You’ve Heard What’s Wrong in Freddie Gray’s Neighborhood. Here’s One Local’s Vision for Turning That Around

Blaize Connelly-Duggan’s vision for the neighborhood is all about community ownership and development without displacement.

Baltimore kids show their support for protesters. Photo by Cecilia Garza.

Penn North Community Resource Center is Baltimore’s oldest drug and alcohol recovery center. It’s located in Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up. In the weeks after Gray’s death, many media organizations shed light on the fact that Sandtown-Winchester struggles with shockingly high unemployment and poor education opportunities. For 20 years Penn North Recovery has offered the people who live here tons of different services including addiction treatment, job training, and community events. 

"It’s the safest place in Baltimore on a Friday night.”

“There is a dance here every Friday night open to the community that is drug and alcohol free,” says Ericka Alston, director of marketing and business development at Penn North. “From 8 p.m. to midnight there’s a DJ and people are dancing, selling food, and playing cards. It’s the safest place in Baltimore on a Friday night.”

When most businesses in Sandtown-Winchester shut down during last month’s protests, Penn North Recovery kept their doors open. They offered water, bathrooms, and a place to sit down and rest for those participating in the demonstrations. But mostly, they say, it was business as usual. People were still showing up for their treatment, and the employees were determined to continue their service during the time of crisis.

Penn North opened in 1993 when a group of acupuncture students began offering their services to women at a local detention center. The hope was that acupuncture would help relieve the symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal. The program was so well-received that it spread to the men’s detention center. Eventually the students created a space for residents to receive similar treatment outside of the detention centers.

Photo of Blaize Connelly-Duggan. Courtesy of of Penn North.

Today Penn North serves more than 12,000 people each year. Blaize Connelly-Duggan, executive director of Penn North Recovery, says the organization acts as a beacon of hope for a community that many residents feel has been forgotten and left behind. He’s hopeful that having Sandtown-Winchester in national news will help bring long-needed improvements to the neighborhood.

“I’ve been watching reporters and photographers come here from all over the world and take pictures of burned out and vacant buildings,” explains Connelly-Duggan. “Those buildings have been like that for years! That didn’t just happen from the riots.’”

YES! sat down with Connelly-Duggan to ask him about life in Sandtown-Winchester, the recent protests, and what he hopes will come next for his neighborhood.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Mary Hansen: When the protests started the mayor’s office, the Baltimore Police Department responded by calling in the National Guard and instituting a citywide curfew of 11 p.m. What was your reaction?

Blaize Connelly-Duggan: Well, Sheila Dixon came and visited us on Monday after Freddie Gray’s funeral. She is the former mayor. We’d had that scheduled for months. And she’s walking around and everybody’s saying “We love you! We love you!”

She’s really in touch with the people and you can tell that the community loves her. And Martin O’Malley came out yesterday, he was the mayor before Sheila. When O’Malley came out the community was like “Oh man, thank you so much. We love you.” He was instrumental in helping us get started when he was mayor.

As far as our current mayor, I don’t think she has spoken passionately and effectively enough for people to really get her leadership, but I think her call was right not bring in the National Guard right away. But like I said, I can’t really comment on the current mayor because I haven’t heard from her. And that’s understandable. She’s got her hands full, so I don’t expect her to come and visit with us, except that we are the biggest presence around here. We are the largest employer in this neighborhood. CVS had maybe eight employees. We’ve got 50.

George Marrow

Neighborhood resident George Marrow stands outside Penn-North on the day it was announced all six officers involved in Gray's arrest would be charged for his murder. Photo by Mary Hansen.

Hansen: Do you employ a lot of the people that come here for treatment?

Connelly-Duggan: All of our folks are recovering addicts and ex-offenders. They are folks that can’t get jobs at CVS and places like that. We employ them or we help them get jobs with our training program.

The thing is, when they finish the treatment program they are still living right here. They are still living with drugs being sold on the corner. There’s still a lack of jobs for people with criminal backgrounds and a limited education, even if they have a GED and basic skills.

It’s not an overnight process for someone to prepare to go get a job. Even with construction, you still have to be able to deal with your supervisor and co-workers and manage some of those triggers that might have caused your past self to walk off the job. A lot of folks come to us and can’t read or write. And it’s a long jump to get them to the point where they can walk in and fill out an application for something.

Hansen: What has Penn North Center’s relationships like with the police?

