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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Classroom Encounters

Saving History

Glenn Ross and students

East Baltimore resident Glenn L. Ross shares insights about the neighborhood’s history with Hopkins seniors Brian Lee and Julia Pilcer.

Photo: Will Kirk/HIPS


The first thing Brian Lee and Julia Pilcer noticed when they walked into the East Baltimore rowhouse of Glenn L. Ross was the map that filled an entire wall in his living room. His other walls were also covered, with bits of local history: newspaper clippings, photographs, and personal memorabilia.

As the two Hopkins seniors listened and recorded, Ross proceeded to use a walking cane to point at spots on the map to explain East Baltimore history, from the movement of various immigrant groups to the shifting routes of devastating drug traffic.

"He was able to paint a picture of the last 60 years of East Baltimore," says Pilcer, a political science major. She and Lee were among the students who took part in the undergraduate research seminar, The Power of Place: Race and Community in East Baltimore, last fall, part of Hopkins' East Baltimore Oral History Project.

Traveling in pairs, the students in the class visited residents in and around East Baltimore's Middle East neighborhood who are affected by revitalization efforts near the Johns Hopkins Hospital. East Baltimore Development Inc. is demolishing hundreds of houses and relocating residents to make way for new homes, a science and technology park, and other redevelopment north of the hospital.

In gathering the oral histories, students would spend up to two hours in conversation with residents, says Melanie Shell-Weiss, visiting assistant professor of history and an associate research scholar in Africana Studies. She plans to use the resulting audio recordings, photographs, and interactive maps they gathered to re-create the neighborhood online.

It's a challenging effort to help the residents—and the city—remember the history of a neighborhood that will no longer exist in a few years. The project is further complicated by the fact that some residents look negatively on the relocation efforts and Hopkins as a result. Students, Shell-Weiss says, are the best ambassadors to bridge those frayed relations.

"The fact that it's young people from Hopkins who really care very deeply about the relationship between the university and the community—I think that goes a long way," she says.

Lee says he cares more about the neighborhood than he did before the project.

"I admit that I had misguided notions about the neighborhood before visiting and talking to Mr. Ross," says Lee, a public health studies major from California. "As I worked on my project and had the opportunity to talk to community members, I began to understand that many of the underlying causes of the problems that plague this and many other urban neighborhoods are beyond the control of residents."



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