Mother’s Day while driving home, I witnessed what could have been a tragedy. A few children were riding bikes along the sidewalk in front of the demolition site that was the location of four Baltimore brownstones. The demolition site had a gaping hole in the ground–approximately six feet deep–and security fencing was not set up to prohibit unauthorized access to the property. If any one of the children had lost control of their bikes, they could have fallen into the hole and been seriously injured. I immediately contacted agencies within the State of Maryland and the City of Baltimore to inform them about the unacceptable conditions present at that demolition site. The response from the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), as you will see below, has been lackluster overall. However, I have learned a lot over the last several months about the:
— Shameful state of many homes and other buildings in Baltimore
— Nature of gentrification and how it has been used to displace black people
— Sheer incompetence and reactionary nature of City government
For example, the number of emergency demolitions has spiked tremendously after the death of Thomas Lemmon on March 28, 2016 which resulted from the collapse of a dilapidated building. The City officials have known that many of these structures were in bad shape for years but they waited until after someone lost their life to then take aggressive measures to ensure the safety of these properties.
After evaluating the condition of all of the properties that HCD has on its watch list many more structures were slated for emergency demolition. The burden of the expense for demolition is being defrayed by implementation of the Governor’s C.O.R.E program. The program aims to conduct strategic demolition and stabilization of structures in Baltimore City as a means of “revitalization.” However, after researching policies and interviewing HCD officials, I have concluded that C.O.R.E. and HCD are using this program as a vehicle to gentrify Baltimore’s most blighted neighborhoods which are the result of racist housing policies dating back to the early 1900’s.
One clue for this agenda is that many of the houses slated for demolition have been taken into receivership. This means the city has received permission from the court to demolish the structure because the owner has failed to keep the structure in acceptable condition. However, the city doesn’t then own the land. They put a lien on the parcel in the amount of the cost of demolition. This means slum landlords can sit back and let the city prepare their property for sale. The only upside to this tactic is that they do not have commit arson like they did in the South Bronx circa 1980.
The city–at the expense of taxpayers–does the heavy lifting for removal of asbestos, lead and other toxins removal followed by demolition and clean filling. Finally, the slumlords need only to wait for the developers to come calling. At which time they can negotiate with the developer to cover the cost of the lien. In most instances, developers can either use a tax strategy to write off the expense or pass it on the eventual owner. In cases where the city has acquired title to the property, they offer the lots to developers for pennies on the dollar through programs like Vacant to Value. In the end, the taxpayers eat the cost of demolition and related work. We are effectively paying for own displacement which is what gentrification has done historically.
While dealing the physical danger of unsecured demolition sites and the threat of gentrification, residents in blighted neighborhoods are faced with health risks – physical and mental. As I move around the city I experience very intense feelings of grief, fear and melancholy. After spending sometime unpacking these feelings I discovered that the grief is rooted in the knowledge that our ancestors and elders often worked very hard and overpaid to become homeowners in the very neighborhoods that today look like virtual wastelands. I am definitely in fear of being exposed to toxins escaping from these structures as well as the emotional toll on my psyche in residing in such horrific conditions. This is the United States and few people actually care about the feelings of a black woman. With that said, there is the empirical evidence of how blight impacts health outcomes.
In “More Than Just an Eyesore,” (1) the authors detail the findings of a study which found that, ” of 107 US cities showed boarded-up housing to be associated with poor health, including outcomes as divergent as gonorrhea rates, premature mortality, diabetes, and suicide, even after controlling for confounding by sociodemographic factors.(12) The presence of vacant homes has also been associated with higher levels of crime and illegal activity such as prostitution, drug sales, and drug use by adolescents.(12–15) Vacant land has also been linked to elevated risk of fire injury.(16-17) 1 Simply, living in a area full of crummy structures is unhealthy and traumatic.
Since May quite a few other demolitions have occurred on streets that I walk or drive frequently. Again, most of them have been mobilized without any regard for community safety. With the assistance and support of the the village, I have continued to document these unsafe demolitions.
If you should see a demolition site that has no signage, no gate or that you think is otherwise unsafe, and you want to get involved then here are a few steps you can take:
Stop and note the address or nearest cross streets, take pictures, write down what you define as unsafe conditions
File a 311 Request (if you are not in Baltimore use your jurisdiction’s non-emergency municipal issue reporting process)
Email your city council representative and the entity* responsible for the demolition informing them about the unsafe site (include address or cross streets,pictures/videos and 311 Request Numbers)and request that the issues be corrected immediately
If the issues aren’t remedied in a reasonable amount of time forward your email to a wider audience that includes the Mayor, Ombudsman for the jurisdiction, and reporters. Also, use social media to inform your network about the issue and the lack of responsiveness to your concerns.
After that, it is time to got to the lawyers!
