At the end of the day, when the kids finally gave up on drawing chalk art in the alley and the never-ending barbecue under the shade trees had no more takers, and the boom boom-boom of the music settled down, Sonia Eaddy started slowly for the edge of the grass with mic in hand.
She was hard to read: Was she tired? Was she struck with stage fright?
I had only met her that day a year ago in July 2021. She was a welcoming host for the Save Our Block rally to preserve a historic street in Poppleton, a West Baltimore neighborhood, whose most famous resident was Edgar Allan Poe, and whose early 19th-century house physically sits at the end of housing projects known as Poe Homes. The homes now look onto a new multistory complex, with a gleaming stainless steel façade. This surreal juxtaposition — a rec center that has been padlocked for decades, a swimming pool that stands mockingly empty on summer days, and her own lovingly restored home facing a reality that it could be ripped down by a backhoe in a day all spin around as taunting proof about her city. As she would put it, “The city does what the city does best — nothing.”
When I first saw Eaddy speak, her voice boomed off the very homes along Sarah Ann Street that were in the crosshairs of condemnation and even demolition, and her words bristled with a fire burning low and long in a forge of pain and a sense of justice denied her by the city that, remarkably enough, she still loves.
“Eminent domain is supposed to be a take for a public use. Can you all look around? Anyone driving around, can you see a public use? They have left our community devastated.”
She then pointed down the picturesque row of homes known colloquially as alley houses — cute cottage-like rowhouses found and cherished in places like Fells Point — but here they stood in danger of demolition, and their residents, many of whom were at the Save Our Block barbecue, would be forced out just a few months later, the homes, emptied and painted in whimsical pastels, boarded up.
“Y’all just broke up a whole family even though they’re not by blood,” she said then, knowing what was to come. “But guess what? They were unified because they lived in this one block together.”
If words could punch, this speech would have delivered relentless head-snapping blows to arguments supporting this style of clear-cutting “blight removal” development so favored by Baltimore and municipalities nationwide. True urban renewal, or what James Baldwin called Negro removal — later called revitalization, and now gentrification — is getting a good hard look these days. But who sees the toll on the people forced to move and relocated out of public view?
As a reporter here in the early 2000s, I witnessed and followed residents forced to relocate to make way for development in East Baltimore, then known as Middle East. Residents asked how they could ever replace their homegrown network of folks who gave rides to stores, looked out for each other and offered advice at the bus stop. The kind of familiarity that comes from rowhouse culture, and is brutally hard to restart in a new neighborhood. As several older residents told me, even the drug dealers were people they knew — in a new neighborhood, everyone was a stranger.
Now Eaddy and her family were looking at the same fate. “Where are we going to go to, except to another blighted neighborhood,” she said.
Eaddy encapsulates Baltimore’s urban renewal past and present when a neglected but beloved neighborhood finds itself having sudden value as something else, something not for the original residents. Despite all the promises to residents that they can return to a rebuilt neighborhood, residents have described a sense of powerlessness as planners and developers were off dreaming up an entirely different entity.
In Poppleton’s case, the redevelopment now serves as an ideal support community — a throwback to the all-inclusive factory town — for the University of Maryland’s growing biotech park that is pushing down Baltimore Street. According to the Eaddy and other residents, the city and the New York-based developer La Cité, which has received more than $58 million in public financing, have been particularly opaque about the proposed 1,650 residential units and 100,000 square feet of commercial retail space.
But what was Eaddy going to do about it? On that day a year ago, when she declared the start of a movement, I jumped in as an entrenched documentarian focused on telling the story from residents’ point of view. What is it like to be handed a condemnation letter and take on an an almost unwinnable fight? As John Murphy, a well-known Baltimore eminent domain attorney put it, the last place a person fighting eminent domain wants to go is to the courts because they routinely uphold the government’s rights.
“On a legal matter, it’s impossible to defeat,” he said. “You got to do it politically.”
Eaddy and Poppleton residents basically wrote the playbook on just how to win in the political arena.
“We invited the public into our world and … Poppleton’s world,” said Eaddy. “It became this reality of not only what we live in, but now everybody can see it.”
Eaddy’s storytelling has long fermented in her family. Her husband, Curtis, may be seen standing quietly by her side, at times whispering in her ear, but catch him leading O’ Taste and See Apostolic Faith Church on North Avenue, and the oratory is sound. Her father, Donald Waugh, is a master storyteller. Known as China, he’s an elder in the Baltimore equestrian tradition known as arabbing and a go-to for tales from the old days when horses and wagons brimming with produce, coal and fish filled the streets.
