Deconstructing row houses to rebuild a life

People are made of stories, not atoms.


Bernadette Buckson has spent her entire life in the Oliver neighborhood of Baltimore, except when she’s gone to jail.

Now she’s using her hands to literally help to tear down her neighborhood – brick by brick – a process that Buckson said is helping to rebuild her life. She’s the crew leader of a Detail Deconstruction team that is tearing down a dilapidated row house on Federal Street.

“We’re making a difference, making a change,” she said.

Buckson, 54, said she has always lived in Oliver. She is familiar with the corner stores, knows where to get good pizza and greets her neighbors as they walk by. Now, as she helps to deconstruct buildings in the neighborhood, Buckson said she is proud that her neighbors can see what she’s doing. It hasn’t always been that way.

She used to live her life on street corners, “hanging out all day,” Buckson said, and “doing drugs.”

“I didn’t have a job,” Buckson said, and she wasn’t looking for one. Then she went to prison, for seven years.

She got clean, but when she returned to Oliver she said she had a hard time finding work. When she applied for a job, she said all that potential employers saw was a recovering drug addict with an arrest record, not a returning citizen looking for a second chance. Buckson said she was turned down for jobs 32 times before she applied for a position at a Baltimore non-profit named Details.

It turns out she was exactly the type of employee Details was looking for. The East Baltimore-based nonprofit deconstruction company employs former felons who cannot get jobs anywhere else to deconstruct row houses by hand. It offers education and training opportunities to help ex-offenders stay out of jail.

Details provides an alternative to demolition — deconstruction. Instead of sending tons of rubble to a landfill, deconstruction salvages these materials for a new life.

It turns out the company Buckson earn a new life, too. Given the second chance by Details, she said she has thrived.

“These things I used to do I no longer do,” Buckson said. “This job changed me a lot.”

Now she is dismantling vacant houses — by hand, just a block away from where she grew up. She started out as a rookie who needed to learn everything. Now she’s the crew leader.

Buckson said she is not sad to see the houses being demolished in Oliver. She thinks it’s good to clear away the vacant buildings.

“It’s all about change,” she said.

From personal experience, she knows that vacant buildings can be a magnet for drug users and dealers.

“If there’s no empty house you can’t stand in front of it no more,” she said.

The new Bernadette Buckson doesn’t live on street corners any more. She said her neighbors respect her for having a job and for being a positive force to improve the neighborhood. She has a fiancé and a home life. A big night out is a trip to the movies. She likes it that way.

Now that she’s a crew chief, Buckson said her next goal is to be a supervisor. She said she wants to help others reconstruct their lives like she did.


(This story was reported in text and video by Jingling Zhang for the Baltimore Project, a multimedia workshop exploring the impact of urban development in Baltimore. This project is a collaboration between The Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State University and The School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University.)

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