In April, just hours after mourners gathered to pay their last respects to the body of Freddie Gray at Baltimore’s New Shiloh Baptist Church, the streets of his city went up in flames. The outrage at Gray’s death at the hands of police gave way on the day of his funeral to smoldering street scenes that seemed ripped from a past generation’s headlines. Now that the ashes and broken glass have been swept away, some locals are starting to think beyond just “cleaning up” the streets; they’re imagining a reclaimed urban landscape.
Across town from Gray’s impoverished neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, another low-income community, McElderry Park, has been turning sites of urban neglect into spaces of sanctuary. At the back of the Amazing Grace Lutheran Church lies a refuge known as the Amazing Port Street project. The project is a green “sacred commons” reclaimed from a blighted stretch of demolished properties and redeveloped into community garden beds that cultivate vegetables for local food aid, spaces for public gatherings, and a tranquil spot Pastor Gary Dittman calls a “prayer labyrinth for centering meditation.” The centerpiece is “half a block of green-space for play, one of the only open green spaces in McElderry Park.”
The vibrant parcel may seem anomalous, but many hope to replicate it through the special type of development scheme that makes this space possible, a Community Land Trust (CLT).
The basic concept is both intuitive and novel in a city flooded with so-called “abandoned” and “neglected” property. A land trust starts with the idea that land has inherent value. Plots are collectively owned, developed and governed by community members; individual residents apply to build or lease on the land under the community’s oversight. The nonprofit joint ownership structure encourages cost-controlled and inclusive urban planning.
While rent controls and public housing are common policy instruments for keeping housing markets affordable, CLTs enable residents to make communal decisions on land use according to local needs. Though CLT’s are often geared toward supporting homeownership, to deal with Baltimore’s chronic urban crisis, activists hope publicly supported CLTs can provide a democratic platform for connecting the poorest residents directly with the land, so they too have a say in how housing is distributed.
Amazing Grace’s commons are run by the Charm City Land Trusts, a local organization run by a board of community members. Other community gardens have cropped up based on the land trust model, several of which have been developed from formerly blighted plots, purchased and rehabilitated by the nonprofit Baltimore Green Space. The Charm City Land Trusts is now hoping to venture into residential housing development for local families, who have long suffered from both unaffordable rents and dilapidated neighborhoods.