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Keeping up with Jonestown

Students in the Carey Business School’s CityLab program bring social entrepreneurship to the community
Posted July 16, 2014
Corned Beef Row may be part of a redevelopment project thanks to the efforts of the CityLab students.  IMAGE: Marshall Clarke Corned Beef Row may be part of a redevelopment project thanks to the efforts of the CityLab students. IMAGE: Marshall Clarke

Commuters on the JFX pass it daily without note. Tourists skip it on the way to the ballparks. And foodies rush by on their way to restaurants in Little Italy and Fells Point. But the 10-acre area known as Jonestown, just to the east of President Street and north of Pratt Street, wasn’t always an overlooked neighborhood that people pass on their way somewhere else.

The neighborhood dates back to the 17th century, when Englishman David Jones founded a settlement next to his mill on a stream now known as Jones Falls. In a bustling port town, it became one of the wealthiest neighborhoods and was home to Charles Carroll (a signer of the Declaration of Independence) and Mary Pickersgill (who sewed the flag that inspired our national anthem.) University founder Johns Hopkins worshiped at the 1781 Quaker meeting house on Fayette Street, the oldest surviving religious building in Baltimore. However, a century of disinvestment and suburban migration left the neighborhood struggling. Historic homes were replaced by low-income housing projects and by 1979 it was estimated that 98% of the residents lived in poverty.

Now, one resident, who also happens to be an associate professor at the Carey Business School, has a plan to bring Jonestown back to its former glory. A child of the '60s and a former nun, Lindsay Thompson believes that business scholars need to be fully immersed in their field of study. Just as medical students go on hospital rounds to learn their profession, Thompson reasons that business students must learn from actual people and businesses—not just case studies.  To this end, in the fall of 2012, Thompson created CityLab, a program that takes students out of the classroom and into her own backyard to practice real-world social entrepreneurship.

In the first CityLab class, students engaged in a market asset-mapping project to identify areas of potential investment and opportunity in Jonestown. Working with community stakeholders, they developed business models to address specific neighborhood challenges. Ideas flooded in—everything from a basketball center to a child care hub to a community creative center. The history of the Jonestown neighborhood also led to ideas about leveraging the city’s War of 1812 commemoration festivities, forging new partnerships with area Jewish delis and the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and redeveloping building assets, such as the historic Hendler Creamery building.

The efforts in Jonestown are just the start. CityLab classes are now working with stakeholders to examine the Ward 5 neighborhood in Northeast Washington, D.C. And, with the launch of the Johns Hopkins Institute for the American City, CityLab students will have access to additional resources and the potential to build the multidisciplinary collaborations needed to address even more of the challenges facing neighborhoods across the nation. For Jonestown, the future is bright. One day soon, it may just be the destination of choice for commuters, tourists, and foodies alike.