Giving new life to Patterson Park

Ed Rutkowski

April 09, 1993|By Ed Rutkowski

HOMEOWNERS flock to Patterson Park Neighborhoods"

At first glance, the above headline may seem a bit fanciful. After all, the area north of Patterson Park is composed of inner-city working-class neighborhoods that have received their share of negative publicity over

the past several years. The 30,000 or so people who live here are experiencing the stress of urban life in a recession-plagued city in need of better schools, affordable housing and drug-free streets.

But an interesting drama is playing out around Patterson Park that we believe will make that headline a reality in the not-too-distant future. That drama takes the form of the Patterson Park Neighborhoods Intervention Initiative, a revitalization project developed by the six area non-profits and 10 neighborhood associations.

The neighborhoods north of Eastern Avenue around Patterson Park are as diverse as any in the city. They include the relatively prosperous upper Fells Point and racially integrated Butcher's Hill on the west, the Johns Hopkins Hospital area where housing is increasingly absentee-owned or vacant, a growing Hispanic population in the north, an area of rapid racial change in the northeast and a largely white working-class but aging population on the east.

Within this mix are the seeds of success for the area as a whole.

As we find new homebuyers and quality renters to replace senior homeowners and others who are dying or simply moving out, the area will succeed.

As we manage the racial transition taking place on the east and north, the area will succeed.

As we give our residents power over the standard urban problems of trash, drugs, bad neighbors and absentee landlords, the area will succeed.

The importance of these neighborhoods to Baltimore City, to the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and to the residents themselves can't be overestimated. Declining property values of many houses lead to tremendous loss of home equity and annual city tax revenue. Proximity of Patterson Park to Canton means that continued spread of urban blight will eventually tarnish Baltimore's "gold coast." Negative publicity about the neighborhoods around Johns Hopkins makes it harder to attract patients and world-class professionals.

However, Patterson Park remains a desirable place to live. One has only to walk through the park to feel charm and vitality. The non-profit organizations and community associations have committed themselves to making the entire area a model for mixed-culture, mixed-income living. The "intervention initiative" is an example of taking action before it's too late -- and before it costs a fortune.

Efforts are already in place, particularly through the Southeast Community Organization (SECO) to address underlying problems related to crime, inadequate schools, poverty, lack of jobs and difficulties associated with racial transition. Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) recently funded a study that quantifies area problems and describes a comprehensive strategy for addressing housing, homeownership and rental.

Revitalization efforts of 10 and 15 years ago, spearheaded by NHS, demonstrated that if the area has enough committed people and a sound strategy, it can solve the other problems. What we now realize is that such intervention may be required periodically to maintain the area's viability.

The initiative is the sound strategy for holding the committed we have, and attracting new ones. It has four parts: a block-by-block rescue to take back neighborhoods that have weakened, a plan to upgrade the quality of rental units and their tenants, a comprehensive home-ownership plan and a marketing strategy that focuses on potential homebuyers and renters (as well as current residents).

The block-by-block rescue and scheme for improving rental properties attack problems associated with absentee landlords, drug dealers and sanitation and housing code violators. We organize people on those blocks and assist them in dealing with their problem landlords and tenants, and in working with the service and enforcement arms of the city.

The comprehensive home-ownership plan increases the number of homeowners by a variety of means. We work with financial institutions to provide a ready source of first and second mortgages and rehabilitation loans for qualified buyers. We even intervene directly and buy homes that would otherwise sell below market value to absentee investors and speculators. We then sell those houses to homeowners. Because many of today's prospective buyers have a poor credit history, we establish lease/purchase programs and homebuyers' clubs to help people establish credit before buying. We work with area employers, particularly Johns Hopkins, to establish incentives for their employees to live in the area.

Everything else works only if people know that the Patterson Park area remains a good place to live, that houses and rentals are affordable. The area is convenient to many shopping areas and to downtown. It's a place where people of many cultures live together peacefully. It's a place where people still care about each other.

Maybe that headline isn't so fanciful after all.

Ed Rutkowski writes from East Baltimore.

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