In a vacant home across from where Freddie Gray was arrested one year ago, Baltimore officials see an eyesore that needs to be destroyed. Community activists see an opportunity for rebirth.
Welcome DIY Safety to the Harriet Tubman House. The block was a wreck when officers picked up Gray in a police transport van, and it’s still a wreck today. Homes sit squalid, with splintering boards nailed over doors and windows. There are 17,000 more homes just like them across Baltimore’s most economically depressed neighborhoods. As Gray’s death cast a spotlight on Baltimore, they’ve become an emblem of the systemic neglect, inequality and political failures that have plagued the city for decades.
But on this block, the Tubman House stands out.
Galvanized by Gray’s death, a coalition of activists have spent months renovating, clearing debris, painting, and laying the groundwork for a community center. They named it the Tubman House for the civil rights crusader and painted a mural of her on the big white kitchen wall.
There’s just one problem: They’re squatters. The “1619 Coalition” which includes the community groups Baltimore United for Change, Friend of a Friend, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and others started rehabbing the property without permission. The city still owns the building and has said that unless the activists go through proper channels, it will board the house back up.
The coalition is unsurprised and undeterred.
“The national narrative, where we need saviors to come in and save Baltimore? This entire effort is designed to challenge that narrative,” said Lawrence Grandpre, one of the founders of Baltimore United for Change, at a recent open house. “We have the power to save ourselves, and that’s exactly what this effort is trying to produce. Just one house can have a huge impact on the structure of a community if those in power are energy providers willing to realize that these resources are something that should to be invested in, not a blight to be demolished.”
The coalition began to inquire about the property in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood last year, Grandpre said. The city told them the process could take two years and could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said. The group decided it wouldn’t wait.
“The city owns thousands of vacant homes; they see it as a profit-making venture,” Grandpre said. “We don’t think profit should come before energy community.”
Hours after the open house, city inspectors showed up and told the group to pack it up and move along, said Dominique Stevens, director of the local chapter of Friend of a Friend, a Quaker organization.
But “we ain’t going nowhere,” she said. “And it’s overdue. We did this hoping other people in Baltimore will do similar actions. We need to start reclaiming our communities.”
Tania Baker, a spokeswoman for the city’s housing authority, did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment.
The city bought Tubman House last year for roughly $25,000 and relocated its residents as part of a plan to raze the block. Similar plans are underway throughout the city; Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced this year that the state would spend $700 million tearing down thousands of vacant Baltimore homes to replace them with new developments.
But Stevens said wholesale demolition isn’t the right solution.
Taking DIY Safety over the abandoned house “flies in the face of what Hogan wants to do: He wants to raze this neighborhood so it looks like the Lower Ninth Ward,” Stevens said. “How much sense does that make? Buying a house to knock it down rather than renovate it?”
Next to the house a corner property across from Gilmor Homes, a public housing complex the group has planted grass and installed raised beds to provide green space and one day perhaps a vegetable garden. Inside, the group plans art and dance classes, and political education courses. If other homes on the block are razed, members hope to use the space for a playground.
On April 12, the anniversary of Gray’s arrest, children ran in the grass at the house, tossing a big rubber ball and chasing one another. A week later, a community cookout marked the anniversary of Gray’s death. Music blared from a sound system in the garden plot, and the smell of sausages on the grill floated through the air. On the side of the house, artists projected a video piece about police brutality. One man, Abdul Salaam, who recently won a civil case against outdoor ideas Baltimore officers he said beat him during a traffic stop, stepped into the grass and took the mic.
“I’m so glad to be here,” he said, smiling and looking out at the crowd, “and I’m so glad we’re able to continue our push toward progress and positivity, right here in Baltimore.”