BALTIMORE — There is an empty plot of land in West Baltimore’s Poppleton neighborhood that haunts Cynthia “Diane” Bell.
In moments when she is alone, her mind wanders to the three-story rowhouse and she becomes paralyzed by anger and confusion. Bell has spent years in quiet desperation, trying to understand why the city bought her home for a New York developer who has done nothing with the land. When the 69-year-old Baltimorean tells her story, she speaks slowly, with a quiet, raspy voice. Tears roll down her cheeks.
Bell’s daughter knew most of the story. The displacement. The house fire and foreclosure. Even the homelessness and depression. She didn’t know about her mother’s attempted suicide.
“For years, I tried to not think about it,” Bell said. “That’s a part I try to blank out, right?”
Bell is one of an untold number of Black residents forcibly displaced from their homes as part of slum clearance and urban renewal projects in Baltimore dating back as early as 1914. Like most major American cities, Baltimore grappled with how to rejuvenate its urban core after upper and middle-class white residents fled the city center for its outer rings. Rather than invest in inner-city neighborhoods, governments often demolished them in favor of highways, green space and new residential developments — an approach that Baltimore’s top housing official acknowledges was wrong.
The impact of the displacements was clear. They pushed Black residents into public housing and deepened racial segregation. Such forced displacements also can cause what social psychiatrist Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove calls “root shock,” which is also the title of her 2004 book. She defines it as ‘‘the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem.’’
Today, Bell lives in a government-subsidized apartment and said she struggles with depression. Not that long ago, she was a homeowner and successful business owner in Poppleton. Looking back, Bell said she believes it was the best place she ever lived. But city leaders and a developer wanted her property for a housing development aimed at young professionals and workers in the biotech industry.
Bell, a lifelong Baltimorean, raised three children in the city, moving them out of public housing and into a series of rented rowhouses. Her daughter estimates they moved about 20 times in her childhood. Bell was nearly 40 when she fulfilled a lifelong goal and became a homeowner. In 1998, she and her husband bought a three-story rowhouse in Poppleton. But her husband soon left, putting the mortgage payments on her shoulders.
Faced with other debts, Bell declared bankruptcy. Rather than give up her house, she converted the bottom two floors into a day care center. Before long, she made more than enough to cover her $500 monthly mortgage payment. Bell reached a newfound level of stability, largely thanks to the low housing costs of Poppleton, one of the city’s oldest Black neighborhoods.
Black families settled there after the Civil War. As the country climbed out of the Great Depression, the federal Home Owners Loan Corp. warned lenders against making home loans in the neighborhood, a practice known as “redlining.” The Federal Housing Administration rarely insured mortgages in urban neighborhoods like Poppleton, favoring white suburbs instead. The construction in the 1970s of “The Highway to Nowhere,” a 1.39-mile stretch of road, tore through Black neighborhoods directly north of Poppleton and displaced hundreds of families.
By 1975, the city designated Poppleton an urban renewal area. According to Stephen Walters, an economist and professor emeritus at Loyola University, that designation might as well have been a death knell.
“The immediate effect of marking an area for ‘renewal’ is that it chills investment,” Walters said. “Owners don’t sink money into maintaining property that eventually might be ‘taken’ via eminent domain — so decay accelerates and spreads.”
Over time, many residents did leave. Civic leaders and local media highlighted Poppleton’s vacant homes and violent crime, creating a narrative of “demonization,” according to Marisela Gomez, a public health researcher who has studied the displacement of Black residents in Baltimore. Before long, Gomez said, no one wants to invest in the existing neighborhood, leaving just one option: Remove the residents, knock it down and rebuild.
That was the plan under Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat. His administration had been working with the University of Maryland on an ambitious project just east of Poppleton — a biotech and research campus called the BioPark.
“The future of our city is in life sciences and biotech,” O’Malley said at a 2004 groundbreaking. “This project is what the west side is. This project is about what the west side is about to be.”
Hoping to build on the momentum, the city asked developers to submit plans for a re-imagining of Poppleton.
La Cité, a New York-based firm that had never done a project in Baltimore, agreed in 2006 to redevelop more than 500 properties across 14 acres there, promising to build a minicity, with homes and apartment buildings interspersed with stores and office space.
Dan Bythewood, the president of La Cité, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In a 2022 deposition, he described Poppleton as a “really, really rough neighborhood [with] lots of violence, pit bull fighting dens.” When the redevelopment plans were announced, Bythewood said most residents were “really excited.”
That’s not how Bell and some of her former neighbors remember it. They were among the 137 households in Poppleton’s rowhouses and apartments when the city promised to buy their homes and hand the properties over to La Cité.
Bell lived in the 100 block of North Carlton Street. She said she knew her neighbors, a mix of renters and homeowners.
“We had little problems ‘round here, but it wasn’t that bad that I had to move,” Bell said.
Shanae Merrick’s mother owned the rowhouse two doors down from Bell and worked nearby at the Social Security Administration. It was her mother’s first home, Merrick said, and a steppingstone to the middle class.
Merrick recalled her late mother going to community meetings at a nearby church about the proposed development.
“They were fighting. They didn’t want to move,” Merrick said. “My mother wasn’t a very political person, but she went to every meeting and she said it was a joke. … They didn’t want to hear them.”
In October 2006, the city sent a letter to Bell’s house, saying it wanted to buy the property. Bell prepared to move, shutting down her day care business the following month.
The city bought the house in March 2007 for $120,000. Bell said much of the money went to pay off her mortgage, settle her debts from bankruptcy and cover living expenses as she worked with the city’s housing agency to find a new home. Under federal law, the city had a responsibility to help place Bell in a “comparable replacement home.”
