These rowhomes in the 1700 block of Preston Street are some of the houses that ReBuild Metro has rebuilt. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

When fire engulfed the Dawson family’s home in East Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood in October 2002, two of Pastor Calvin Keene’s brothers and his mother were living three doors down.

A man had set the Dawsons’ home ablaze in retaliation for Angela Dawson and her husband Carnell alerting police to drug activity. Angela, Carnell and five of their children died as a result of the fire.

Rocked by the tragedy, the community turned grief into action.

“That was part of the impetus behind us making a declaration that that wasn’t going to happen again in our community,” said Keene, the pastor at Memorial Baptist Church in Oliver since 1993.

Twenty years after the Dawson fire, community members and organizational partners are still working to address vacant homes and foster an all-around healthier community. Hundreds of houses have gone up; the community has fought to keep schools open. And while they’ve seen success, the efforts show just how much work it takes to rebuild a community where decades of disinvestment ravaged the fabric of the neighborhood.

“Our belief is that organized people and organized money equals power,” Keene said. “And so we tried to build a powerful organization in the community to effect the change that was needed.”

By the time of the Dawson fire, Memorial Baptist Church was already a member of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development and was working with other BUILD member churches in the area – including Zion Baptist Church, Knox Presbyterian Church and St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church – to uplift the Oliver neighborhood.

But Keene said the fire made their mission more critical.

In 2003, the churches raised $1.2 million to rebuild vacant homes in the neighborhood. A cluster of houses on Preston and Caroline streets, across from Memorial Baptist Church, were among the first that they tackled.

The BUILD churches went on to work with the nonprofit ReBUILD Metro, starting in Oliver and expanding their efforts to Broadway East, Greenmount West and, most recently, Johnston Square.

ReBUILD Metro has created or redeveloped a total of 429 homes. Of those, they have rebuilt 210 formerly abandoned properties, including 172 in the Oliver and Broadway East areas.

(Top) A group of homes in the 1700 block of East Biddle Street that ReBuild Metro is rebuilding in East Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood. (Bottom) The same group of vacant homes in November 2020, before ReBuild Metro began working on them. Top photo by Marcus Dieterle. Bottom photo via Google Maps.

The city’s housing authority demolished the home where the Dawsons lived at the corner of Preston and Eden streets and in its place built the Dawson Safe Haven Center, which offers after-school programs. Across the street, the Dawson Family Memorial Garden was also installed.

But Oliver residents wanted to pay tribute to the Dawsons in a larger way.

“The BUILD churches, after the Dawson family fire, said ‘We need to rebuild this community and create a legacy that’s worth the sacrifice that the Dawsons made.’ And that isn’t just a community garden; that’s an actual healthy community,” said Sean Closkey, president of ReBUILD Metro.

Vacant properties have plagued Baltimore for years, particularly in the “Black Butterfly” neighborhoods – a concept coined by Lawrence Brown, author of “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America” – that have long faced underinvestment.

Although the city has reredeveloped or demolished thousands of vacant homes, the cycle has continued.

“It’s like a virus,” Closkey said. “It just keeps expanding if you don’t nip it in the bud. When you do end up having to address it, you have to address it fully.”

After a fire at a vacant home on Stricker Street in Southwest Baltimore claimed the lives of three Baltimore firefighters in January, a citywide conversation on vacant properties began anew, with Mayor Brandon Scott instructing city agencies to examine their policies for addressing vacant properties.

The BUILD member groups and ReBUILD Metro sought to better connect the neighborhoods between two major Baltimore institutions: Johns Hopkins Hospital and Penn Station.

“Part of our strategy was to create a walkable community from Johns Hopkins’ hospital complex on Broadway all the way up to Penn Station and making the communities in between more vital because of those two longstanding institutions and what those two areas mean to Baltimore,” Keene said.

To bridge the divide between the hospital and train station, ReBUILD’s tactic has been to find pockets of the communities that are still going strong and to build out from there.

“And a lot of times the sparks are the people,” Closkey said. “They’ve been in the neighborhood for generations. That’s where the spark is being kept. And you build from that strength towards where the need is.”

Expanding the work

One of those human sparks is Regina Hammond.

A resident of Johnston Square for more than 30 years, Hammond said she and her neighbors had occasionally seen development start and stop but nothing stuck.

