Historic East Towson, a community eroded

By: Ben Terzi, Contributing Writer

A proposed affordable-housing building in historic East Towson is drawing community pushback from residents who raise concerns over environmental and traffic impacts, and the destruction of local historically Black neighborhoods. 

The planned 56-unit development, Red Maple Place,  is slated to be built on a 2.5 acre plot between 413 E. Pennsylvania Ave. and Joppa Road.

East Towson was founded by freed slaves in the 1850s. After the death of former Maryland Governor Charles Ridgely. In 1829, 300 slaves were freed from Hampton Plantation, many of whom would settle in East Towson. It would not be until 1853 when Daniel Harris would become the first African-American to buy a plot of land in the area for $187.50.

Historic East Towson sign.

Courtesy of David Riley

Residents of East Towson contest the proposal, arguing that it will maximize an already congested-flow of traffic, overcrowd schools and will exacerbate stormwater flooding in the area. 

“This neighborhood is one where a lot of, how you might say, developmental-dumping has at least been proposed or actually occurred,” said President of the Northeast Towson Improvement Association and long-time resident, Nancy Goldring. 

According to an ethnographic study by a team of scholars at Hampton Mansion, many current residents of East Towson are still considered to be direct descendants of those freed slaves who first inhabited the neighborhood. 

“As one historian tells me, we were a self-contained community, so not only did we have people live back here, they went to church back here, there was a store back here, there was a barbershop back here,” Goldring said. “And much of that aspect of historic East Towson is gone now.”

In 1968, Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) was granted property in the community and built a power substation that expanded, demolishing seven historic homes. The power substation is currently used to power the Baltimore County Government office in Towson. 

The land was historically a baseball field where the Negro League players used to play games.  

“It’s gone now,” said David Riley, co-founder of the Towson Creative Partnership, and an ally to residents. “But that was something that would’ve been a great thing not only for this community—for all of Towson—to have a field where players from the famous Negro Leagues actually played on, now instead we have a power station. ”

A community that once stretched from York Road and Bosley Avenue into North and West Towson, has eroded to just six blocks. Over time, the neighborhood’s bordering land was used to build the District Courthouse, demolishing four historic homes in 1994. 

That same year, the construction of Harris Hill affordable-condominiums caused the destruction of five more historic homes in East Towson. In 1995, the Trinity House was built, containing 82 housing units.

A 2016 conciliation agreement between the administration of the late-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, requires Baltimore County to build 1,000 affordable-housing units by 2027. 

According to county spokesperson, Sean Naron, Baltimore County stands by its moral and legal obligation to provide and expand affordable housing.

“Every person deserves a chance to provide their families a safe and affordable place to call home and we’re often talking about folks who are eligible for affordable-housing—working families, families with children, veterans,” Naron said.

East Towson residents say they support affordable-housing, just not on the property of which Red Maple Place plans to be constructed given its impacts to the community. 

“It’s gonna be a high-rise project in the middle of a group of homeowners—in a  community that’s targeted,” Riley said. “This is exactly the strategy that everybody is getting away from, and what has been sold is, oh we need reevaluate affordable-housing strategy, no more of these isolated projects and stuff like that, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.”

Historic East Towson, not for sale.
Courtesy of David Riley

Goldring says it will purge the neighborhood of its last significant piece of greenspace.

“We have, which, let’s face it, we only have a greenspace campaign, because studies show the value that greenspace brings to a neighborhood not just in terms of property value, but in terms of well being to its citizenry,” Goldring said.

Michele Yendall, a representative from the Harris Hill affordable-condominiums board of directors, says the neighborhood stands in unison against the project.

“100% of us are against this,” Yendall said. “It’s not just a pocket of people that don’t like it. There isn’t a resident living here, who wants this project to go through. And it isn’t because it’s affordable housing, it’s because of the piece of property.” 

One major concern of the Red Maple Place is an increased flood risk from Herring Run Stream, an area which has been deemed a floodplain. While the county government previously demolished five homes along Stevenson Lane to diminish the impact of flooding, residents like Goldring worry that the construction will worsen it again. 

“The developer insists that they have an aggressive stormwater management system planned for the area, and our concerns for this being an environmental nightmare are pure speculation,” said Goldring. “Their assertions that whatever they do to manage the stormwater are also speculation because no one is able to predict what’s gonna happen when all that water is running down on an impervious surface.” 

So far, Baltimore County has approved agreements with developers for 560 affordable-housing units.

“We know the Towson community has high connections, strong connections, to public transportation to nearby jobs, and everybody deserves an opportunity to live in a place called home,” Naron said. 

The battle to maintain East Towson remains ongoing. 

“The agendas that are driving this project are being hidden from us,” Riley said. “They obviously aren’t something that anybody feels comfortable discussing. And it becomes incumbent upon us to keep digging in exploring until we get to the bottom of this.”

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