In a City of Neighborhoods, Morrell Park Is Distinct – but Distinctly Baltimore

To me, climbing up Washington Boulevard from under the I-95 overpass into Morrell Park feels like crossing into a different world. The land of sports stadiums, Horseshoe Casino and the Montgomery Park building – all just a short distance behind me – seems like a faint memory.

And yet one thing is certain: I’m definitely in Baltimore.

Morrell Park mural

The neighborhood’s unassuming Charm City flavor was on display when I spoke with Wendy Roberts, President of the Morrell Park Community Association. As we wrapped up the interview – during which we talked about everything from children’s activities to 311 requests to race relations to violent crime – Ms. Roberts told me it was just like “having a conversation with my neighbor.”

(As a resident of the Charles Village/Old Goucher area, roughly five miles away, I took it as a compliment.)

If you’re wondering how to pronounce the name – MOR-rell or mor-RELL – Ms. Roberts told me it doesn’t matter. Everyone says it differently, and the variations increase when you factor in the Bawlmerese dialect that is very much alive and well in Morrell Park.

In spite of my impression of the neighborhood as a world of its own, Morrell Park was originally part of Charles Carroll’s “Georgia Plantation” that surrounded Mount Clare Mansion in Carroll Park to the north. (The plantation also included Westport, Violetville and Mount Winans.) Ms. Roberts hasn’t yet tracked down exactly when the land in Morrell Park was sold to housing developers, but she continues to search the history books and shares what she can find with the community.

Morrell Park map

Today the boulevard that serves as Morrell Park’s main street – lined with taverns, small businesses and chains like Royal Farms and Aldi – is also a popular route in and out of town from points southwest. It’s been a source of disappointment for Ms. Roberts that the neighborhood hasn’t seen the kind of development that’s happened in nearby Pigtown since the stadiums and casino were built.

“We are the main street that goes through to the stadiums or the harbor,” she said. “As a community, we would like to try to make it a little better so that it looks nicer for when people drive through.”

Of course, development in Baltimore often comes with conflict over displacement, or preserving the neighborhood’s “character” (a loaded term, I know). And perhaps the lack of recent development compared to nearby areas is one reason Morrell Park defies stereotyping.

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No Boundaries Coalition: “Baltimore Is a City of Innovation”

In December 2015, during an uptick in drug trafficking, representatives from No Boundaries Coalition lobbied the police department for more foot patrols along Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s the corridor where the historically black neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester, Upton, Druid Heights and Penn North intersect.

The police told them there were no resources for the patrols.

A day later, the same police department announced that after a recent surge in robberies in Bolton Hill, it would be tripling the patrol in the area by deploying four more officers.

Bolton Hill, as it happens, is on the other side – the whiter side – of Eutaw Place.

All these neighborhoods – along with Reservoir Hill and Madison Park – share a zip code: 21217. But for generations, that boundary of Eutaw Place has split Central West Baltimore into two different worlds.

21217

No Boundaries Coalition was formed in 2008 in an effort to erase that boundary. As CEO Ashiah Parker told me, the organization’s vision is a Central West Baltimore in which “neighbors can advocate together for issues that are important to these neighborhoods regardless of race, class or gender.”

It started with the Boundary Block Party, now an annual event to bring all the communities of 21217 together. In addition to food and entertainment, block parties over the years have also provided space for voter registration, listening campaigns, walking tours and other activities to connect residents to the broader community.

The block parties – which are now complemented with a more issues-oriented “CommUNITY Gathering” – gave rise to resident-led advocacy efforts in four main areas: public safety (including police accountability), health and food justice, youth organizing, and civic engagement.

The story I related above about the foot patrols came from a 2016 report called Over-Policed, Yet Underserved, which No Boundaries released in partnership with BUILD and UMBC. Later that year, the U.S. Department of Justice referenced that report multiple times in the summary of its investigation of the Baltimore Police Department. And as the consent decree took shape in the months that followed, No Boundaries played a significant role.

Over-Policed, Yet Underserved highlighted a dissonance that plagues residents in and around Sandtown. They feel unsafe because of the lack of police presence in the area to deter serious crime, and yet they also feel unsafe because of the overzealous policing of their everyday existence. A survey of 453 residents revealed 57 “unique accounts of misconduct,” including verbal harassment, humiliation and excessive use of force. Beyond that, 92% of the respondents refused to be on the record, “showing the extremely high level of fear community residents have of police retaliation.”

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The Neighborhood Associations Map Is Live

You can now find Baltimore’s neighborhood associations fully mapped on this site…

(Go to the neighborhood associations page to see a video on how to use the map.)