“When we moved here, there was the promise that development would happen, this would happen, that would happen,” she said. “But it was to the contrary. I started to notice more vacant properties coming into the area. No development was happening.”

Hammond helped form the Rebuild Johnston Square neighborhood association, of which she serves as the president, in 2013 to address housing and other issues in her community.

When she learned about the work that ReBUILD Metro was doing in Oliver and other East Baltimore neighborhoods, she talked to Closkey about bringing the nonprofit to Johnston Square.

“He said to me ‘You know, it’s a long process. It’s gonna take at least 10 years.’ And my response was basically ‘Well then let’s get started,’” Hammond said.

“She took it upon herself to make one of the most dynamic community organizing groups I’ve ever worked with,” Closkey said.

(Top) A group of homes in the 1200 block of Homewood Avenue that ReBuild Metro rebuilt in East Baltimore’s Johnston Square neighborhood. (Bottom) The same group of homes, vacant at the time, in June 2011, before ReBuild Metro began working on them. Top photo by Marcus Dieterle. Bottom photo via Google Maps.

Public forums, surveys and other community engagement work contributed to the development of the Johnston Square Vision Plan.

Hammond said “the first very encouraging project” for Johnston Square was in the 1200 block of Homewood Avenue.

“That entire block was vacant except for about one or two properties,” she said.

Today, most of the homes on the block have been restored and occupied.

Last year, Johnston Square residents celebrated the opening of Greenmount & Chase, a 60-unit affordable rental housing community, in their neighborhood. The $16 million project was developed by ReBUILD Metro and managed by development company Ingerman.

ReBUILD Metro plans to rebuild at least 100 abandoned homes in Johnston Square over the next 5 years.

It’s a hopeful light for Hammond, who says she and her neighbors simply want a better life for themselves and their community.

“I want Johnston Square to be as nice and pleasant and a great place to live like any other,” Hammond said. “That’s all the people of Johnston Square want. They want what every other neighborhood has: a safe, decent place to live and raise their family.”

A learning opportunity

As the East Baltimore communities have worked to make the area more hospitable for families, they faced a potential roadblock: a proposed school closure.

In November 2021, Baltimore City school officials proposed permanently closing four schools – citing declining enrollment, structural problems and other issues – and rezoning students to the next closest schools.

Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School was one of the schools that had been proposed for permanent closure, but remained open after community members called on the school system for a chance to address issues with the school, including student enrollment. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

Students from one of those schools proposed for closure, Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School in Oliver, would have been split between Johnston Square Elementary School and Harford Heights Elementary School.

Speaking at a rally in January 2022, BUILD co-chair Elizabeth Reichelt expressed concerns that closing the school would undo the work being done in East Baltimore.

“These communities are on the rise and deserve an excellent neighborhood school,” Reichelt said at the rally. “Closing these schools would hollow out the heart of these communities.”

Families also worried about children having to walk farther to and from school, in some cases across busy roads, if they were rezoned.

Oliver resident Audrey Carter said the problems that had been raised were “fixable issues,” and she implored the school system to give the community a chance to remedy them.

“We can work with this,” she said at the rally. “We can work on increasing enrollment, work on building factors, whatever it is that you’re saying … But definitely now is not the time to close schools.”

Closkey told Baltimore Fishbowl that the idea of closing Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School while the community was just starting to rebound from decades of disinvestment didn’t make sense to him.

“The decision was sort of divorced from the common conversation in the community, which was we are building this back,” he said. “And it was divorced from the facts on the ground, where houses were being reoccupied…. If you short circuit a redevelopment process by removing assets while the process is ongoing, that’s not helpful.”

The Baltimore City school board ultimately allowed Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School to stay open, but voted to permanently close the other three schools during summer 2023.

“I think it’s all because of us being organized that we were able to influence the school board in that way to change their decision and leave the school open,” Keene said of the school in Oliver.

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said it would be a “call to action” for Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School to increase its enrollment.

Closkey praised the school system for reconsidering their proposal, and he was confident that the community would live up to that call to action as it continued to rebuild.

(Above) Maps show ReBUILD Metro’s work in Oliver/Broadway East and Greenmount West neighborhoods. Maps by ReBUILD Metro.

Neighborhoods for all

Elsewhere in Baltimore, residents have been displaced from their homes to make way for new development, such as in West Baltimore’s Poppleton neighborhood.