Connelly-Duggan: When we were on Pennsylvania Avenue, we were much more visible to police driving by on a regular basis. They would stop and start writing citations and tell people they couldn’t be standing outside. But we don’t have enough space to let everyone inside at once. They are waiting to get into their treatment program or their [Narcotics Anonymous] meeting or whatever it is. Or they are talking through their issues and helping one another. Or they’re just hanging out and living life. Where are they supposed to go? Back to a home where they’ve got no heat, or no air conditioning, or roaches or whatever it is? Some of them don’t have a home.

So they stand out on the street and talk, and the cops pull up and they are verbally abusive. Not all of them, but some of them. I think one of our city councilman in this district said it best. He said some of these young men are hurt and they don’t necessarily have the verbal capacity to express that rage. They don’t have the ability to walk into city hall. The riots were the only outlet that they know. It’s not actually a cognitive choice for them. It’s just what came flowing out. These are hurt young boys with decades of intergenerational poverty, substance abuse, and neglected neighborhoods. It’s lack of good schooling and jobs and nutritious food. There is no grocery store within walking distance from here.

These young men today are the product of a generation that was neglected.

And then they are verbally and physically abused by police on a daily basis. Whether they’re selling drugs or just hanging on the corner, the police don’t know the difference. I’ve tried to educate them about the difference between this group of young black people standing on the corner versus another. They come here and try to start arresting people thinking that we’re selling drugs because there are people stranding around waiting to get treatment.

Hansen: In the midst of the protests and the National Guard being called in, you have continued to provide services and continued your everyday work. Have you also gone to marches?

Connelly-Duggan: I personally have not participated in any of the marches but a lot of our clients and staff and volunteers have gone to different things. And a lot of the guys that were out there are kids of folks who work here. I don’t know them by name but I know that’s who they are because we are the community.

“This neighborhood is culturally significant to African American life in the United States.”

The interesting thing is our older generation was affected by the ’68 riots. When they were little, their parents were the ones rioting. But nothing was rebuilt afterward and the issues were not addressed at a fundamental level. So these young men today are the product of a neglected generation.

So it’s completely understandable when you look at it through that lens. They are just hurt young boys who want a hug. Sure, at the end of the day there are a couple of whack jobs, just like there are in any population. But there’s probably more whack jobs and serial killers on Wall Street then there are people who really want to do violence out here.

Hansen: How do you think this community can break out of that cycle of intergenerational poverty? How can the community heal? What do you see as the next step?

Penn North residents Roosevelt Jenkins (left) and George Jolly (right). Photo by Mary Hansen.

Connelly-Duggan: One of the things I’m hopeful about is something I noticed at the protests and marches. There probably hasn’t been that many white people in this neighborhood collectively in 45 years. And it was absolutely beautiful.

My goal is that we can bring large-scale redevelopment money into this neighborhood. This is the historic Frederick Douglass High School building. Thurgood Marshall went to school here, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday. This neighborhood is culturally significant to African American life in the United States.

I think about the walking tours that could be done down historic Pennsylvania Avenue. This building has a 1,500-seat auditorium with a balcony and an orchestra pit, which has basically been left to deteriorate since the school was closed around ’68. That could be a destination for incredible jazz. It could house acting classes or an after-school program for kids.

I’ve just been watching people walk up and down this street and I’m like, “You have no idea. A year ago you would never have been here.” There is a transformational moment in that. So imagine that in a few years people could come out here and bring blankets to the park and we’d have movie nights on Fridays. These two vacant buildings could be turned into restaurants.

Rebuilding would be great as long as the decisions makers are people from the community.

That’s my vision. Redevelopment without displacing the original residents. We just need to create jobs. If I had the resources, I’d call the owners of that CVS that got burned right now and buy the property out from under them for super cheap and put in an organic grocery store that’s owned by the community. I’d reopen all of these stores—except the liquor store—and open restaurants.

I see the beauty of it, the phoenix rising out of the ashes: All the job creation that can be owned by the community. Rebuilding would be great as long as the decision-makers are people from the community and the money flows into the right hands. God forbid they decide to rebuild CVS and bring in an all-white construction group that doesn’t live in this neighborhood. There are guys who live here who know how to do that kind of work.

Penn North from Dougal Thomas on Vimeo.

Correction: This article originally misspelled Ericka Alston’s name. The article has been updated.