Dan Rodricks: As affluent Harbor Point grows around it, Living Classrooms stays on mission for the underserved | COMMENTARY

September 17, 2021

With Harbor Point buildings behind it, the old Ferndale Fence and Awning Co., at Caroline and Thames streets, is being transformed into a new jobs training center by the Living Classrooms Foundation. 

By Dan Rodricks, Baltimore Sun

Sometimes I lose track of time and forget where things were. The years passed swiftly and the old waterfront to the east of downtown Baltimore pretty much disappeared. Before the transformation, I’m sure there was a monstrous chromium plant on the harbor. There was a lumberyard, a trucking company, warehouses, wharves and vacant lots. All of that went away. Something new, big and very different took its place, and in no time at all.

There’s a historic building at the sharp-angled corner of Caroline and Thames streets, about where Fells Point meets Harbor Point. It was for years Ferndale Fence and Awning Co., though they didn’t make fencing there, just awnings — metal awnings once favored by owners of rowhouses and barbershops. I always wondered what would happen to that building as new development grew closer by the year. (More on that in a moment.)

There are still plenty of historic buildings in Fells Point. There’s still industry in the harbor and ships that serve it. There’s a black, rotted pier at the end of Caroline Street; it showed up recently as background in an otherwise lovely photograph of a waterfront wedding.

So, there’s still old rough stuff. But so much is new and big — Harbor East, Harbor Point — it’s hard to remember when the former was a gritty parking lot for H&S Bakery trucks and the latter a sprawling, contaminated, postindustrial nothing. The real estate people saw the land between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point as Baltimore’s future “gold coast.” A lot of us just laughed at that.

But development happened. It rose high over the Patapsco River to the east and south of Harborplace. Once upon a time, we could stand on the rear deck of a friend’s house in Little Italy and watch the harbor fireworks fill the sky on New Year’s Eve. Now, after two decades of construction between Little Italy and the waterfront, we can barely see them. It was good while it lasted.

I can still hear city taxpayers arguing against concessions to developers, including a $25 million tax break so that the late John Paterakis could build a “convention hotel” on the land east of Harborplace, a mile from the Baltimore Convention Center. That was 23 years ago. That first hotel sparked the transformation of Harbor East. Then came upscale apartments, restaurants and retail, and a marina where docked this summer a 167-foot megayacht under the flag of the Cayman Islands. Harbor East followed — overnight, it seems — and now there’s a fully upscale peninsula of buildings with fabulous views, isolated from vast parts of Baltimore marked by disinvestment, struggle and failure.

Pardon my meander along the waterfront. As familiar as I am with historic realities, it’s still striking: Baltimore remains two cities, deeply divided racially, socially and economically.

It’s for that reason I’ve been paying more attention to Living Classrooms recently, and why I intend to tell you more about this busy foundation. A lot of people think Living Classrooms is about taking school kids on boat rides to appreciate the Chesapeake Bay. But that description misses the last 30-plus years.

Among the things that have not changed along the waterfront is the presence of Living Classrooms. It has been rooted there, sprouting new programs to “disrupt the ecosystem of poverty,” since the 1980s. Anyone who walks (or runs) through Harbor East, Harbor Point and Fells Point would surely pass one of its buildings and its landmark wooden tower at Central Avenue between Dock Street and the canal along Lancaster Street. The operations of Living Classrooms are now surrounded by the new development in Harbor Point.

And that’s by intention. James Piper Bond, the president and CEO, told me that some developers, keenly interested in the foundation’s waterfront land, offered to move Living Classrooms away from its campus. But Bond resisted. “It’s important that we stay here, right in the middle of all this renaissance and growth,” he said, noting that Living Classrooms would be unable to establish a presence in such an affluent area today. “We were fortunate,” he said, “to get in here early.”

In the long rectangle of land between Central Avenue and Caroline Street are a charter middle school with 163 students; an education and job readiness program, called Fresh Start, for teenagers who’ve been in trouble and dropped out of school; and an urban gardening program. Elsewhere in East Baltimore, Living Classrooms runs all sorts of programs — preschool, after-school, recreation, violence intervention and prevention — within what it calls the Target Investment Zone, a 2.5-square-mile area with a population of 40,000 people. The mission is to break the cycle of poverty with a holistic and multigenerational approach.

The latest Living Classrooms endeavor brings us back to Ferndale Fence and Awning, that quaint corner building dating to 1850, and an adjoining industrial space. Harbor Point looms right behind it and Living Classrooms has offices just across Thames Street. The foundation got the property with the help of donors — always with the help of donors — and the place is undergoing renovations to become a center to train unemployed people in warehouse-and-shipping jobs and geriatric nursing. It is being renovated by men who’ve come out of prison and into Living Classrooms’ Project SERVE, a robust workforce development program that I’m just learning about.

So there’s a lot more catching up to do here, but I’m out of space and time. To be continued.

Link to original article here.