The Southwest Partnership's seven neighborhoods sail into the New Year on a tide of careful planning, the involvement of a major state hospital and a cadre of hyper active neighbors working together.
Financial support attracted by the University of Maryland, Baltimore's membership gives the neighborhoods staying power, power to imagine big change.
The university's involvement brought students and faculty into the game, the school of law, the social work school and other university assets became community assets.
The university's boss, Dr. Jay Perman, brought the most important ingredient: heart and highest-level commitment.
The street level commitment matches Perman's.
"Bloom Your Block" in the Union Square neighborhood brightens the iconic marble stoops. New restaurants and smart new carry out shops give Pigtown a new vigor. The neighborhood schools are part of a new program to train scientists and medical researchers -- the first of the National Cancer Institute's commitment to start nurturing neighborhood youngsters.
All of this grew from controversy. The University's Medical Center tried to slip another methadone clinic into one of the neighborhoods. Angry residents said, there you go again, or words to that effect. Activists said no -- not if you don't talk to us.
Perman sided with the neighborhoods. The Partnership grew from that point. Among many initiatives, the university opened an Engagement Center.
Ashley Valis, the center's director, recalls the challenge.
"How do you connect the dots to say we support all the gems in the neighborhood,” she wondered. “We were slow. We were the big behemoth in the room. But we are committed to changing the way we engage with the community around our campus.”
And she had to overcome distrust on the part of local residents because there’s “a lot of history around universities and low to moderate income communities,” Valis added.
In relationships of this sort, between the behemoths and the neighborhoods, leaders like Perman are tested. And by some accounts he's winning support.
Kirk Crawley, a lawyer, teacher and advocate for Franklin Square, one of the seven neighborhoods, says Perman’s “the man.”
“He believes in what he's saying. He believes in what he's doing,” Crawley said. “He's a true believer."
Engagement Center director Valis says disagreements are also part of the package. She says Southwest profits now from confidence in its own voice and from good luck.
"It was an organic confluence of events that occurred in the neighborhoods that caused leaders to say, 'We're better when we work with other neighborhoods and we're better when we work with the university and the medical center instead of being secondary thoughts in their plans,’” she explained.
Michael Seipp, the Partnership's director, says other city neighborhoods are finding similar confluences of events.
"People engage best when it's in their self-interest,” he said.
Johns Hopkins University Hospital is working with various groups on a number of initiatives worked out in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray death. Sagamore, the Under Armour development arm, has been working with BUILD, Baltimore United In Leadership Development, on a new neighborhood project, Port Covington.
Seipp says the city as a whole needs to encourage confluence. Federal and state financial help is not likely ever to reach the levels of the 1970s and '80s. The new development capital may involve leveraging what resources remain.
"We need as a city to take a risk," he said. "That's where we need institutional leadership to be more creative."
Something else that represents potential neighborhood change is change in city hall. Catherine Pugh, the new mayor, talks about neighborhood revival seemingly every time she speaks.
Starting at the university's engagement center, she took members of her cabinet on a tour of neighborhoods. Did they see food stores? Were there recreation centers and other family-oriented amenities.
"We have to make communities more attractive not just with housing but with community development," she said.
And, says Michael Seipp, the city has to address public safety. This will depend on good working relationships with the police -- not a new idea, to be sure, but one that needs to be revisited.
"If we rely on the police department to make our city safer we will fail,” he said. “It's not simply a policing problem. How police respond is critical. But we've got to look at how young men six to 30 are not engaged in society."
This point suggests opportunities for stronger neighborhoods to combine forces -- and ideas -- for mutual benefit.
For example, Seipp would find much to discuss with Joe Jones, director of the Center for Urban Families in Freddie Gray's old neighborhood, Sandtown-Winchester.
The subject: The missing black male figures in city neighborhoods. Jones uses a silhouette of Baltimore's skyline with ghost images of missing fathers, sons and brothers.
Sandtown, where Freddie Gray lived, has more ex-offenders than any neighborhood in the city. Gray's funeral was held right across the street from Jones' center.
If the city doesn't serious about find the lost black made, Jones says, "everything else is irrelevant."
"We still will find ourselves with the possibility of incidents like Freddie Gray,” he predicted. “We have a whole segment of Baltimoreans left on the opportunity sideline."
Empowered neighborhoods can influence policy on welfare rules, employment of ex-offenders and incarceration rates. Every neighborhood in the city could be engaged in shaping new policies.
Partnerships of the strong and the weak, based on the Southwest example, can make Baltimore better.
This special series on the Southwest Baltimore Partnership is made possible with grant support from Patricia and Mark Joseph.