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Wickham: Focus on Freddie Gray's neighborhood

This piece originally appeared in USA TODAY.

His death is a small part of the decades-old human tragedy crying out for help.

Sandtown neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested.(Photo: Andrew Burton, Getty Images)

I worry about Sandtown-Winchester, the city neighborhood that is the real epicenter of the unrest that erupted here after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died from a nearly severed spine after being arrested last month by city cops.

Now that the six Baltimore police officers involved in Gray's arrest have been charged on crimes ranging from second-degree depraved-heart murder to misconduct in office, much of the attention of protesters — and the journalists who follow in their wake — has moved even farther away from this troubled community.

It was in Sandtown-Winchester that the police chase of Gray began. It was on its streets that he was arrested, cuffed and placed on the floor of a police van. It was over the streets of Sandtown-Winchester that the van carrying Gray — who repeatedly complained of being injured — traveled for roughly 45 minutes before going to a police precinct that was just a five-minute drive from where the arrest took place to get a medic.

Despite this, it was the intersection of Pennsylvania and West North avenues, off the north-east corner of Sandtown-Winchester, where a CVS drug store was looted and burned, that became the staging area for protesters and the focus reporters who at times seemed to outnumber the people they showed up to cover.

But as compelling a story as the death of Gray and the resulting arrest of six cops is, it is a small part of the decades-old human tragedy that defines the Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park Census track.

More than half of the people (ages 16-64) in this area are unemployed. In 2012, 49% of its high school students were "chronically absent," 61% of the population 25 and older lacked a high school degree, and a third of this community's houses were vacant. Even more disturbing, it has more people in Maryland's prison system than any other community in the state. Maryland taxpayers spend nearly $17 million a year to keep 458 people from this Census track in prison, according to a recent Justice Policy Institute report.

"The positive that comes out of the attention of the Freddie Gray case, I hope, is that it really helps us elevate the conversation on race relations in America that allows communities like Sandtown-Winchester to exist," state Sen. Catherine Pugh, who represents the area in Maryland's legislature, told me Sunday. "Fixing these problems is not something the city, or even the state, can do alone. It's going to take a public-private partnership."

Pugh is talking about the kind of partnerships that turned Baltimore's once comatose waterfront into a commercially successful Inner Harbor, spawned the construction of two professional sports stadiums and an explosive growth of new downtown housing.

She wants politicians and business leaders to do the same for Sandtown-Winchester, an area where more than 9,000 people occupy just half a square mile of land. "We need to create the kind of environment there that people want to live in," Pugh said. To do this, she wants the city's public and private universities to work with city and state leaders to offer employment and financial incentives to graduates who will renovate and live in Sandtown-Winchester's vacant homes. This a good idea that is not unlike what city officials did years ago to spur the growth of Baltimore's nationally acclaimed Inner Harbor.

Getting rid of vacant houses will do a lot to stabilize Sandtown-Winchester. Properly done, it will improve the community's demographics without gentrifying it. And when combined with better social services for elderly residents and the creation of a community development corporation to address the concerns of its small middle class (something Pugh also is pushing), Sandtown-Winchester could become a model urban neighborhood.

What Pugh seeks is a solution to the deeply rooted problems that take an even greater toll in Baltimore's black community than the senseless death of Freddie Gray.

DeWayne Wickham, dean of Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication, writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.

In addition to its own editorials, USA TODAY publishes diverse opinions from outside writers, including our Board of Contributors. To read more columns like this, go to the Opinion front page.

This piece originally appeared in USA TODAY.

Follow DeWayne Wickham on Twitter at @DeWayneWickham and USA TODAY Opinion at @USATOpinion.

Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

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