The Creation of the Ghetto: An Interview with Glenn Ross (2006)

Glenn Ross is a community organizer and environmental justice activist. This interview was recorded at his home in East Baltimore in April 2006.

Nicholas Wisniewski: Can you briefly introduce yourself?

Glenn Ross: I've been living in East Baltimore all my life, and I'm fifty-six-years-young. I've been living in this house, in this neighborhood, for about twenty-seven years. I started organizing around the rat problem in the area. I joined the neighborhood association, got very active, joined a number of different boards, and I realized that there was a lot going on in this area that residents weren't aware of. As a new homeowner and a single parent for twenty-six years, I'm the type of guy who needs to know what's going on in my community. And this is what really started me and got me involved in becoming a community advocate. So when people ask me how I got started I can honestly tell them a rat; now here it is a few years later and I'm dealing with the two-legged rats.

NW: In many ways, this interview is informed by discussions we've had over the last several months where you have talked at length about the creation of the ghetto. A common perception in our society views large blighted urban neighborhoods as ghettos created by the people who live in them. Of course, this perception is often conditioned by racist stereotypes of certain minority groups as being lazy, ignorant or criminal. However, you have suggested a more complex set of social, economic and political factors that contribute to the creation of the ghetto. Can you describe some of these factors?

GR: Well, I think it all starts with planning. A lot of community organizations plan from season to season, year to year. But when you look at Baltimore City, when you look at some of the major institutions like Johns Hopkins or The University of Maryland, they have twenty, forty, sixty-year plans. I've had the opportunity to see long-term plans working with the City and in my twenty-three years working with Johns Hopkins. Years ago, you could walk into Johns Hopkins an and they had this huge map of East Baltimore, and you could see the future development plans that were going to happen. As you see, I'm a map person, and what I did was cross-check what I saw from the City and Hopkins and looked at the similarities. Some people in the neighborhood don't understand done deals. With the neighborhoods so fragmented they [the City Government and Hopkins] can just come in and dominate the whole area.

A related factor to consider is how the drug culture shifts, and here in East Baltimore it happened in a South-East pattern. It has moved from the Greenmount/Barclay community, the Oliver community, the Middle-East community (which is now the Biotech area), it came here into the McElderry Park community about fifteen years ago, and now that drug culture is just East of Patterson Park. Now saying all that is to point out that Greenmount and North Avenue was a booming neighborhood forty or fifty years ago, with well-to-do African Americans and lots of live entertainment. And there are two ways of destroying communities and creating ghettos: one is that you take the resources out of the community—you get poor City services that creates a lot of confusion among residents; or you can take the people out, like they're doing down in South-East (the Canton area, Fells Point, Upper Fells Point) where because of high-priced housing many Latinos and Native Americans are being forced out, and being forced into predominantly African American neighborhoods, and that causes conflicts. To me, that's by design. And if you follow the history of all these neighborhoods that have decayed, you find that the resources leave the neighborhood first; there is a change of administration in the public school system, you start getting poor services; and what normally happens is that any responsible family, when they see their neighborhood decaying, they will move out, and the people who remain are the senior citizens who can't go anywhere and the renters who can't afford to leave. Then the drug culture moves in. For instance, look at the Middle-East community where the bio-tech park is going to be. Years ago you could go in there an buy anything twenty-four-hours-a-day, and this is only blocks from Johns Hopkins, and you have to ask the question: how can a neighborhood be so bad, that crime-ridden, and it's only a couple blocks away from Johns Hopkins? Because they new years ago that they were going to come in with this bio-tech park, so they let the neighborhood decay. The residents moved out, the houses remained vacant and people weren't buying them. The houses were in bad shape, some where torn down and before you knew it entire blocks were demolished and you've got vacant lots with high weeds and nothing being done.

NW: As we look around East Baltimore we see many abandoned and boarded-up buildings. For many people, this image of vacant buildings signifies the ghetto. But I understand that the majority of these properties are in fact owned by the City, private investors and large institutions like Johns Hopkins. What would be the economic incentive for all of these parties to land bank so many properties in East Baltimore?

