Arthur Cohen gives his knowledge on the history of West Baltimore
By Katherina Capon , May 1, 2011
There was a time when West Baltimore wasn’t lined with abandoned homes and the streets weren’t filled with residents trying to turn a quick buck. There was a time when the school systems were better, people rode on trolley cars and everything you needed could be found in your local community. This time was before 1968, before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and before the Highway to Nowhere was built. From the time that West Baltimore was a striving community to now, where it is a community in need of help, Arthur Cohen was there.
Cohen came to Baltimore in the late 1960’s as a lawyer looking to work in the legal services program.
“ At this time Baltimore hadn’t become infiltrated with drugs and gangs and it was still a nice mixed community, something like Charles Village,” said Cohen about when he first moved to Baltimore.
In the 1960’s West Baltimore was home to the Edmonson Avenue shopping center that brought people in from all over Baltimore. You were able to go shopping, grab a soda, eat at a nice restaurant and go see a movie all on one block.
“It was a great place to live until the city exploded with grief after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. After that merchants left the area and people left the area,” said Cohen.
At the time of the assassination Cohen was working as a professor in the sociology department for the Community College of Baltimore County.
“ It was once I started working with the people of Baltimore that I got involved with trying to stop the expressway from cutting through Baltimore. It was here that the contacts were made,” said Cohen.
Once involved Cohen joined the group, Movement Against Destruction from 1968 until 1977. After this group he got involved with the group , the Relocation Action Movement. Soon after the land where the highway was to be put was claimed by the state and a condemnation line was put down.
“ People knew the condemnation line meant death to their neighborhood so before the first shovel even the hit the dirt people moved,” said Cohen.
Where neighborhoods and storefronts once stood now lays a mile and a half of concrete used by commuters on their way to and from work.
“When you look at it you have to ask what was this for? I ‘ve never seen much activity on it ever” said Cohen.
Now some 40 years later since the highway was put in place something is being done about it. It was in 2005 when community groups got re-involved with the Highway to Nowhere, according to Cohen.
“I got involved with it again because I have always been a fan of public transportation. I grew up in San Francisco with Cable cars, then Europe which had great public transportation, spent some time in New York City and even Washington D.C. I have always been a fan of rail transportation,” said Cohen.
The highway has been closed down and construction has started but people are still skeptical. At the last quarterly MARC meeting many people were asking, “ Is this for us, are we going to benefit from this?”
Right now many promises have made to the community and it is only with commitment from the government that these plans will follow through. According to Governor Martin O’Malley the light rail is to be completed by 2013.
Besides the light rail being put in everything else is “magical thinking” according to Cohen.
“People just can’t think that once the Red Line comes that everything is going to be just fine. If all that happens is that the light rail is put in place, people are going to be disappointed. There needs to be constant pressure from the community on all fronts,” said Cohen.
The light rail has brought much hope that the area will again turn into a commercial district and that housing stock will rise but this can only happen if everyone in the community is committed to this idea. The Red Line will be significant if the community and the government tend to other projects.
“ There needs to be a combination of those who have lived here their entire life and those who are young and excited about making this there new home… Right now people need a vision. Having a vision is very important to this process,” said Cohen.
Cohen one of the long timers has been committed to improving West Baltimore since day one. Though no longer a residence of the area, he resides in Mount Washington he still attends almost every meeting in the area, and is an advisor for the West Baltimore MARC Transportation Oriented Development and Transit incorporated Group.
“ I feel invested in this community as a resident of Baltimore. This community is finally getting compensation for what happened to them. They won’t get back every dollar of what they lost, but they are deserving of this,” said Cohen.