How the uprising led one man to become West Baltimore’s newest advocate

How the uprising led one man to become West Baltimore’s newest advocate

Eric Stephenson remembers the day he had his epiphany about Baltimore.

He was here on a work assignment and living in a comfortable apartment not far from North and Pennsylvania avenues. It was April 27, 2015, the day the uprising erupted in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death from injuries suffered in police custody.

“I could smell the smoke from the fires and hear the young people walking past my window recounting what they had just witnessed,” Stephenson said.

“I also realized the disparity from the CVS store that was being looted [in West Baltimore], and viewed on national television, and the CVS store near my work in Harbor Point. That CVS had the National Guard around it,” he said.

Stephenson thought of moving to Baltimore and did so.

After initially looking for a house near Druid Hill Park, he discovered Lafayette Square by chance.

“My house was vacant when I purchased it and we fixed it up before moving in,” Stephenson said. “I was doing what I could to address the vacant house problem, one house at a time. I started with my own.”

Now, nearly eight years later, he and his wife, Norah Salamone, are living in the Lafayette Square section of Sandtown-Winchester.

Stephenson is determined to make a difference and lend a hand to rebuilding a neighborhood that many have abandoned.

“I always wanted to fix up an old house,” he said of his and his wife’s decision to buy a classic three-story Baltimore rowhouse with marble steps.

The late autumn sun casts shadows on homes in Eric Stephenson's neighborhood...(Karl Merton Ferron/Staff Photo)
The sun casts shadows on homes in Eric Stephenson’s neighborhood. (Karl Merton Ferron/Staff Photo)

A Drexel University graduate and construction manager, he grew up in suburban New Jersey.

He helped manage the construction of the Exelon Tower in Harbor Point. He understands how real estate tax advantages such as tax increment financing assisted some of Baltimore’s most visible — but pricey — new developments on the waterfront, and wants to see that kind of positive change be replicated in Sandtown-Winchester.

Stephenson, 39, wants to do something to help Baltimore overcome its inattention to West Baltimore’s neighborhoods.

“I want to be part of positive change in an area that I think has a lot of potential,” he said.

Stephenson joins a long list of people and organizations working to improve West Baltimore. The No Boundaries Coalition, for example, runs a boot camp for aspiring block captains. Activists like Inez Robb, Arlene Fisher and Roxane Prettyman today and Lena J. Boone and the Rev. Dr. Alfred C.D. Vaughn in the 1980s and 1990s also have been strong advocates for the area. Stephenson chose to move here, put down roots and make his mark.

“This required me to immerse myself in the community to advocate for it,” he said.

Stephenson came house-hunting without a detailed knowledge of city neighborhoods, thinking he’d buy near the nucleus of the uprising.

Today he’s president of a neighborhood group, Lafayette Square Community Development Corp. Stephenson is also, as a Southway Builders Inc. construction manager, overseeing the move of the venerable Faidley seafood operation from the 1950 Lexington Market building to new quarters down the street.

As part of his commitment to get to know Baltimore, he was in the first graduating class of the Planning Academy. The program, run by the Baltimore City Department of Planning, “aims to build community leadership around urban planning, zoning, and development issues,” according to its website.

“I enrolled to learn how I could better lead my community through the bureaucracy of city government,” he said.

Teachers at the academy recommended him for a seat on the Planning Commission, and soon after he joined, he was named vice chair.

“There is no more vocal citizen representative member on the commission than Eric Stephenson,” said City Planning Director Chris Ryer.

Stephenson grew up in Somerset County in New Jersey.

“I was privileged,” he said of his upbringing in a comfortable housing development.

His childhood home was in a designated affordable housing location.

“It was a place that afforded me the best opportunities and gave me access to one of the best public schools,” he said.

“The kids who grow up here, in West Baltimore, may look like me, but they did not have the same opportunities as I did. I feel a heavy debt to pay back and fix some of the broken systems in Baltimore.”

It’s been nearly seven years since he and his wife moved to Carrollton Avenue, a half block off Lafayette Square.

A classic 1880s greensward, a city block wide, the square was once a residential showplace of fancy churches and well-heeled congregations and now is a frail survivor of years of urban disinvestment. Many of its mature trees died, and at one point, residents asked that its benches be removed so that people without homes could not use them as beds.

“The benches are back,” Stephenson said. “Now I want to get the water turned on in the fountain,” he said.

“Lafayette Square reminded me of Philadelphia where I went to [college],” Stephenson said. “It reminded me of Rittenhouse Square.”

While in Philadelphia’s Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood, he witnessed the positive effect a Salvation Army community center, a project he worked on briefly, could make. So when the large but disused William Pinderhughes School, up the street from his Baltimore home, became the topic of a neighborhood conversation, he thought past those who advocated using it as housing for homeless people. He contacted the Salvation Army and after a series of hurdles, the school is slated to become a $21 million Salvation Army headquarters for Baltimore, with a whole program of community activities slated.

A guinea fowl, one of a number of bird owned by community activist Eric Stephenson roams during a daytime stroll.(Karl Merton Ferron/Staff Photo)
A guinea fowl roams a community garden tucked behind homes at Lafayette and Carrollton avenues. (Karl Merton Ferron/Staff Photo)

His face lights up when he shows off a community garden tucked behind homes at Lafayette and Carrollton avenues. The garden has a busy poultry house filled with clucking guinea fowl and laying hens. A block away, on the appropriately named Small Street, is the community beehive. The neighborhood also has its resident foxes and hawks.

“Who would have thought this would be in West Baltimore?” Stephenson said. “This is our little bit of paradise.”

He says he cannot take credit for the garden. It was established by Justine Bonner, who died several years ago. To honor her memory, the neighborhood included her image on a mural near her former home.

Johns Hopkins, the director of Baltimore Heritage, said: “Eric has been a strong force in Lafayette Square and Harlem Park, from helping develop master plans to hauling out ladders and string holiday lights in the square. We are lucky to have him here.”

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