* You may have to do a little research to identify the responsible party. Running internet searches on the address, neighborhood, blight in that neighborhood, future development projects may yield good results. If you can’t find anything just send to your local representative or constituent services an email asking them who is responsible, and let them do the heavy lifting in locating contact information.
Today, after months of research, many emails to government officials and employees, countless conversations with community, pictures and Facebook Live videos, I penned the following email to city officials:
Upton has 186 and Sandtown-Winchester has 274 condemned structures according the Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development (BDHCD) website. It stands to reason that many of them will be demolished. Considering the response from BDHCD’s Demolitions department thus far to concerns raised regarding demolitions in Upton and Sandtown-Winchester, I have no expectation that they will provide appropriate oversight on future demolitions. Now, that I have had the benefit of seeing how the state’s C.O.R.E demolitions are being conduct (the Pennsylvania Ave site includes a gate with wind screens and a entrance flap, debris wetting, and signage) and after reviewing the city’s contracts for whole block and building demolitions (accessible via https://www.baltimorecitibuy.org/bso/external/advsearch/advancedSearch.sdo , search term: demolition). I demand that the city including BDHCD hold contractors K & K Adams, Inc. and P & J Contracting Co Inc. who have the demolition contracts for the city accountable for failing to met requirements specified within the contracts. Consider the following:
1. Contract B50003217 – Whole Block Demolition Solicitation states “In the event a City agency files written complaints regarding poor performance at one or more Sites/Locations, the City reserves the right to immediately require the vendor to cure within a three (3) days, and if not cured within three (3) days, to contract with another vendor to perform the work, and/or to immediately terminate the vendor’s contract for default and reassign to another vendor. (SW. 3(C), pg. 5).
The City reserves the right to terminate the contract at any time for unsatisfactory service or performance; the City also reserves the right to cancel this contract at thirty (30)days written notice should the needs of the City change.(SW. 5 (G), pg. 7)
The work to be performed under this contract involves the demolition of structures condemned by the City as unsafe, including structures deemed to be in a state of collapse or emergency condition. The Contractor acknowledges that it has considered this circumstance in its bid, that it has and will undertake such precautions as are necessary to protect other structures and the safety of all persons who may be affected by its work under this contract, and that the Contractor will not refuse to perform any such demolition project that the City deems necessary for reasons of public health and safety. (SW. 24, pg. 21)
CODES: The latest publication of the following established codes, standard and specifications insofar as they apply, shall form a part of these specifications. Contractor should determine whether any codes, regulations or laws are applicable and should not consider this list exhaustive.
A. The American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM).
B. Rules and Regulations of the Baltimore Gas & Electric Company.
C. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
D. National Electrical Code.
E. Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).
F. Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Act (MOSHA).
G. Applicable Baltimore City Codes.
(SW. 28, pg. 22).
It further states in Detailed Specification (S) 2. (pg. 28) that
D. All debris, rubbish, vehicular tires, scrap, etc., resulting from the operations under this contract shall be immediately removed from the site. No such material shall be stored or permitted to accumulate on the site. If the Contractor fails to remove excess debris promptly upon notification, the City reserves the right to cause the same to be removed from the site at the expense of the Contractor.
E. It will be the responsibilities of the Contractor to see that, upon beginning razing operations, no building or structures is left in a precarious or dangerous condition at any time.
F. Once the Contractor initiates demolition operations on a single structure or on a group of structures, he shall complete the entire demolition of these structures without interruption. This contract requirement will be strictly enforced. Failure to comply will result in the City issuing work orders to alternate contractors. Stopping work for lunches, or not working more than the normal eight (8) hour working day, or not working on Sundays and Holidays shall not be considered as an interruption. The City shall approve interruptions for any reason other than these in writing.
G. Proper precautions shall be taken at all times to protect vehicular and pedestrian traffic from any damage or injury which may be caused, either directly or indirectly, by the work under the contract. Such precautions shall include the erection and maintenance of fences, barricades, railings, guards, scaffolding, signs, coverings, lights etc., which may be required. Sidewalks shall have a minimum of four feet wide passage for pedestrian use. If at any time proper precautions are not being taken to secure this protection, the Contractor shall at no additional costs to theCity, install and maintain such additional protections as may be directed by the City and then in Detailed Specification 4. (pg. 31) it states:
B. The Contractor is cautioned to exercise all care to ascertain that the utility services for the structure or structures that he is to demolish are disconnected. Should any of the utility services not be cut off, capped, or disconnected, the Contractor shall not disturb same and shall communicate with the City so that the disposition of the utility services can be decided upon.
C. The Contractor shall consider it imperative that existing utility services such as drains, sewers, water lines, gas lines, electrical feeders, telephone wires, etc., or any of their adjuncts to be completely safeguarded and he shall conduct his operations accordingly. Should the Contractor damage such utilities they shall be carefully repaired as required by the Department of Public Works and Utility Companies having jurisdiction. All repair work connected with such damages of all City and Utility Companies shall be done and paid for by the Contractor.
