Asphalt leads way to change City to fix streets as way to upgrade neighborhoods

February 14, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Witness how the condition of a street can reflect the squalor of the surrounding neighborhood: Neglect and poverty are mirrored in the furrows and potholes on West Baltimore's Lafayette Avenue.

From Fremont Avenue to Division Street, about half the rowhouses are boarded up with plywood to keep out drug dealers, thieves, and worse. Litter clutters the sidewalks along this five-block area and spills across the vacant lots.

Life in Upton can be broken and cruel: unemployment, destitution and crime are as harmful to a community as the

pounding traffic that has cracked and pitted the weary pavement.

This spring, city government is looking to rejuvenate this neighborhood with an unlikely formula -- crushed stone and asphalt. Its primary tool is a $5 million experimental program aimed at fixing up streets like Lafayette Avenue, and in the process, helping repair some of Baltimore's most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

"We have a marriage of two ideas -- road resurfacing, where we have enormous needs, and the serious needs in housing for the city," said James W. Causey, head of Baltimore's traffic division. "This is an idea of merging needs in a way that the federal government can recognize and support."

The theory behind the program is that a street in disrepair sends a message that City Hall does not care.

"Resurfacing a street is a signal to a neighborhood that somebody cares," said Peter N. Marudas, an aide to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "If you drive down a pothole-ridden street or the gutters aren't taken care of, it's devitalizing."

Advocates argue that the street is the equivalent of a driveway, front yard, children's playground, social center for a city neighborhood and the first thing that visitors see. An attractive appearance is often crucial to luring business investment.

The pilot program is called Project Vision and its five-year, $5 million authorization was tacked onto the $151 billion bill that the U.S. Congress approved for highway and transit programs nationwide in late 1991.

The project was buried in the section of the law that critics frequently refer to as pork -- specific programs added by lawmakers to benefit their home districts. In this case, the advocate was Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd.

City officials concede that their primary goal in designing Project Vision was quite simply to leverage more money from the federal government for a cash-strapped city government. After all, they point out, coming up with creative ideas for new programs is how the budget game is played on Capitol Hill.

"The federal government is trying all kinds of things for urban renewal," said Chris Lynch, an aide to Mr. Cardin. "There's an opportunity in these kinds of bills to be different and creative."

Project Vision will focus not just on low-income areas, but on neighborhoods that are deemed viable but in danger of decline, said Mr. Causey.

The area chosen covers eight square miles in the heart of Baltimore from Gwynns Falls in the west to Patterson Park in the east, from Druid Hill Park in the north, to Carroll Park in the south.

This week, the Board of Estimates is expected to award to P. Flanigan & Sons, a Baltimore-based construction firm, a $458,267 contract to resurface the first five Project Vision sites, including Lafayette Avenue.

Another 10 projects are expected to be offered for bid later thi year.

Lafayette Avenue represents much of what Project Vision advocates would like to accomplish. "It's not one of the best neighborhoods in the city," said Michael E. Gibbs, a city planner, "but it is prototypical of the communities that are being rehabilitated."

The median income for households in Upton is $8,772, according to the 1990 census. The 11,464 people who live in these 80 city blocks reported 1,468 crimes in 1990, including 18 rapes, 11 homicides and 142 armed robberies. The number of women rearing children is about 10 times the number of married couples with children.

A recent visit to Lafayette Avenue found Upton residents indifferent to any resurfacing of Lafayette Avenue. Instead, they were eager to find out if any jobs will become available and how and where they could apply.

"The way I look at it fixing up a street isn't going to help," said Freddie Moore, 37, a disabled warehouse worker and Lafayette Avenue tenant.

"Fixing up houses could. We have a lot of boarded-up houses. Resurface the street, and the cars are just zooming through faster."

The Rev. Marvis P. May, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church on Lafayette Avenue, said residents need more than getting the street fixed. The money, he said, might be better spent on turning around people's attitudes.

"How about a day-care center? Or something that has social implications that could benefit people?" Mr. May said. "Sometimes beautification can have a short-term effect, but this is something they expected to have done a long time ago," he said, noting that pothole repair is considered a normal city service.

City Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, whose 4th District includes Upton, said he also welcomed any improvement to the street, but was skeptical that it could have any significant benefit to people.

"To be honest, I could think of other areas where we could use the money," Mr. Bell said. "I don't think it could have an earth-shattering effect, but any help is good at this point."

That is also the philosophy of Schmoke administration officials who point out that, at the very least, the money will mean more potholes are fixed, augmenting the $4 million the city spends each year on maintenance.

If the benefits of that government investment can be multiplied -- if a fixed pothole also helps keep some borderline neighborhood from becoming a slum -- then maybe it was spent more wisely than most federal dollars, they say.

"In the end, we should have something that is more than just the sum of its projects," Mr. Causey said. "This could be a pilot project for the country."

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