Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

Karen Stokes on Strong City’s Future at the Hoen Building in East Baltimore

With Strong City’s much-anticipated move to the Hoen Lithograph Building just weeks away, we sat down with CEO Karen D. Stokes to hear from her why the organization is making this move, how it will affect the work Strong City does, and what the future may hold.

Q: This organization has been a fixture in North Central Baltimore for 50 years – most of that time as Greater Homewood Community Corporation, and since 2015 as Strong City Baltimore. Why move now?

A: An effective organization responds to changing needs and conditions. Our commitment to Baltimore and its neighborhoods has never wavered, but Strong City has seen many changes since our founding in 1969. Certain programs we were strongly identified with – Experience Corps and VISTA, for example – are no longer in our portfolio. On the other hand, we now operate two highly successful community and after-school centers. Our biggest change has been going from having a handful of fiscally sponsored projects a decade ago to being the largest fiscal sponsor in Baltimore.

Around the time we changed our name, I began thinking about the future of this organization beyond my tenure as CEO. I wanted to leave a meaningful legacy. We brought many of our founders to meet with the Board of Directors to discuss the future of Strong City. They regretted that they had never found a permanent home for the organization. I also was concerned that we had outgrown our current space, which was not handicapped accessible, and that as renters we were not building value for the future.

The board and I decided that we should own our own building, but the question was: Where? We looked carefully for a place where we would be welcome, and where our physical presence could make a positive difference. We were approached by Bill Struever of Cross Street Partners about the Hoen Building in East Baltimore’s Collington Square. A number of past development attempts there had failed, but Bill and I were both intrigued by the possibilities. Participating on the team that put together the financing package to make this work has been the biggest challenge of my professional life. But we finally closed on the building in January 2019, and we will be moving in this coming January.

Q: What should people know about the Hoen Building?

A: It’s a remarkable structure – actually, series of structures, built over a course of several decades starting in the late 1800s. Strong City’s operations and Adult Learning Center will be in the largest building, and our partners will occupy the rest of the complex. Although we will be tenants at first, if all goes according to plan, after seven years we will have the opportunity to “buy-out” the developer and become the owners, if we raise enough funding via a capital campaign.

The building itself is a gem. For about 80 years, the A. Hoen & Sons Lithograph Building was a manufacturing hub in East Baltimore, employing thousands of workers engaged in lithographic printing techniques. It was a center for this type of work in North America, producing an astonishing variety of printed products, from baseball cards to beautiful maps inserted into National Geographic magazine, to a wide array of advertising signs and labels. Many of the original stone plates used in this printing process were discovered when building renovations started and have been rescued. Sadly, the factory closed in the early 1980s and was abandoned for nearly four decades, becoming an eyesore with broken windows and trees growing through the roof. Cross Street Partners are experts in adaptive reuse of historic buildings, and along with City Life Historic Properties, they have brought this architectural beauty back to life, preserving many original historic features.

Q: You said something a moment ago about wanting to be in “a place where our physical presence could make a positive difference.” What did you mean by that?

A: For the Baltimore ’68 book project, Frankie Gamber wrote an essay pointing out that Strong City’s focus has always been on “where we live.” We were formed in the late 1960s at a time of great racial and social upheaval, but we never were a civil rights organization in the traditional sense. We supported racial equality and integration not as stand-alone issues but as part of a package of values inspired by a deep commitment to North Central Baltimore. Our goal was maintaining “Greater Homewood” as a place with strong and stable neighborhoods. That meant improving schools, supporting neighborhood leaders, offering a mix of housing options, and everything else that makes a neighborhood strong.

The work has not been easy, and progress is imperfect at best. Still, we have made great strides in these neighborhoods over the years, working with many partners. That progress is described in our forthcoming book, Building Blocks: Stories of Neighborhood Transformation From Strong City Baltimore. Now, we hope to achieve something similar in a different area of the city, one that could greatly benefit from our long experience and skills in organizing and asset-based community development. The Hoen Building, reimagined as the Center for Neighborhood Innovation (CNI), can serve as a catalyst for change “north of the tracks” – just blocks from Johns Hopkins Hospital, and yet a world away in terms of neighborhood conditions. Our ultimate hope is to create, with community input, not just a thriving Hoen Building but a revitalized neighborhood with good, affordable housing for Kennedy Krieger and Hopkins lab techs, nurse’s aides, custodians, and office workers, and small businesses springing up to serve both new and legacy residents.

Q: Does this mean you are cutting ties with North Central Baltimore?

A: Absolutely not! We have been citywide for at least a decade, but our roots in North Central Baltimore neighborhoods run deep, and many things will not change as a result of this move. For example, we will continue to operate the 29th Street Community Center in the heart of North Central, and to staff the Margaret Brent, Guilford, and Govans schools with Community School Coordinators. We are actively exploring ways to continue our community building work in the York Road Corridor. We are still the community partner for the Greenmount Avenue LINCS initiative. Our fiscal sponsorship still supports many community associations in this area, and we are the Healthy Neighborhoods administrator for eligible neighborhoods in this part of town. We have many friends and partners in “Greater Homewood,” and those relationships will continue.

Q: How will the people Strong City serves be affected by this change?

A: Many will hardly notice it. We will serve our 90-plus fiscally sponsored and fiscally managed initiatives the same as we always have – but in a more comfortable, professional, and inviting environment. Our staff will have a better working space. And we will be able to bring our traditional neighborhood work – community organizing, blight remediation, supporting businesses, grassroots advocacy – to an area of the city that is new for us.

Q: What about the Adult Learning Center?

A: Our adult learners will probably see the biggest benefits from this move. We are grateful to University Baptist Church for providing the ALC with space for almost 25 years, but the CNI will offer amenities that a church basement just can’t: newly renovated classrooms, lots of natural light, sufficient space, handicapped access, updated computer labs, no more waiting lists. Also, the ALC will share a campus with workforce development partners City Life Community Builders and Associated Builders and Contractors, which could create some synergies for the learners.

Q: Tell us a little more about your new neighborhood.

A: It is literally the “other side of the tracks,” just north of where the Amtrak train right-of-way makes a wide swoop through the Broadway East neighborhood. Collington Square is part of an old story in Baltimore – a familiar example of the neglect and disinvestment seen throughout the city’s “Black Butterfly.” We see many abandoned houses, little economic activity, pockets of drug and gang activity. At the same time, there are considerable assets on which to build, starting with the refurbished Hoen Building itself.

There are five active African-American churches in or near the neighborhood that are interested in the revitalization of the area. Around the corner from Hoen is The Club at Collington Square, a vital after-school and summer camp program that serves 100 local families and was kept open when Strong City took over operating it in 2017. Other neighborhood assets include Collington Square Elementary School, Collington Square Park, and the COR Health Institute. Just a few blocks away are Humanim’s headquarters in the American Brewery Building, beautifully restored by Cross Street Partners; the Baltimore Food Hub, being developed by American Communities Trust at the old Eastern Pumping Station; Dayspring Programs, a residential center that supports women in recovery and their children; and Southern Baptist Church’s Mary Harvin Center. And, of course, we are a short walk from the city’s largest employer, Johns Hopkins Medical Campus. The potential for good things to happen in this neighborhood is huge.