Baltimore: What The NYT Didnít See Fit to Print

Posted by Matthew Schwarzfeld on August 19, 2008

Editor’s Note: The sixteenth and seventeenth paragraphs of this post have been revised to clarify the controversy over the two research studies mentioned.

Johns Hopkins has a complex and mixed relationship with the mostly black residents of the east Baltimore neighborhood in which the main campus is located, but a recent article in The New York Times on the university’s $1.8 billion expansion plan largely ignores the issue. Though the university expansion will result in the dislocation of thousands of low-income residents, The Times looks almost entirely at the positive business impact.

Johns Hopkins’ expansion is the largest urban renewal project in the country. The university, through a nonprofit partnership, the East Baltimore Development Inc., has acquired 88 acres, much of it through eminent domain. The project will raze a large part of East Baltimore—an infamously crime-ridden area with high vacancy rates — and replace it with office buildings, university lab facilities, and mixed-income housing.

The Times article, which ran in the real estate section, sees the project as nothing but a positive. It describes EBDI’s work as “turning what had become an urban wasteland into a vibrant, 88-acre community” and “demolish[ing] a neighborhood to save it.” (A June 2007 article that ran in The Times national section presents a more-balanced view).

Advocates have strongly opposed The Times‘ characterization of Johns Hopkins as saving the neighborhood. In fact, many area residents see the university as anything but a good community partner — both in the course of this project and historically.

“It was a very straightforward article that ran in the [real estate] section. That’s the part of the paper where they tell people how to make money,” said Mindy Fullilove, author of a recent study on the impact of eminent domain on minority neighborhoods and a consultant to an East Baltimore residents advocacy group.

A recent discussion on the Hopkins expansion on this blog raises the question of a university’s responsibilities to its community. The author, David Holtzman, argues that “The biggest challenge in establishing healthier relationships between universities and their neighbor communities is that the institutions see themselves as their own worlds. They don’t consider themselves to be part of those communities, sharing the same space as residents and small business owners.” Based on my reporting on East Baltimore, this certainly appears to be the case with Johns Hopkins —though The Times ignores it.

Most distressing to local organizers is how The Times blurs what they see as Hopkins’ bad faith efforts to mitigate the impact of the project on local residents. The article doesn’t mention the complex adversarial process through which residents were remunerated when displaced through eminent domain — a phrase not even used in the Times article.

According to The Times, 153 homeowners received an average of slightly more than $150,000 for their homes and moving expenses, and 243 renters received $50,000.

Ray Winbush, Director of Urban Affairs at Baltimore’s Morgan State University and the only critic of the project cited by The Times, points out that these numbers are more complicated than they seem. According to Winbush, EBDI originally offered only $70,000 per house; the figure increased only after a local advocacy group, the Save Middle East Action Committee, brought public pressure on Hopkins and its partners. Even with the increase, owners whose homes are worth more than $150,000 or who are being relocated to a more expensive home with a bigger mortgage face a loss.

“This thing was dropped on the community,” Winbush said. “EBDI didn’t give us anything. SMEAC earned whatever we got. EBDI fought every idea and every suggestion we had for East Baltimore.” SMEAC is not mentioned in The Times article.

Though Hopkins and its partners, including the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, have set aside tens of millions to help the displaced families, Fullilove and others dispute that relocation funds can offset the destruction of a community.

“The harms that are done by relocation aren’t mitigated by the money given to an individual. There’s great harm done to the collective,” Fullilove said.

The Times also ignores the impact of excluding current residents from an area of investment and shuttling them out of the city center, Fullilove argues. Some families will be eligible to return once the project’s homes are constructed, but this will be a small subset. Not only does this deny many poor blacks access to the wealth that will be generated from the project, but it also may have destabilizing effects across the region.

“These are people getting pushed out of an area of investment. Wherever they’re pushed to will become the new place of disinvestment,” Fullilove said.

The article also omits any mention of Johns Hopkins’ troubled relationship with Baltimoreís black community, which dates back as long as Winbush can remember.

Most recently, media reports about a research arm of the university spreading sludge in the backyards of homes occupied by poor black families to counter lead poisoning spurred cries of racism, although some of the same media outlets doubted their own analysis of the risks and possible benefits of the study. In 2001, the same Hopkins research center came under attack by a Maryland appeals court judge, who equated a study that may have exposed poor black infants to lead paint and lead dust to the 40-year experiment by the U.S. Health Service that exposed black men to syphilis in Tuskegee, Alabama. As with the sludge experiment, details of the Hopkins researchers’ actions have been disputed, and lower court judges saw no problems with the study’s ethics.

Regardless of the merits of these cases, these incidents stirred old fears of the university held by many in the black community.

ďItís always been known as Johns Frankenstein to a lot of us, even though we are well aware that Johns Hopkins is one of the finest research institutions in the world,Ē Michael Eugene Johnson, state director of the Black United Fund, told the Baltimore Sun. ďPeople would say, ĎDonít go past there at night, you might come up missing.í Ē

The article’s discussion of Forest City, Hopkins’ development partner, has also caught the attention of opponents of eminent domain outside of Baltimore. The blog NoLandGrab, a strong opponent of Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project (Forest City Ratner is a subsidiary of Forest City), blasted the Baltimore article in a recent post. Opponents of Atlantic Yards have called the paperís coverage into question, noting that the Times Company and Forest City have a series of business collaborations.

“I’ve long commented that, while I don’t think there’s any directive in the newsroom to go easy on Forest City Ratner (or its parent company, Forest City Enterprises), the business relationship means that the newspaper has an obligation to be exacting in its coverage — and, in the case of Atlantic Yards, it has too often failed to do so,” said Norman Oder, editor of the Atlantic Yards Report. “The omission of eminent domain in this article [about East Baltimore] strikes me as another example of that failure.”

Though disappointed, the article did not surprise critics of the Hopkins project.

A more balanced article “would have shown the dark side of development. This article didn’t want to do that. It only wanted to show the shiny new penny on the east side,” Winbush said. “This article was clearly intended to be deletion by omission.”

About the author more ¬Ľ

"Matt Schwarzfeld":mschwarzfeld@gmail.com is a freelance journalist who has written for the Village Voice, ProPublica, and City Limits Weekly. He worked as a policy analyst for a national criminal justice research firm for several years, and is now a graduate journalism student at New York University.

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