BALTIMORE (AP) — Sitting on a crumbling stoop on Herbert Street in West Baltimore, Salim Sadiki could almost see his childhood playing out before him: A peach tree stood in front of that house, and he and his friends would sneak over the fence and snatch the ripe fruit from its branches. Once, the owner caught the boys, and Sadiki fell scrambling back over the fence.
Now, he fingers the scar on his forehead from the half-century-old wound. The block looks nothing like it did when Sadiki, 71, was a boy. Each rowhome now sits abandoned. Some roofs have caved in. Boards are fastened to the doors, window frames. The street is littered with garbage.
In one hour, the home where Sadiki lived and the house just three doors down where his father moved when his parents split up, will be demolished. For now, green space will take its place, but the lot could someday be a laundry, a supermarket, a community center for neighborhood children.
“I don’t see the broken windows and the sagging porches; I see it the way it was,” Sadiki said. “Once these buildings are gone, it’ll be a huge erasure of my history. This whole thing, seeing it erased like this, really saddens me. But nothing lasts forever; it had to go sometime.”
This section of Herbert Street is one of many abandoned blocks slated for demolition through Project CORE, a $94 million initiative to raze a chunk of the 17,000 vacant houses, many riddled with asbestos and lead paint, that have come to symbolize the deep social divide in Baltimore.
Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan unveiled Project CORE in 2016, eight months after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody thrust the city into chaos. The young black man’s death prompted protests and civil unrest over the treatment of African Americans by police here. Swaths of West Baltimore, pocked with vacant homes, burned. A U.S. Justice Department investigation found discriminatory and abusive policing practices, and resulted in an agreement enforced by a federal judge to overhaul the department.
The unrest also shed light on systemic failures that go beyond the police: inadequate access to quality education and job training, racially segregated neighborhoods.
“Fixing what is broken in Baltimore requires that we address the sea of abandoned, dilapidated buildings infecting entire neighborhoods,” Hogan said.
More than 800 vacant units have been torn down. In West Baltimore, grassy spaces have opened where the dilapidated buildings used to be.
Sadiki peers into his father’s old home, through a doorway with no door. His father had a green thumb, he said, and remembers exactly where he’d put his spider plants. Now, the house is filled with debris, trash from squatters, and peeling paint.
He’s sentimental, but Sadiki understands the power of a clean slate. Three years ago, he was released from prison after nearly four decades behind bars. He was one of more than 100 prisoners freed because of faulty jury instructions. He had been convicted of rape at 37. Returning to the block where he came of age was a bucket-list item he thought he’d never check off.
“I’m not sure I’ve grown or evolved exactly the way I would have liked,” he said. “But the person I am now, I’m satisfied. I’ve outlived a whole lot of people and I did have the opportunity to retrace my footsteps back into my boyhood, and that is important.”
As the crane slammed into the corner of Sadiki’s father’s home, it took everything with it. Some houses had bathtubs, mirrors, furniture, crosses nailed to the wall. Within a day or two, it would be reduced to rubble. The debris would be carted to the landfill, the earth turned and prepared for its next phase of life.
It was quieter than Sadiki expected.
“There’s no big boom. Nothing is crashing,” he said. “They’re just tearing it down. I’m a little disappointed; I’d like to see it go out with a big burst of glory.”