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Supporting Children & Families
Until his family moved to South Baltimore in the 1960s, Michael Middleton lived in a Cherry Hill public housing project dotted with beautiful cherry trees—and located just 200 yards from the city dump. As an adult, he returned to serve the community as a legal aid attorney focusing on systemic problems of low-income communities. He was involved in gaining city approval for the Cherry Hill Master Plan in 2008. Today, as executive director of the Cherry Hill Development Corporation, he often reflects on the challenges his community faces, the contrast between those challenges and the love residents have for their community and the importance of service-oriented partnerships in overcoming them.
“Communities don’t want organizations to come in with a white savior mentality, to come and do things for you,” Michael said. “Catholic Charities seeks guidance predicated on where our community wants to go, and uses its resources to assist us in getting to that goal.” Originally developed as a segregated community for AfricanAmerican servicemen returning from World War II, Cherry Hill was shaped by many of the policies that reinforced systemic racism nationally. Michael said it had the highest density of public housing east of the Mississippi until the 1980s. At one time, it was home to three incinerators. In its 75 years in existence, Cherry Hill had never had a bank branch. In the late 1970s, the community asked Catholic Charities to help stabilize the community’s commercial and cultural heart—its only shopping area, the Cherry Hill Town Center. Over the last two years, partnership with community leaders and through an extensive listen-to-learn initiative led to plans for the center’s evolution into a holistic community resource. In early March 2020, project partners and neighbors gathered for a celebratory groundbreaking of a major renovation. The project’s first phase upgrades the façade and welcomes Cherry Hill’s very first bank, a Chase branch, to provide financial literacy, investment and entrepreneurial opportunity, and other services. Michael said the plans for the town center recognize that it is the only economic development institution in the community.
Enhancing the center’s ability to serve its community, to become a “community of opportunity,” creates sustainability by addressing the root causes of the challenges its residents face. In addition, the collaborative plans include space for small gatherings, something that does not exist anywhere in Cherry Hill – not even a place to meet for coffee. “How do you continue and respect the culture of a community? By having placemaking space for community activities, for formality and informality to come together, the opportunity for new businesses that want to start off, a place for smaller group meetings,” Michael said. “When a development project starts, everybody and anybody wants to come in. I’m interested in working with folks who share the concept of development on behalf of and for the benefit of the community itself.”