But home prices had changed dramatically since she bought her rowhouse in 1998 for about $53,000. Also, by 2007, the U.S. housing market appeared stronger than ever, but was on the precipice of collapse.
The city helped Bell buy a yellow, one-story home just west of the city limits that cost $236,000. Her mortgage had an adjustable interest rate that started at nearly 12%. The city contributed nearly $100,000 toward her down payment, but Bell’s monthly payment topped $1,500 — more than three times what she paid in Poppleton.
Bell panicked. It would take several months to get her new home licensed as a day care and restart her business. By December 2007, Bell declared bankruptcy again. She sold the toys and four-seat stroller purchased for her day care, as well as other possessions, to stay afloat. She took a job at a nearby clothing store.
“I cried … I went from owning my own business to racking clothes,” Bell said. “I didn’t have money to buy socks to put on my feet because every single penny I had had to go towards whatever mortgage I had to pay.”
By the next fall, Bell’s electricity was shut off and she used candles for light. The house caught fire in September 2008. Bell said she moved into a friend’s basement. Even after her home was repaired, Bell said she often stayed with friends or acquaintances.
“I would go up there and check on the house, but it was like a dark shadow every time I stepped in that block,” Bell said.
At one point, Bell said she had a nervous breakdown and spent two weeks at an inpatient crisis center. Her medical records mention housing as a driving force behind her depression and sleeplessness.
“I felt that I wanted to end my life. I had gotten in my car. I had went to the bar. And I can remember the drink,” she said. “I sat in that car and I drank that, and I literally ran into a tree and I wind up in the emergency room.”
A few days before Christmas 2012, an investor bought Bell’s Baltimore County home at a foreclosure auction for $116,250 — less than half what she paid five years earlier. Bell was left with nothing.
Sometimes, she would stop by her old house in Poppleton. The entire block was still standing. Bell could imagine the family get-togethers and cookouts; the smell of burgers and hot dogs on her grill as the radio played in her backyard.
The city didn’t demolish Bell’s house until 2019 — 12 years after buying it — amid delays in La Cité’s project. Today, it remains an empty lot.
With much of Poppleton still awaiting redevelopment, former residents and their families say the city never should have pushed them out.
Damon Barnes said his father, a Vietnam War veteran and handyman, watched neighbors leave one by one until he was one of the last homeowners on the 1100 block of Saratoga Street. He sold his rowhouse to the city in 2019 for $45,000, state records show. Barnes said his father resettled in Virginia and died less than a year later.
“Moving out of a house that he worked so hard for … for someone to take it like that and have nowhere to go, that takes a toll on a 72-year old man,” Barnes said.
Angela Banks lived on that same block for decades in a rented rowhouse. Her landlord called in winter 2018, telling her she needed to leave as soon as possible because the city was buying the property.
Banks and her five children moved into her green Ford Explorer for about six months. At night, they rolled up the windows, put on two pairs of pants and piled clothes on themselves to keep warm, Banks said. During the day, she begged for gas money.
To date, the city has spent at least $15 million to relocate Poppleton residents, buy their homes and businesses, and demolish the structures, said Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman for the Department of Housing and Community Development.
A fraction of what La Cité promised has been built so far. CenterWest, a 262-unit apartment complex, opened in 2019. It’s on its fifth management company and a wave of tenants recently left. Residents and neighbors say they are concerned about the apartments’ safety and cleanliness. Street-level space intended for a grocery store remains vacant. CenterWest has not paid a water bill since November and owes the city more than $460,000 for it.
Still, La Cité plans to forge ahead with the second phase of development, a pair of age-restricted apartment buildings for older adults.
Alice Kennedy, who became the city’s housing commissioner in 2020, declined to discuss specifics of the city’s deal with La Cité. But she said the city has sometimes prioritized groundbreakings over realistic timelines. When projects take longer than expected or go unrealized, it upsets communities, Kennedy said, and rightfully so.
According to Kennedy, a redevelopment plan like the one in Poppleton — which requires displacing residents — is unlikely to happen in the future. Kennedy stressed that displaced residents decide where they want to move, what home to buy or apartment to rent, and how to spend their relocation money, not the city. The housing commissioner said her agency now tries to avoid displacement whenever possible.
“I understand the trauma that is experienced when a family is displaced from their home,” Kennedy said. “Unfortunately, I can’t go back and change the decisions that were made — not just in Poppleton — but in other areas of the city.”
Bell’s daughter, Michelle Wilder, said it’s painful to see the empty block where her mother’s house stood.
“It’s like you relocated these people and disrupted and destroyed lives for essentially nothing,” Wilder said.
Like her mother, Wilder has struggled with housing insecurity, homelessness and mental illness. For years, they struggled to communicate and their relationship broke down. Lately, their struggles have brought them closer together. It was Wilder who encouraged her mother to start telling her story publicly — and learned as a result the whole story behind her mother’s car crash.
As for Bell, she dreams about owning another house and hanging a line in her yard to dry clothes, like some of her friends can. She lives in an apartment on the ninth floor of a West Baltimore tower with her new husband, a soft-spoken man named Kenny. Their apartment is too small for large gatherings. There’s no outdoor space. Guests can’t stay for extended periods. She has little to pass down to her three children.
Bell tries to keep herself busy. Otherwise, she knows she will fixate on how she lost her house, and the bad thoughts will creep back in.
“My therapist said, ‘You hold a lot in,’” she said. “I just wanted to — a couple months ago — just take pills to go to sleep. End it. I’m just getting tired of things.”