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Baltimore coalition transforms vacant home into community center

Baltimore's Tubman House in its early stages of renovation, spring 2016 Photo: Bryan Vana / AFSC
Friend of a Friend program director Dominque Stevenson with supporters during a press conference at Gilmor Homes Photo: Bryan Vana / AFSC
New gardening beds in previously vacant lot Photo: Bryan Vana / AFSC

This spring and summer, the AFSC’s Friend of a Friend program partnered with several grassroots organizations as well as a coaltion of Friends and supporters in a focused effort to make a lasting mark in West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood by transforming a vacant rowhome into a hub for community leaders, activists and youth.

The Tubman House, located at 1618 Presbury Street next to Gilmor Homes in Baltimore, is owned by the city, but is not legally inhabited and before recent renovations was much in need of repairs. With help from the Reclaiming Our Lives initiative, the Coaltion of Friends and others, Friend of a Friend was able to oversee improvements to several rooms in the house and the adjacent corner property so that they can be safely used as community space.

Since its founding, the Tubman House has been central to groups supporting the revitalization of Sandtown and Gilmor Homes, working as a meet-up point for protests, vigils, town hall meetings and press conferences. Because of its location next to the memorial to Freddie Gray, the site has also received attention from media crews who have visited since Gray’s death in April 2015. More recently the block also hosted The Grassroots Global Justice Alliance People’s Caravan, an activist group that came to engage Sandtown residents in solidarity while traveling between the Republican and Democratic national conventions.

Although many locals have been enthusiastic about the development of the house, Friend of a Friend continues to negotiate with the City of Baltimore in order to find a long-term solution regarding the future of the property, which originally was slated for demolition.

“When residents have spoken about what they want for their community, I think it would behoove the city to take heed,” says former Friend of a Friend associate Taalib Saber about the strong neighborhood support for the house. “It’s not just a bunch of outside activists coming in—it’s the community ... changing the dynamic of Gilmor Homes, and Baltimore in general.”

Resident support includes even area gangs, who have voiced that the center should be a safe zone for activists and young people.

An earlier project organized by Friend of a Friend and the Coaltion of Friends to replace basketball hoops at Gilmor Homes proved that with cooperation of residents and community leaders, positive change could take place even if the city is reluctant to move—in this case the coalition worked through red tape to successfully install new hoops, making the court usable again.

Tubman House officially opened its doors in the spring and since then has offered a variety of services partner to help with weekly sessions. In a piece produced by Baltimore’s 88.1 WYPR, Friend of a Friend program director Dominque Stevenson emphasizes the liberation aspect of the house. “You can reclaim space ... and make [it] useful to the community. You also have power, no matter how much you’ve been told you’re powerless.” Resident Akoya Watson agrees: “There is definitely a need for something like this, for the children in this neighborhood specifically.” Parents in Sandtown who have seen multiple West Baltimore recreation centers close in recent years may see Tubman House as an option for filling a gap in the city’s resources for youth.

Next steps for the house include updating its water and electrical systems, further improving the space as Friend of a Friend and supporters find new ways to utilize the property for the neighborhood’s benefit.

In August of 2016, Baltimore's City Paper named Tubman House "Best DIY Venue" in its annual "Best of Baltimore" issue.

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