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Looking for a Way Forward After the Unrest in Baltimore

Demonstrators cheer in the intersection of West North and Pennsylvania avenues in Baltimore on May 2, 2015, one of the sites of that week's rioting, as they march a day after charges were announced against the police officers involved in Freddie Gray's death.

Regular “Race and Beyond” columnist Sam Fulwood III asked John Halpin, a Baltimore resident and Center for American Progress colleague, for his thoughts about the future of the city.

In the aftermath of the recent protests and riots in Baltimore, countless theories have circulated regarding the causes of the unrest, as well as its implications. From voices on the right, you hear about culture, the failures of liberal-dominated cities, and the need for traditional families and personal responsibility. From those on the left, you get arguments about systemic racism, the erosion of middle-class jobs, and the need to address police brutality and concentrated poverty. Separate discussions explore issues of identity, privilege, community engagement, and how those who are not African American or poor should think and talk about these issues.

These debates are important, and there is worthwhile insight from a variety of sources—perhaps with the exception of the National Rifle Association or Rush Limbaugh. From a social science perspective, however, many of these discussions seem abstract and removed from the realities of people living in areas such as West Baltimore, as well as disconnected from empirical inquiries into what has worked and what has not in terms of social policy in urban America.

In 2013, the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation released an important analysis that examined the results of an ambitious and overlooked project that took place in the same neighborhood that was the epicenter of the recent unrest: Sandtown-Winchester.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke (D); developer James Rouse via The Enterprise Foundation; and community representatives such as Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, created a comprehensive plan for urban renewal in Sandtown-Winchester backed by $130 million in private and public funding and dubbed the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. Over the ensuing decade, the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative had two primary goals: rehabbing or building hundreds of units of affordable housing in an area with thousands of vacant and abandoned properties and complementing this rebuilt infrastructure with new efforts to improve schools, increase job opportunities, and improve health care for local residents.

The Abell Foundation evaluated the results of the initiative by comparing various census measures on poverty, income, educational attainment, and school data from 1990—prior to the implementation of the reforms—to similar 2011 figures, 21 years later. For an experimental control, the researchers also tracked social trends in nearby neighborhoods with similar socioeconomic profiles to Sandtown-Winchester—including Upton/Druid Heights; Penn North/Reservoir Hill; and Greenmount East—that were not part of the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

The researchers concluded that these efforts produced positive outcomes in terms of increased home ownership, reductions in poverty, higher percentages of high school and college graduates, and decreased crime in the neighborhood. But their analysis also revealed significant challenges that remained in terms of foreclosures—primarily during the housing crisis—chronic unemployment, and underperforming schools. With a lack of jobs in the neighborhood, the drug trade stepped in to fill the void. In a recent interview with The Baltimore Sun about the project, former Mayor Schmoke explained, “It was a real challenge, because you still had high levels of poverty in an area that had a significant infiltration of street-level drug dealers.” Mayor Schmoke voiced his belief that “[i]n dealing with issues like that, you have no final victories, and you have to have people coming behind you to build on your work.” The Sandtown investigation ultimately highlights the hope and clear cautions in a project of this scale and ambition:

Overall, the picture that emerges from the data underscores the durability of social inequality and the persistence of overlapping social problems in high poverty and racially segregated neighborhoods … All four neighborhoods profiled lag behind Baltimore City and the greater metropolitan area on most measures. Low family incomes, high unemployment, high crime, high poverty rates, and racial segregation are intimately linked in American cities, and have proven tenacious in the face of changing economic and policy contexts … Yet rather than give up on the families and children who continue to face danger in their neighborhoods and diminished prospects for educational and employment opportunities, we believe that this descriptive look at Sandtown points to the need for more evidence-based social policy intervention alternatives.

The Abell Foundation’s analysis dovetails with findings released in 2001 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation based on research conducted directly for The Enterprise Foundation. Interviewing participants involved in the project, the research team found that many social enhancements that resulted from the initiative’s comprehensive approach to improving Sandtown-Winchester were well received:

[Participants in the program] described many accomplishments … and the investment of more than $70 million in new funds for community improvements. Through these changes, [the neighborhood initiative] has improved the lives of thousands of Sandtown residents in small but significant ways.

Challenges also emerged in the Anne E. Casey evaluation, including issues of how residents can both work with and challenge powerful city and nonprofit institutions; lingering issues of race, class, and respect that hinder cooperation; and the need for more leadership development programs within Sandtown-Winchester.

These research projects highlight how place-based interventions—through mobility programs that help families move out of high-poverty areas and community-based approaches to development—play a vital, if incomplete, role in helping low-income families achieve safer and more stable lives.

Given that last month’s protests in Baltimore refocused attention on rebuilding the city’s urban core, what can the previous research projects tell us about what should come next?

Although issues of policing were the immediate focus of the recent protests in Baltimore, we shouldn’t be surprised that other long-term social problems in Sandtown-Winchester burst into the open again in 2015. It’s time once again for the city, local residents, private businesses, and the foundation and nonprofit world to tackle the issues that disrupted Sandtown-Winchester and other, similar neighborhoods. With a comprehensive and cooperative effort aimed at alleviating poverty, encouraging mobility, protecting people’s rights, and treating individuals equally and with respect, a brighter future for Baltimore is achievable.

Instead of just throwing our hands up in the air about the conditions of U.S. cities, Americans need to recognize that it takes sustained effort—built on long-term investments and ongoing learning about what does and does not work—to transform distressed neighborhoods and help people move from generational poverty with scant opportunity to social stability built on strong families, good jobs, and safe and healthy environments.

John Halpin is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and has lived in Baltimore since 2003.