Two Vets Rescue Baltimore’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood

Their mission: to save a lost community.

veterans service
Earl Johnson (L) and Rich Blake (R) leading the clean-up effort in Oliver. (Photo c/o The 6th Branch)
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

Most evenings, Earl Johnson sits outside his new home, props his feet up, and chats with his neighbors. A year ago, this was unheard of in Oliver—one of Baltimore's most dangerous and corrupt neighborhoods.

Known for its abandoned buildings, drug deals and mounds of trash, Oliver is not a place you want to find yourself when the sun goes down. This lost neighborhood was an infamous filming location for the HBO drama The Wire.

We want to help organize citizens, like us, to take back their own communities.

Although Earl is not originally from Oliver, he settled there to bring the neighborhood back from the trenches. After he moved in, the ex-Army Ranger joined forces with former Marine Rich Blake, who runs The 6th Branch, a local veteran community service initiative. The team of vets fittingly call their mission "Operation Oliver," and since they began revitalizing the community last July, they have amassed over 1,500 volunteers. Many of these volunteers are also veterans.

Before Operation Oliver began, Rich says, some community planning was underway. "The wheels were moving very, very slowly and there was not a lot of manpower." With veterans, he says, "there is this sense of urgency."

"We have a billion dollars worth of leadership training, we’ve been entrusted with toppling countries and millions of dollars of equipment," Earl adds. "We want to bring those leadership skills, the tenacity to never give up and the tenacity to keep moving on, back to the community. We want to help organize citizens, like us, to take back their own communities."

Thus far, Operation Oliver volunteers have removed 59 tons of garbage and debris, painted two large murals, created green space and have brought in education and mentoring opportunities for kids in the community.

Earl Johnson is also the executive director of Come Home Baltimore, a company that reconstructs and sells fully renovated, energy-efficient homes in Oliver. "We are continually purchasing homes from the city and trying to change entire blocks of the community—we're doing it one block at a time." he says.

Their efforts in Oliver are long-term. "We are going to be here for many years. We're going to try to make sure that this community stays up to par."

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