'Out of choices': Urban pioneers abandon inner cities Revitalization trend falls short of hopes

September 18, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac

When the Rev. Lance Gifford peers into the gilded mirror in the large, handsome living room of his West Baltimore row house, it reflects the riches of a life: He and his wife were married in front of this mirror, and it has born silent witness to the childhoods of two daughters.

Mr. Gifford, a 47-year-old Episcopal minister, bought the house on Hollins Street 18 years ago, reclaiming it from near-ruin during a "back-to-the-city" movement that swept through many older U.S. cities in the 1980s.

Three months ago, Mr. Gifford and his wife, Margy McCampbell, listed for sale the house they have so lovingly tended. It was a particularly painful decision for Mr. Gifford, who conceded, "I am, finally, giving up."

In many of the cities associated with revitalized neighborhoods -- Baltimore; Kansas City, Mo.; Columbus, Ohio; Washington; and Detroit, among them -- urban pioneers are beginning to rethink a lifestyle that has become so sullied by encroaching crime and eroding public services that some are beginning to abandon the neighborhoods they had claimed as their own a decade earlier.

"The difficult part is acceptance of the fact that we lost the battle," said Mr. Gifford, who in 1973 began rehabilitating the house in a stately block of elegant row houses near historic Hollins Market.

"There was this belief that this particular block could be reclaimed as a neighborhood. In 1973, there were a lot of us who felt that way," he said of a community that has tended to attract downtown professionals, university students and artists. "Sadly, we've become dinosaurs in our own community."

Although final reports will not be released until next year, demographers and geographers studying data collected in the 1990 census say a preliminary review of education and income levels indicates that those who embraced the back-to-the-city movement have begun to join the middle-class migration to the suburbs.

The gentrification of old downtown neighborhoods in cities in the Northeast and Midwest has largely stopped, according to demographers, economists and urban sociologists, who say the movement failed to live up to its promise.

Among the reasons for the decline, urban specialists say, are the loss of federal tax incentives for renovators; the perception that cities are increasingly unsafe; unacceptable public schools; and a misreading a decade ago that many of the young urban pioneers would remain childless and that this particular generation had somehow rejected suburbia as a choice.

"Gentrification was never a guaranteed revival," said Kathryn Nelson, an economist with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"It was the basis on which to potentially build. While a few people gentrified, a lot more people moved out of the central cities, as they've always done. I love cities, and I would really like to say that cities are coming back, but to say that would be irresponsible."

Overall, demographers say, gentrification has had no net effect on cities, except in a very localized way.

In the 1970s, the theory was that a few gentrified areas would have a contagious effect and pull up neighboring districts. Although that didn't happen, urban specialists do expect most cities to preserve some enclaves of housing for small numbers of middle- to upper-income residents.

"Certainly, the residential rehabs and the commercial construction of the 1980s transformed the image of cities," said Larry Long, a demographer for the U.S. Census Bureau.

"But that didn't necessarily induce people to live near the centers of cities. In some ways, it's surprising the terrific amount of new construction didn't have more demographic effects than are evident so far.

"The numbers do not look good for central city neighborhoods," he said. "I think it's fairly safe to say that gentrification has come and gone."

In some ways, Hyde Park was the special promise of Kansas City, Mo.

Dozens of the sturdy homes in the middle-class neighborhood were rehabilitated by determined urban homesteaders who created a caring community where, every year since 1976, they have celebrated with a festival and a tour of showcase homes.

This year, however, the Hyde Park celebration was tempered with sad introspection: Two years ago, as the festival was winding down to a contented close, the publicity chairman of the community association was held up at gunpoint. It was a sign of things to come.

Burglaries, robberies and auto break-ins have increased dramatically, despite the efforts of neighborhood patrol volunteers and a private security force.

Free-lance photographer Lauren Chapin, 32, lives with her husbandin a lovely apartment on the outskirts of Hyde Park. The couple is looking for a house to rent in the suburbs.

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