ‘72 Cadillac.
“I pass right by here on my way home from work. Sometimes I pick up something to drink, and I park here and talk to my dad,” explained Barnes, holding a photo of his father, Thurston Octavius Butler, who died in 2021.
“A lot of good memories here,” he said, pointing to the third-floor bedroom for him and his older brother.
But on this day, there was something different about the ritual for the 46-year-old Barnes, who has a family of his own now and lives in East Baltimore.
He was there to meet one of the people working on a complaint asking federal officials to investigate whether the city’s redevelopment policies in Poppleton perpetuated racial segregation and violated fair housing laws by disproportionately displacing Black and low-income residents.
“I said, ‘Pops, look at these boarded-up houses! If you keep fighting with them, eventually they’re gonna push you out’” – Damon Barnes.
Barnes’ family moved out – like hundreds of others did – under pressure from the city. Starting in 2005, Baltimore began acquiring and demolishing properties as part of an agreement with a New York developer promising a massive redevelopment project which, for the most part, has never materialized.
“Mr. Thurston,” as the neighbors addressed him, resisted for a long time, against family advice.
“I said, ‘Pops, look at these boarded-up houses! If you keep fighting with them, eventually they’re gonna push you out,’” Barnes recalled. “I said, ‘You gotta go, brother! Give it up!’”
In 2019, Mr. Thurston finally sold 1134 West Saratoga Street to the city for $45,000, relocating to Virginia where he bought a double-wide trailer that he lived in until he passed away.
Frozen in Time
But now Barnes was with Nicole King of Organize Poppleton, one of the people he’d just heard about who were not giving up.
He wanted to understand all the “asks” in their 18-page complaint, including for the city to compensate those who were displaced and grant them right of return to affordable housing.
The administrative complaint also wants to stop the city’s use of eminent domain to seize still-occupied homes and to replace some of the amenities lost as the neighborhood spiraled downward.
Standing on the sidewalk with him, King explained what happened to the tenant next door who was displaced when its owner sold out to the city.
“This was Angie Banks’ place. She was homeless for a while and living with her children in her car,” King said.
Pointing then to the next house down, King continued, “that was Parcha McFadden’s house. She was supposed to have inherited it from her father, but lost out in all this.”
“You know, I bet there are things of my dad’s still inside there,” Barnes replied, looking at his old family place, which has a red “X” on the front door signifying it vacant, raising fears it is set for future demolition.
And so, entering through the loose back door, they went inside.
“The door is good. Pretty thick, good wood,” Barnes said, running his fingers along its edge, before pushing his way through fallen plaster rubble into a small kitchen.
Cobwebs were creeping over a half-full maple syrup bottle and mayonnaise jar. A player for cassettes and 8-tracks sat on the counter. In the fridge, a Budweiser tallboy lay on its side.
In the living room were scattered papers and clothes. Spying a tracksuit top hanging in the upstairs bedroom, he grabbed it, murmuring, “Oh man, his jacket.”
“Look, these are his hats,” Barnes exclaimed after finding several brimmed caps, including one that said “Maintenance.”
For 30 years, his father, an Army veteran, worked as a maintenance man for Ashburton Woods Apartments on Dolfield Avenue and other places around town.
His son, who works at a local distillery, has a side business painting houses, just like his dad did.
“Somehow, I didn’t cry”
Standing at his old bedroom window, Barnes remembered looking longingly out at the Saratoga Street recreation center, closed years ago and now falling apart.
He and his brother would swim there during the day, though they really wanted to join their neighborhood friends who jumped the fence after dark.
“We couldn’t get past them,” he said, grinning at the memory of his father and stepmother whose strict rules included “be home before the streetlights come on.”
There’s an empty, trash-strewn lot across the street but it used to be houses and, at the end of the block where he and his brother would go for cookies and penny candy.
Going back down the steps, past mounds of clothing, medicine bottles and random trash, Barnes emerged into the backyard.
“Somehow, I didn’t cry in there. I don’t know how,” he said, after taking a call from his wife and telling her, “I found his hats. You wouldn’t believe it!”
He was asked what he thinks should happen to his dad’s house and the five others standing next to it.
“Fix ’em up. Open them back up to whoever needs them,” he said. “Not give them away, but just make them affordable for whoever. Not a certain race or anything. Just whoever.”
“Not just a building”
Longtime city activist Marceline White says she is deeply moved by people like Barnes who are coming forward since the complaint was filed to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“A house is not just a building,” said White, executive director of Economic Action Maryland, who wrote the complaint along with Banks.
“People are still fighting to come back, to regain what they lost, which is so much more than a house,” she continued. “It’s a community they loved, grew up in, worshipped in, where they knew all their neighbors. It’s a real visceral pull.”
How Many Were Displaced?
How many people were displaced? How many houses demolished? The administrative complaint traces a long history.
For the project promised to be built by Nee York developer La Cité, records show 132 occupied properties were initially demolished. Ultimately, hundreds were uprooted there, King believes.
But government redlining policies, followed by “slum clearing” that commenced in the 1930s with the Poe Homes and other projects, already had displaced many more, the complaint notes.
Then there was the mass demolition for the so-called “Highway to Nowhere” that gobbled up 1,500 properties along West Franklin and West Mulberry streets, including those adjacent to Poppleton.
Developer and City: No Comment
La Cité Development President Daniel Bythewood this week told The Brew he had no comment on the HUD complaint, saying he had “nothing to do with it.”
So far, the company has only completed the Center/West apartments on Schroeder Street despite $58 million in approved tax increment (TIF) public financing.
Meanwhile the spokeswoman for the city, which approved years of extensions on La Cité’s land development agreement that gives Bythewood rights to 14 acres, also did not address the complaint.
“The City of Baltimore is unwavering in its commitment to promoting fairness and equality in housing for all residents,” said Tammy Hawley, communications chief for the Department of Housing and Community Development.
Hawley added that Mayor Brandon Scott “is acutely aware of the critical importance of fair housing and has taken significant steps to address the housing inequities of the past through substantial investments in formerly redlined communities.”
The Scott administration bent last summer to preservationists and Poppleton residents who called for saving the historic Sarah Ann Street alley houses just north of Barnes’ childhood home.
The city also has stopped eminent domain proceedings against Sonia Eaddy, who fought for years to remain in her nearby home.
But residents who worked closely on the administrative complaint say the DHCD has stopped communicating with them about the next steps to stabilize the still highly distressed community.
(In a letter sent today, they asked the city to halt any demolition plans for the 1100 block of West Baltimore Street.)
As for Barnes, who says he did tear up on a recent Zoom call with the Poppleton group, he’s ready for anything.
“It was a big, pretty community, I know that,” he declared. “I’ll do whatever they need me to do. If my dad was still around, that’s what he would be saying.”
• Poppleton calls on Scott to halt demolition plans on West Saratoga Street (2/23/23)
Scenes from the February 13 news conference at Allen AME Church announcing the HUD complaint:
– From “When Winning is Not Enough,” a documentary in progress about the fight to save Poppleton. By Charles Cohen and eyesoreproductions.com.
href=”https://vimeo.com/801705797″>ParchaHUDPressconference.mov from Eyesore Productions on Vimeo.