But Closkey said one of ReBUILD’s priorities is to ensure existing residents can remain in their communities

“We’re using vacant housing and vacant land,” he said. “There’s no need to displace folks. It’s about building inside the fabric that’s there.”

They also don’t want to change the core of the community, rather they want to weave new construction into the fabric of the existing community and patch holes along the way.

“The idea is can you preserve the fabric and do the things that will bring this building back into the city’s inventory of homes for the next 100 years?” Closkey said.

One factor that leads to homes becoming vacant is when homeowners defer maintenance on their homes because they cannot afford the repairs.

To address that, ReBUILD Metro and its partners have raised more than $1 million for legacy homeowners to do basic repairs and remain in their homes, Closkey said.

“When we’re going back in and we’re rehabbing these houses, we’re also jumpstarting legacy residents’ ability to improve and maintain their house because the last thing you want is to rehab a bunch of these and then it’s next to a family’s house that needs a brand new roof,” he said.

The kitchen of one of the homes that has been redeveloped in the 1700 block of East Biddle Street. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

As ReBUILD reconstructs homes, Closkey said they are naturally creating a mixed income community with homes sold at different price points. Initial houses started with prices of about $89,000, while houses built later might have prices closer to $300,000, he said.

ReBUILD also offers financial education and home buying programs to help renters eventually buy a home if they want to.

ReBUILD has converted five vacant corner properties around the Oliver and Broadway East neighborhoods to serve as opportunities for commercial properties, including ReBUILD’s own office at 1129 North Caroline Street.

Eventually, the neighborhoods will add more commercial properties to the mix. But first they need to further reduce the vacancy rate and attract more residents to support those future businesses, Closkey said.

Sharon Grinnell, construction manager for ReBUILD Metro, said one of the greatest challenges has been the uncertainty of what they will find in each abandoned home. But as they have tackled more projects, they have learned to plan for the unexpected.

“Let’s assume that potentially we’re going to find a tree or something growing out of somewhere,” she said. So it really enabled us to be a lot more proactive versus reactive.”

ReBUILD Metro has also had to learn how to bring resources and other needs together at just the right time.

“You have to have site control, financing and construction capacity all at the exact same time,” Closkey said. “It’s a little bit like jumping on a moving train.”

Bee-auty in the making

Vacants have been a main priority, but the East Baltimore neighborhoods have also been beautifying other aspects of their communities.

In Johnston Square, community members have restored local parks and other public spaces to give young people more outlets and to beautify the neighborhood.

“You had a lot of kids with a whole lot of nothing to do, so they tended to be a little disruptive,” Hammond said. “They were banging on doors and running. They were playing football in the street, damaging your property. So we decided we had to do something.”

Henrietta Lacks Educational Park in Johnston Square includes basketball courts, a splash pad, and walking paths. The park, formerly known as Ambrose Kennedy Park, underwent a transformation in 2017, spearheaded by community members who wanted more green spaces in the neighborhood. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

Henrietta Lacks Educational Park, formerly Ambrose Kennedy Park, underwent a major makeover in 2017 with new basketball courts, a splash pad for kids to cool down in the hot summer months, and walking paths lined with greenery.

Nearby, Johnston Square Park looks over the block from its hilltop perch, complete with a basketball court and baseball field.

Hammond said the community recently began the first phase of developing Greenmount Park, with the goal of having a practice field and community space in the 400 block of Biddle Street. With that project, the neighborhood will have three parks for residents to use.

In March, the community also installed colorful, flowery art at the crosswalk in front of Johnston Square Elementary to encourage drivers to slow down. And throughout the neighborhood, murals and signs carry bee-related images and messages, like “Bee Great” and “Bee Strong,” meant to create more community cohesion.

“Things are buzzing in Johnston Square,” Hammond said.

The Oliver Community Farm, run by The 6th Branch nonprofit and volunteers, grows produce to feed local families.

Meanwhile, Broadway East recently added The Triangle Park, a small pocket park at Preston and Gay streets, and the communities have more green space plans on the horizon.

The Robert and Alice Stokes Triangle Park in the Broadway East neighborhood features a mural, plants and rock features. Photo by Marcus Dieterle.

Grinnell emphasized that the work is not finished and that ReBUILD Metro is not leaving Oliver, Broadway East or Greenmount; they’re just ramping up efforts in Johnston Square.

“We have a long-term stake in this community,” Grinnell said.

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Marcus Dieterle

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at

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