One point of light

Milton Bates

December 16, 1991|By Milton Bates

REMEMBER The Road?

Barbara Mikulski does, of course. And Ted Rouse came to learn much about it. Mary Mugrage, frail and hard-working, recalls it but dimly. Yet the successful struggle to stop that ill-conceived, late '60s expressway through Fells Point (and vicinity) was the first link in a chain which makes this holiday season the very best of her long, tough life.

The Road, as it is still known to longtime homeowners in the Fells Point-Canton historic district, was designed to speed vehicles through the city from one interstate to another. The project would have forced the razing of many homes in this stable Southeast Baltimore community, replaced by a huge concrete scar.

Billed as "progress," this anti-people concept fell victim to the unceasing work of a band of dedicated community activists who organized to oppose it. One leader, a young social worker from that threatened neighborhood, launched a political career that carried her from the City Council to the U.S. Senate. Today, Barbara Mikulski still fights the good fight, the lone Democratic woman there.

Ted Rouse, barely a teen-ager when The Road was first proposed in 1965, learned its history two decades later when his company was attempting to rezone an old building on Boston Street from industrial to residential. Meeting with residents, many of them survivors of the road war, he sensed the residual bitterness and anger resulting from city condemnation of a six-acre site directly opposite his proposed venture.

Rouse, youngest son of the fabled James Rouse of Columbia and Harborplace fame, by then had become an enlightened developer. An oxymoron? Not in this case. After his proposed transformation of the ancient structure into upscale residential apartments was approved (it is now Tindeco Wharf), Rouse felt the need to pay back this community and its people. But his dream of building affordable housing for the low-income elderly on those vacant six acres was rejected as too unrewarding for the waning city tax base.

Persevering, he found another site nearby on South Lakewood Avenue. Forty-five living spaces, Rouse envisioned, could be created if the dollars were found, and so began the tortuous attempt to obtain financing. By the mid-'80s, the Reagan program of reducing federal funds to cities -- no matter how good the cause -- was slowing such efforts. But dedicated, passionate believers in the common good were found in the state Department of Housing and Community Development and its counterpart agency in Baltimore.

An existing program to create low-income housing -- the Maryland Partnership Rental Housing Program -- was the vehicle that turned dream into reality, overcoming the gap left by the absence of federal funding. Under the plan, the state lends money to local jurisdictions, and city/county-owned housing is built. Families of four earning up to $23,500 and individuals making less than $16,500 qualify; rents range from $210 to $350 per month to cover all operating costs. No payback on the state loan is required as long as the localities own the project and use it to house the working poor.

And so, in a move reminiscent of the stopping of the road, good people again came together, refusing to bow to the seemingly inevitable. The state, the city and a developer with a conscience formed the partnership that created "Indecco," the home of Mary Mugrage and 44 other low-income elderly.

Is there a message here as we approach this grim holiday season in our battered but much-loved city? Well, yes. Despite 11 years of federal parsimony imposed by two administrations that have written off cities nationwide, citizen action -- especially when coupled with enlightened and caring local government -- can produce a meaningful victory now and then. The path from The Road twisted and turned, but the results were worthwhile and satisfying.

Can more such victories be achieved in these troubled times? Why not?

Milton Bates writes from Baltimore.

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