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East Baltimore on Foot

First-year med students meet the neighborhood on a walking tour led by community activist Glenn Ross, center, with back to camera.

Even before students arrive at the School of Medicine, they learn that East Baltimore is an unsafe place to be. And yet, on a sunny afternoon last fall, about 15 first-year medical students were venturing on foot into the heart of the neighborhood. Traveling east on Monument, past Northeast Market, they cut over to McElderry. They walked through narrow, back alleys and along remote side streets, making their way as far east as Milton Street before heading back, west on Jefferson.

The students were taking part in a walking tour of McElderry Park, a neighborhood just to the east of the medical campus and roughly to the south of where the biotech park will be. It was led by Glenn Ross, a community activist who has guided similar walks for students at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. He offered to do the same for medical students when he spoke to their first-year Physician and Society course in September.

About 30 students—fully 25 percent of the class—signed up for two walks, held on consecutive days and organized by InterAction Council, the student-run group that coordinates volunteer activities. Organizer David Dowdy, an M.D./Ph.D. student and third-year representative on InterAction, explained that the purpose of the walking tours was to “get incoming students out into the neighborhood so they feel at least slightly familiar with it and comfortable going back if they want to get involved.”

As the group set off from the School of Public Health and up Monument, Ross painted a picture of a once-vibrant area that has suffered from a steep decline in manufacturing jobs and a subsequent loss of quality commercial establishments. A furniture store, movie theater and bingo hall once were located in the 2000 block of East Monument. Years ago, said Ross, the neighborhood had seven grocery stores with fresh produce. Now, corner stores make poor substitutes. The closest supermarket is about 20 blocks away in Canton.

The students made their way down desolate streets lined with rows of vacant, boarded-up houses. There are no plans to raze them, according to officials at Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition (HEBCAC), although interest in initiating a community planning process to jumpstart development here is growing. Amid the urban blight were signs of hope: The bustling Northeast Market, home to local businesses that have been family-owned for generations. The cheery playground and colorful mosaics at Tench Tilghman Elementary School. The Amazing Port Street Project, in which vacant lots in the 600 block of North Port Street have been transformed into green space.

“In the midst of rundown, abandoned buildings, it was really wonderful to turn into an alley and find such a well-maintained, creative piece of art and serenity,” student Sangini Shah said of the little park. “For me it symbolizes how simple answers can be to the depressing conditions I saw. It was a definite sign of optimism.”

For the most part, though, the walking tour was a sobering experience for the students. “To be honest, it was really depressing,” says Shah. It boggles my mind to see boarded-up building after boarded-up building when there are so many things that could and should be done with that space.”

The experience seemed to galvanize the students. In a survey taken later, nearly all said they were more likely to volunteer in the neighborhood. No student rated either the tour or tour leader Ross lower than a four out of five. “They remarked that lots of people in the community are doing really great things, even if at first glance, things look desperate,” said Dowdy.

He is hopeful that InterAction will unite with its counterparts at Public Health and the School of Nursing. Plans are in the works, he says, to create a tri-school community service office. “It would provide staff, space and resources to serve all three schools and serve as a single point of contact for community organizations looking to link up with Hopkins students.”

—Anne Bennett Swingle



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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