Black Entrepreneurs Lead the Charge in Baltimore’s Economic Renewal

Rasheed Aziz remembers visiting Baltimore in 2006. The empty, hollow buildings sprawled the entire block, he says. Buildings lacked roofs, doorways were boarded up, and tree limbs grew into missing windows.

Aziz is the founder of CityWide Youth Development, which he began in central Florida to bring economic development to impoverished neighborhoods using manufacturing and entrepreneurship. In 2006, he decided to move himself—and his nonprofit—to Baltimore after his trip there. During that trip, he says, he saw a need for sustainable employment opportunities in underinvested areas in that city.

“I’ve never looked through a window of a building and saw tree limbs before,” says Aziz, remembering his first visit and the “culture shock” he experienced. “That means there’s no roof. It’s a hollow shell. … But next door someone’s living there!”

But Aziz saw opportunity in these remnants of community devastation.

Depending on how they are counted, vacant buildings in Baltimore make up between an estimated 16,000 to 46,000 properties throughout the city. These tend to be concentrated in predominantly African American neighborhoods in west and central Baltimore. These properties can either be demolished, rehabilitated, or redeveloped.

In Baltimore, Black entrepreneurs like Aziz are using nonprofit social enterprises and a mix of personal finance, foundation money, and state and city funds to “buy the block” and turn blight into black-owned institutions that provide resources and services for the community.

Aziz is one of these entrepreneurs.

Today, CityWide Youth Development is renovating a 10,000-square-foot vacant warehouse on West North Avenue using $230,000 in foundation money and $125,000 he secured in state bonds. Aziz’s nonprofit is reviving the building, transforming it into the Entrepreneurs Making And Growing Enterprises (or EMAGE) Center, a workforce development training center for apparel and frozen dessert production.

This project is based on the first project he completed after moving to Baltimore in 2006. Then, Aziz pitched the idea of revitalizing apartment buildings on West North Avenue. He wanted to create sustainable economic development opportunities through ice cream and apparel manufacturing operations.

The building owner, the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore, gifted Aziz their property, located a block away from where rioting occurred following Freddie Grey’s death, on one condition: that he would “clean it up” and use it to create employment opportunities in their neighborhood.

“Those opportunities for urban renewal with the African Americans in the community leading the charge, I saw those opportunities,” Aziz says. “That’s why I was like, I have to plant my flag.”

Members of the community lent people power to this early project. Aziz says between seven to 10 community residents showed up each day to pitch in with the daunting construction work. In the end, the building was converted into a frozen sorbet shop on the first floor and facilities for sewing, printing, embroidery, and clothing manufacturing on the second and third floors.

And Aziz isn’t the only one investing in the community.

Munir Bahar is a karate and self-defense instructor, community leader, and founder of a construction and remodeling company, COR Construction LLC. He also founded a nonprofit, called COR Health Institute, which teaches youth personal growth and self-discipline through karate training.

In December 2015, Bahar bought four vacant row houses on Collington Avenue in East Baltimore. He purchased the homes for $4,000 from a city program that facilitates the sale of city-owned vacant and abandoned properties.

COR Health Institute transforms a property in Baltimore.

Eighteen months later, the four row homes were cleaned up and redeveloped into one large building. Today, Bahar’s nonprofit provides martial arts training and fitness instruction for community kids in that building.

“Now we stand in a beautiful building, and when we started we were standing in four crack houses,” he says.

Bahar shares his knowledge of how to acquire vacant properties in a series of Facebook videos that also show the transformation taking place in real time on Collington Avenue. In these videos, he aims to inspire Baltimoreans to revitalize neighborhoods by pooling resources to acquire neglected city-owned and privately owned properties.

He calls it #CommunityTakeBackChallenge.

And to his surprise, Bahar says, some of the most active people contacting him to get involved have been neighborhood kids.

In response, Bahar has created the COR Construction Bootcamp to train veterans, ex-felons, homeless individuals, and others who may need help accessing the field of construction. It’s a 10-week program focusing on the behavioral skills needed for learning the trade, like relationship and time management.

Currently, Bahar is in the midst of his second transformation project on Collington Avenue. This time he and COR Construction Bootcamp grads are redeveloping two vacant properties into a construction skills training center to house—and expand—the COR Construction Bootcamp.

Other Black-led revitalization projects are cropping up around the city. In southwest Baltimore the nonprofit U of Empower MD turned the abandoned building of a former elementary school into a home for The Food Project, where kids can learn culinary skills, entrepreneurship, and urban gardening. This spring, The Food Project will use the space to run a pop-up restaurant and host community dinners open to the public.

And a few years ago, another Black entrepreneur, Renwick Bass, turned a 13,500-square-foot old bank near downtown Baltimore into a cultural arts center offering affordable classes in the performing and fine arts.

“What’s important and what connects [us] is what we’re doing with those properties—you know, we’re not using these properties to make money,” Bahar says. “We’re using these properties to create hubs of industrial training and access.”

In 18 months, the COR Health Institute was able to turn a vacant home into a community martial arts/fitness facility dedicated to serving the most vulnerable at-risk children living in East Baltimore.

As state and city officials are pledging millions of dollars to demolition or auction city-owned properties blocks at a time—even debating a bill that would allow the sale of properties for as little as $1 —Black entrepreneurs are helping locals benefit from urban development by utilizing abandoned properties for the community.

Aziz believes revitalization projects are having success attracting state, city, and foundation funding because rehabilitating derelict properties into sites for workforce training, manufacturing, and sustainable employment aligns with the priorities of the city.

“If you have a proven model to be able to create jobs, which we have, the opportunities for funding become more abundant,” Aziz says. “That’s the part that’s replicable.”

“There [was] no place in the community where you can learn construction. There [was] no place in the community where you can learn hospitality or restaurant management,” Bahar says. “But this is what we’re all doing inside of vacant neighborhoods right in the heart of the community.”

This article has been funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.

Editor’s note: In a previous version, Munir Bahar’s name was spelled incorrectly. It has been changed.

Kevon Paynter wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Kevon is the Surdna reporting fellow for YES! Follow him on Twitter @KevonPaynter.