Not only does Eaddy understand the power of story, but she was masterfully using it as a wedge, forcing Baltimore’s closed-off city government to open up. She was working with Nicole King, an associate professor and American Studies department chair at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. King’s students released a series of brochures pointing out architectural features and the historic significance of Poppleton, which had already lost many structures due to the clear-cutting approach to the development. They organized a film festival at the Charles Theatre of shorts focused on Poppleton, including one I produced.
All of this created a paper trail for Eaddy and other residents to challenge the city with the question: Does Black history matter? And in case there was any confusion, Eaddy secured a muralist, who helped paint the side of their house. Black Neighborhoods Matter, Eminent Domain law is violent.
Meanwhile a group, Organize Poppleton, with Eaddy and King, was continuously strategizing, trying to force the city to commit to preserving the last of the neighborhood’s original integrity. They believed that Mayor Brandon Scott, who ran on a reform platform of transparency and accountability, would be an ally when he saw how this issue of representation would play out to his supporters.
In January, the mayor wrote Poppleton Now, a neighborhood group: “I am committed to a reset in regards to the redevelopment of Poppleton.” But then came no further communiqué. Not the type to sit around and wait, Eaddy and organizers set up a neighborhood tour inviting city officials and news media. The mayor didn’t make it. But Deputy Mayor Ted Carter, Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy and others spent two hours looking at rubble left by the city next to Eaddy’s house, vacant lots, an abandoned urban farm and the new apartment complexes that stand as an odd contrast to the empty lots.
“We want everyone to see what eminent domain is like in the Black communities of Baltimore City,” she said to the officials.
To build their case, Eaddy and the organizers sought historic status for the Sarah Ann Street homes; such a step would make it harder for the structures to be razed. King’s workshop, including a cadre of Baltimore historians like Baltimore Heritage, built a case that included land deed records indicating that Black ownership on Sarah Ann Street goes back to the 1880s. When the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation postponed a hearing on the matter, Eaddy and her organizers planned a news conference on the steps of City Hall to decry the intolerable limbo.
But in the days leading up to the news conference, officials asked them to hold off. The city was in deep negotiations with the developer, and promised a big announcement, Eaddy said.
When that announcement came on July 18, Eaddy was standing on the edge of the grass with mic in hand flanked by community members, Scott and Kennedy. Eaddy said the expected things — thanking supporters and pointing out how working with the city finally spared her house and the Sarah Ann homes. But then came that voice, that fire, maturating since 2006 when the neighborhood was put on notice that plans were coming their way. This struggle, she said, wasn’t really about saving her house.
“I didn’t hire my lawyer to help me to remain here,” she said. “I hired my lawyer because I wanted to fight the laws of eminent domain in the state of Maryland.
“So we’re going to need not just Poppleton, but we are going to need the neighborhoods of all of Baltimore City, to be out here, to be putting it in, to letting our mayor, letting everybody know what we need to let our neighborhoods to be vibrant, to be healthy that others will want to come in and move into Baltimore City.”
In the weeks after this news conference to this day, a period that can easily be deemed as a celebratory, Eaddy has been struck with an unease. She wants to make sure that residents are truly part of the planning process and not handed decisions made behind closed doors and then later asked for input. She wants the city to officially end the use of eminent domain to spur development.
But she also knows times and opinions are changing. If she has her way, she’d like to lead the challenge to eminent domain all the way to the Supreme Court. Yes, the Supreme Court in 2005 upheld the use of the constitutional power, but the dissenting opinion in the 5-4 vote warned, “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.”
A steep climb? Maybe. But on this recent Sunday, Eaddy is sitting in the grass in Druid Hill Park at her husband’s church picnic. Kids were still playing, some adults were trying to negotiate some take-home barbecue. A year ago, she was standing at the grass’s edge, imploring the folks before her to “wake up.”
“We have the power,” she said a year ago, when she didn’t know how long she could live in her house. “We have the influence, but it’s time for us to take our voices and make it one. It’s time for movement.”
Sonia Eaddy has her movement. Now comes the hard part.
Charles Cohen is a Baltimore-based writer and filmmaker who has followed Sonia Eaddy and Poppleton residents in their fight to reclaim their neighborhood.