D. The Contractor shall keep all sidewalks, streets, and alleys open at all times and adequate means shall be employed to protect pedestrian and vehicular traffic. As the structures are released to the Contractor for razing and during the life of the contract, it shall be the responsibility of the Contractor to remove and clear from the foot pavements fronting the structures snow, ice, and debris. Snow shall be removed and cleared away as required by Baltimore City Ordinance. Debris shall be removed and cleared from the streets, alleys and sidewalks by the end of each working day.
Finally, there is Detailed Specification 10B. (pg. 35) which states:
As herein specified, the Contractor is required to take proper precautions to protect the General Public from any injuries that may be caused by the work done under this contract.Adequate chain-link fencing or other approved rigid barricade is to be provided daily around the perimeter of unsafe exposed below grade voids as a prevention of possible personal injury. This contract requirement will be strictly enforced.
The demolition of the 500 Blk of Laurens St was initially ungated, with no evidence of any attempt to keep debris or dust controlled, water was left gushing from a pipe in the alley ( 311 Report No 16-00650197), wires were left hanging (Reported to BGE using the cross Laurens St and Division St), no signage was present, etc.. The instances in questions have been documented via pictures and video which have been provided in previous emails to the demolition department and others city officials or employees.
2. Contract B50004150- Building Demolition Solicitation has similar provisions to contract B50003217 in its General Terms and Conditions (GC. 38 and 43-44), Statements of Work (SW. 3 (D)) and Detailed Specifications ((DS. 2 (D-G &J)), (DS. 4 (B-D)), (DS. 5 (B)) and (DS. 11 (A-3) & (B)); the applicable provisions are listed in parenthesis. They were not followed at the Fremont Ave and Presstman St, Fremont Ave and Lafayette St nor the Fremont Ave and Dolphin St demolition site. The instances in question (sites ungated initially or for duration, gaping holes left on sites, no debris or dust control, sites unfinished for more than 30 days and no signage) have been documented via pictures and video which have been provided in previous emails to the demolition department and other city officials or employees.
Also, for contract B50003217 Detailed Specifications 6 & 7. and contract B50004150 Detailed Specifications 7. address requirements for dealing with Asbestos and other toxic materials which is defined as the city’s responsibility in part. I am requesting that the city provide proof that it and contractors met their respective responsibilities as outlined in the aforementioned Detailed Specifications for each of the listed sites in this email.
It is my expectation that steps are taken immediately to compel the contractors in question to remedy any current site issues as soon as practically possible. I further expect that serious consequences be levied against them for any violations of contract terms up to and including termination of contract and refusal to pay for services. In at least one case ( the demolition at Fremont Ave and Lafayette St) the contractor K and K Adams, Inc. told Zoe Bockius-Suwyn (of BDHCD) on or about 6/3/2016 that there was no hole at the site so a fence was not necessary. I went to the site after she informed of their statement and there was still a gaping hole present. This act in my opinion constitutes knowingly and willfully violating the contract and endangering residents; neither should be tolerated by BDHCD or any city entity.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to a just resolution to this matter. Have a great weekend!
Let’s see how this plays out. Contracts are king, right? So, the village needs the city to get procurement or legal on it asap. A demolition department employee told me that the contracts didn’t have sufficient teeth to hold contractors accountable. Well, my comprehension of the contract language says otherwise.
It’s funny but immediately before I hit the send button, I thought to myself, “Yo! What are you doing? Didn’t you tell others we should stop chasing Justice and care for Just Us.” Well, I did say that and I believe it because the truth is that the same system which finds the murder of black people at the hands of paid public servants to be acceptable also creates (through policy or promotes through culture) the blighted conditions in our community and these dangerous demolition sites. Is this the “double consciousness” discussed by Dubois or am I suffering from Fannon’s Cognitive Dissonance? I don’t know but I had spent hella time drafting that email so I sent it anyway. So it is for us “Eniggeros”. We struggle to feel, think and be free in the confines of a world that has been genetically modified to relegate us solely to the ranks of the animal kingdom. Shit, maybe I should just take my own advice.
Eniggeros – people self identified as Black who understand that race is a false construct but acknowledge it is still real as a tool of oppression and exists as a barrier to being perceived as having full humanity
P.S. Check out #AuditBmore on Facebook for photos and videos show the conditions of the demo sites
1 More Than Just An Eyesore: Local Insights And Solutions on Vacant Land And Urban Health, Urban Health. 2013 Jun; 90(3): 412–426.
Published online 2012 Nov 28. doi: 10.1007/s11524-012-9782-7, PMCID: PMC3665973 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3665973/)