Rebuild Metro has been around for 15 years, quietly working in East Baltimore. In 2002 the team began acquiring scattered properties in the Oliver neighborhood, collaborating with five local churches from whom they raised $1.2 million dollars, along with the city, who agreed to sell them the houses at low cost and turn them over to Rebuild, address by address, as they were ready to rehabilitate them. The developer, which is an outgrowth of BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development), used economic data and community relationships to get things started, focusing on small areas where they knew the rehabs would produce the greatest effect. “We build from strength,” said Sean Closkey, executive director of Rebuild, when I met him last Thursday.
“We work inward from natural boundaries—railroad tracks, a park, a business—to define an area where our work will have maximal impact.” The neighborhood needs to feel the transformation, see it, and celebrate it “if our efforts are going to be relationship-based and long-lasting,” he said. Perhaps most importantly, there has been no displacement of current residents. “It’s hard to build relationships when the community is gone,” Closkey reported in a 2018 Guardian article.
“The model here is to rehabilitate existing houses, as well as to take smaller actions, such as fixing up a corner garden, or clearing an overgrown field. All this is of a piece – and built around organizing – with residents taking charge of consulting neighbors, identifying needs, and mobilizing resources with support from local institutions and philanthropies.” (Siddhartha Mitter, Guardian)
Closkey and I talked about the vacant houses in Baltimore (16,000 by last count, with the city owning 2500 of those) and compared typical “urban renewal” to the community-based work that Rebuild Metro embodies. “Most often a developer acquires several blocks of a depressed neighborhood, helps the few remaining residents move to a new location, razes the existing housing stock, and builds a high density structure. A block of twenty row homes might be replaced with sixty new residences.”
“But the Baltimore housing stock, which was built for a city with a population of one million people, arguably doesn’t need more houses. Rather, neighborhoods like Oliver and Greenmount West are strengthened by being right-sized and having fewer houses, while adding more community-building features, like green spaces and coffee shops and small businesses. You can’t organize without residents,” Closkey adds, and since our vision is based on knowing the people we serve, “we help them stay in the neighborhood.”
“Place matters,” said the Reverend Calvin Keene, a former business executive who was called in midlife to be pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Oliver and to serve in the neighborhood that raised him. “And we nurture individuals’ commitment to a house or a church or a block into something bigger—a community that cares about its common life.” Keene is the board chair of Rebuild Metro, and he joined us for a tour, pointing out a playground where a drug market once plied its trade and a pocket park where a notorious tavern once stood.
Now, thanks to the tireless efforts of Regina Hammond, who has been organizing her block in Johnston Square for 20 years, Rebuild Metro will turn to this neighborhood which bridges the gap between Rebuild’s earlier projects. The work is radical, restorative, and regenerative, according to their website—slow and steady and organic, the way a plant grows.
Take a look at www.rebuildmetro.com and pray about how it moves you. If you want to learn more, reach out to me or parishioner Peter Bain. How might Redeemer be called to be part of this transformative community collaboration?