Where families once flourished, addicts, homeless move in

BIOGRAPHY OF A BLOCK

June 06, 1993|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

Riding to medical conferences at John Hopkins Hospital a few years ago, Dan Kohn noticed that plywood covered most of the rowhouses in the 1000 block of North Broadway.

In this patch of blight on a once-grand boulevard, he thought he saw an opportunity to improve a Baltimore neighborhood and make a little money. He bought a house at auction in 1989 and began the rehabilitation by installing a steel front door to keep out thieves.

Within a few days, the door was gone.

Dr. Kohn, an emergency-room physician who had renovated a couple of houses in Cumberland, hired a welder to cover the doors and windows with iron bars. Vandals smashed in the bricks to free the bars and break in, then they shattered porcelain toilets and sinks and tore out $3,000 worth of new plumbing to sell for scrap copper.

When he replaced the rotting roof on a second house he had bought, the new galvanized gutters disappeared, followed by the plywood roofing itself. Finally the bricks from an addition on -- the rear began to be smashed loose from the mortar and carted away. Dr. Kohn gave up. The boards went back up.

"It's a little disturbing when you find the building is beginning to disappear," says Dr. Kohn. "I was stunned by the degree of force that was used. People tell you it's a bad neighborhood, but you don't understand it until you experience it."

Today, of the 27 rowhouses on the east side of the 1000 block, 21 are vacant and boarded.

Children play inside amid shattered whiskey bottles and fallen -- plaster, occasionally setting fires. Homeless people drag in scavenged furniture and find shelter. Drug addicts pry the boards off and come in to shoot up, littering the floors with syringes and sometimes overdosing; neighbors recall at least three bodies pulled from the vacant rowhouses in the last few years.

The owners of the boarded houses probably don't even hear of such horrors. They are an inattentive group that includes a Baltimore dentist, a 90-year-old former homeowner who retired to North Carolina and absentee investors from Ellicott City, Potomac, even California.

"They started renting to anybody and everybody, and some would tear up the houses, and the landlords wouldn't fix them," says Letha McDuffie, 73, who still lives with her husband in No. 1027, which they bought in 1950.

"Everything just broke loose and started going downhill," says Daisy Jackson, who grew up nearby and has owned the liquor store at the end of the block for 27 years. "It's been heartbreaking."

The biography of this block, one of dozens of devastated stretches that dot the city's older, poorer neighborhoods, is a window on how blight starts and spreads. It shows the progression that put a growing emotional and literal distance between the properties and their owners: from homeowners, to landlords who lived in the neighborhood, to landlords who lived in the suburbs, to investors who rarely or never saw the houses.

The first boards to be hammered on a city street are like the first, ominous splotches of tumor on an X-ray. The boards are a consequence of decline, but they are also a cause. The city even hangs curtains in some vacant houses to soften the impact.

In Baltimore, the disease has spread as the city's population has declined, its job base eroded and its drug problem ballooned. Today, city officials count 6,974 vacant houses -- up from 5,703 in 1986 and 4,152 in 1964. Some 17,088 units of vacant housing were razed between 1970 and 1990, but houses are abandoned

faster than they can be fixed up or torn down.

Parades and car pools

If the 1000 block had a photo album, it might include shots of the Easter parades that brought out East Baltimoreans to stroll Broadway in their finery early in the century. From midcentury, there might be sunrise photos of car-poolers departing for jobs at Bethlehem Steel while nurses and medical students walked south to the hospital.

From the late 1960s, there would be shots of furious tenants, led by a charismatic activist from Philadelphia, picketing their landlord's office. From the 1970s, there might be youngsters playing in the dilapidated apartments, where records show that children were lead-poisoned by chipping paint in eight of the 27 houses on the East side of the block.

From the early 1980s, there would be real estate brokers driving Washingtonians past while spinning tales of fast money to be made as Harborplace and Hopkins fuel an unstoppable revival. From the '90s, the snapshot might show the parade of drug addicts into a rowhouse that an enterprising man had turned into a shooting gallery, charging $2 admission.

What a photo might show a few years hence is an open question. A community group plans to renovate and rent 10 houses. A developer is trying to buy many of the rest to be fixed up and sold at affordable prices. These are big ideas requiring government subsidies. Many in the neighborhood will believe it when they see it.

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