As I wrote in an earlier post, the actual list of associations is significantly smaller than what you’ll find on the city’s Department of Planning website. That’s because many of those associations are either no longer active or don’t have any presence online that I could find.

Even some of the associations I did find and are on the map might not be active. In several cases there was no evidence of activity in the last several years. But I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they might have continued activities even while their websites or social media pages have been dormant. Over time, and with your help, I hope to make the map more reliable in providing information on only those associations (and all those associations) that are currently active in their communities.

Those question marks aside, I think the level of activity is impressive, judging by how filled-in the map is. And beyond the neighborhood associations, there are also many broad coalitions and community development corporations (CDCs) helping out. (Those organizations are represented by the pins, rather than the colored boxes, on the map).

I’ll be spending the next few weeks and months getting in touch with individual organizations to get some deeper insights into what’s happening on the ground throughout the city. I suspect I’ll find a lot more reasons to be hopeful about Baltimore’s present and future. But even now, I’ve got a few I could mention:

  • At first I was disappointed to see how many neighborhood associations in the Sandtown-Winchester area had gone quiet in recent years. But that’s less of a problem when you consider the presence of resident-led organizations like No Boundaries Coalition, which operates throughout Central West Baltimore. And there are similar organizations operating in other areas where you might not see a neighborhood association.
  • No Boundaries is also an example of an association that rejects some of the NIMBY-like behavior sometimes ascribed to neighborhood associations. And while I did occasionally find signs of such behavior when assembling the map, I would say it was the exception rather than the rule.
  • Even to the extent that neighborhood associations can reinforce some of the uglier instincts of residents, Baltimore’s associations by-and-large don’t seem so rigid that they can’t be influenced based on the concerns of residents they might not have heard from yet.

The point of this map is to make it easier for Baltimoreans to participate and have a voice in their community. And at this point, I don’t see any reason why the city’s neighborhood associations, guided by the voices of their residents, can’t play a major role in crafting the solutions to the city’s problems, big and small.

As always, if you find any problems with the map – or anything that needs to be added – please let me know.

Like it says up at the top of this site, the point of this project is to recognize the assets of Baltimore. So now that I’ve got the map up and running, my main focus is going to be on reaching out to those assets – the people and organizations trying to make Baltimore better – and letting you know what I find.

Up Next: Baltimore’s Neighborhood Associations

I’ve been quiet on the blog since finishing my series on drug prohibition. That’s because I’ve been working on building out the site. In addition to the guide to elected officials, I now have an interactive map to easily situate any point in Baltimore within a city council district, Maryland legislative district, U.S. congressional district or Baltimore police district. Those maps all exist elsewhere, but this is the only case I know of where you can find them all in one place and (hopefully) navigate them easily.

You can also now donate to this project via PayPal if you want to support my work. I don’t think I’ll ever have ads up on here, and you certainly won’t see any aggressive fundraising efforts. But any donations to help keep this thing going are greatly appreciated.

The big project I’m working on now is an interactive map to help Baltimore residents find neighborhood associations where they live. Here’s a glimpse at my progress:

neighborhood associations as of June 12 2019

When it’s finished, you’ll be able to zoom in to your location, zero in on one of those colored boxes, and find information for any neighborhood associations in the area.

[Update: the map is up and running.]

The boxes probably won’t be as dense as they are in the image, though. I was working from the Department of Planning’s master list at first. But I quickly discovered that many of the listed associations either 1) are no longer operational or 2) have no web or social media presence.

I may change my mind later, but for now I’m not going map associations with no web or social media presence. I don’t want to make a value judgment about such associations, but given that this is a digital media project, associations that aren’t interacting with residents through digital media aren’t in my wheelhouse.

Even as I write that, I realize how poorly it would reflect on this project if I end up excluding communities without easy access to the Internet. Hence, like I said, this may change.

That also brings me to my next blog series, which I’ll begin once I get the map finished. I want to look at Baltimore’s neighborhood associations and ask some questions about them. Namely, how effective are neighborhood associations in achieving positive change for residents? And to whatever extent they fail at doing so, are there remedies that can be feasibly implemented?

These questions open up all sorts of other questions about the factors that may hold neighborhood associations back: Do neighborhood associations favor homeowners over other residents? Are they more effective in affluent neighborhoods than in poorer neighborhoods? And do they favor the more affluent residents (or older residents) within their neighborhoods? Can they reinforce discrimination and halt positive change (i.e. NIMBYism)?

I realize some of you might be shouting “Yes, dummy!” at your screens as you read those questions. And yes, I might conclude at the end of my research that all these problems are rampant in Baltimore neighborhoods, that they’re too entrenched to ever change, and that neighborhood associations are not viable agents of positive change in the city.

But then again, I might not. And I think it’s worth investigating.

I’ll talk to you again soon.