Friday, April 18, 2014

The Centaur State and Gentrification in Baltimore

Today I was looking through files of slides at the National Archives in College Park, in search of photos of the Potomac Gardens public housing project. I came across a file titled "Housing (Renewal)/Urban Homesteading," which was about Baltimore. The photos showed many empty 19th-century houses in the Otterbein, Barre Circle, and Stirling St. areas of Baltimore in 1980. No one was around, except one person walking by in one picture, but the houses were encircled with fencing and under renovation. Under urban homesteading programs, cities like Baltimore sold abandoned houses for $1 to those who promised to renovate them. What caught my eye were two photos: one of a "Relocation Office" run by the city of Baltimore and the other was a sign selling "Fourteen Fine Townhomes" by a subsidiary of Lovell/IMG Holding.

Why was no one living in these houses? What had happened? In 1967 or 1968, in order to expand a highway, Baltimore established a condemnation line. Within this line, a swath of Baltimore would be condemned and demolished, including Barre Circle, Sharp-Leadenhall, Fells Point, etc. In addition, several high-rise residential buildings were also planned in Otterbein and Stirling St. It seems that this process of condemnation for the highway did not begin until 1972, which led to the city owning at least 100 houses (maybe many more?). This explains the photo of the Relocation Center. Through a Relocation Center like the one I saw in the photo, the city moved people out of their houses and out of their neighborhood. 

Very quickly, in 1973 and 1974, the city declared that the highway plans and the high-rise buildings had been scrapped, in part due to public outcry. The continually indecision about the highway and building plans since the 1960s had led the overwhelming majority of residents to move away, owners not to make repairs or needed renovations, and the city not to provide services or repair infrastructure. One resident told the Baltimore Sun that this process made the area "into a ghetto." 

At about the same time, the city started its urban homesteading program, selling the condemned houses for $1. Otterbein soon became quite a tony neighborhood. Developers also arrived in the area, building luxury townhouses. This explains the Lovell/IMG Holding sign in the photo. Overseas real estate developers like Lovell/IMG (IMG Homes is a subsidiary of Investors Management Group) were investing throughout the Baltimore-Washington area. For example, the fourteen townhouses built by Lovell/IMG in Otterbein priced (according to a 1981 Baltimore Sun article) at $140,000 (about $375,000 today). The 19th-century Victorian history was celebrated, and a historic district created. (In this post and this post, I wrote a bit about the problem of seeking to return to the Victorian era.)

Why weren't the former residents invited back? The city of Baltimore sought to "attract back into the city individuals whose incomes can help balance the increasing proportion of low-income families in the city," to "increase the tax base," and to create on every homestead block "a new neighborhood" (quotations taken from Emily Lieb's excellent Columbia University dissertation on Baltimore). The point of urban homesteading was not for the former residents to return, but rather was to bring new wealthier residents to the city. These areas of the city were seen as merely abandoned and seen as profitable. Their history was Victorian, not the history of the recent past. According to CUNY Geography professor Neil Smith's rent gap theory, gentrification "is most likely to occur in areas experiencing a sufficiently large gap between actual and potential land values" (p. 464). These areas had decreased so severely in value, but many could see their potential value. In the view of the city of Baltimore and the real estate industry, this potential value required a new kind of person with a certain kind of taste and the income to realize this taste.

UC Berkeley sociology professor Loic Wacquant talks often about the "centaur state," how the state punishes the poor (through displacement, mass incarceration, and paternalist disciplining) and nurtures the middle class and the wealthy. Did/does Baltimore experience the centaur state? What was the role of companies like Lovell/IMG and the real estate industry? What happened to all the people who passed through the Relocation Office? Did they try to buy a house for $1? Were they rejected? Did this happen in DC?

P.S. For more about urban pioneers and vigilantes, see my previous post "Capitol Hill Vigilantes."

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