GR: For one thing, as long as these houses stay vacant, the property values depreciate, and people don’t want to live there. If you come to the Middle-East area you may have 30 to 40 houses on a block with only 6 houses occupied, so how much do you think those properties are worth? So they deliberately do this and deteriorate properties. There are a lot of interests in here because the “so-called-powers-that-be” here on earth—because that’s the only place they’ll ever have power—they know what areas are going to decay, so they invest in these areas and they milk these properties for rent and put no repairs back in them. For example, when Jack Reed was the general Superintendent of Housing Code Enforcement, his job was to crack down on slum landlords. And in this area here in McElderry Park, we knew he was one of the biggest slum landlords because we knew he owned property. And when we would talk to other slum landlords and tell them we were going to report them, they would say, “we don’t care” because Jack was the biggest slumlord of them all. So I went to the Baltimore Sun newspaper and exposed it. And the investigative reporter there found out that this was going on citywide. These areas were being allowed to decay. And through this investigation we found out that it was not only Jack Reed who was land banking, but City agency people, people associated with Johns Hopkins and family members of politicians who all knew what was going to happen. So this is how Dan Henson, the Housing Commissioner at the time, was put on the hot seat in front of the City Council. A lot of things had to change and City agency people had to make it known what properties they owned. So that’s one investment reason whay they would do this: They are milking these properties. And once the neighborhood is decayed, they want to come in and do a biotech park.

NW: There are many obvious disadvantages that face residents in Baltimore’s most impoverished neighborhoods. But one which many people don’t always think about, and which I know you are working hard to bring visibility to, is the poor health conditions residents suffer from as a direct result of their environment. Could you describe some the these environmental health problems that exist in poor neighborhoods?

GR: Well, with environmental problems, its environmental and health racism as I see it, because it’s always around poor people. To the East of us there is a lot of industry and even down South in the harbor. At one time, the inner harbor was know as one of the ugliest areas in the city. And almost all you immigrants used to live around the harbor. As the harbor developed, they forced these lower income people to move, and they steered them into other neighborhoods. Now these neighborhoods that they’re in are having environmental health problems. They are taking contaminated soil and materials from these brown-field sites down by the harbor and trucking them up to these poor neighborhoods. Pat Tracy and myself have just put together an environmental “Toxic Tour” where we take people to these sites so residents can see it for themselves. If you look at some of the houses in the area you have rats, un-collected garbage, drug-use; those are serious health hazards. So for us to be right here between the a.m. shadow of Hopkins Bayview and the p.m. shadow of East Baltimore Johns Hopkins, and yet we have some of the worst living and health conditions in the nation? It really shouldn’t be like that.

NW: As you have said, the removal of public resources (schools, sanitation, police, etc.) along with private resources (grocery stores, banks and other businesses) are the physical forms of disinvestment that contribute to the creation of the ghetto. What is the local political atmosphere that allows this disinvestment of resources to occur? What is it that keeps poor communities fragmented and unable to organize against these forms of dispossession?

GR: Hopkins would not have been able to come in here and dominate East Baltimore and buy up as much property as they did if the politicians didn’t allow it. For years, politicians have told community organizations “do not deal with Johns Hopkins,” only for them to go in the back door and ask for political and financial favors. If you look at the politicians here in East Baltimore, these people have been in power for the last thirty to forty years. And when Hopkins wants to distribute money for a research project, they ask the politicians who to give it to, and they always recommend some community organization that is “politically correct,” and by doing that they keep people divided and keep these different groups in competition with one another.

NW: In the midst of Baltimore’s “urban renaissance,” with renewed interest in real-estate, many of these blighted neighborhoods that were systematically neglected over the last several decades are now in the cross-hairs of speculative investors and developers. What proactive steps, strategies and actions can be taken by residents to avoid the seemingly inevitable gentrification of neighborhoods and displacement of people in the name of progress?

GR: As I said earlier, community organizations have been taught to be territorial, they are conditioned to not work together. This city is afraid of coalitions. I’m from a predominantly African-American community, and for years I’ve tried to form a coalition of neighborhood leaders and organizations, but couldn’t get through. Still, I was able to form the South-East Stakeholders Coalition. We brought together neighborhood organizations, service providers, libraries, businesses, all just to come to the tale and talk about the different things going on. Development, the environment, health—all the things we need to be aware of to protect out neighborhood so we don’t get caught up. But community people need to learn to play the game, because if the “powers-that-be” find out you’re trying to do something positive, they’ll cut you off. So if we can put together a South-East Stakeholders Coalition then it can be done in other parts of the city too. But as long as we stay fragmented like we are, there’s nothing we can do.