Income, race divide state's capital


July 11, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

The day he watched the sale sign go up on the homestead his grandfather built a half-block from Annapolis' Back Creek, James Johnson knew he was being priced right out of his neighborhood.

His inability to keep the simple stucco house in the family tells the tale of the transformation of Maryland's capital into a prospering boating and tourist center. Yacht clubs and elegant residences now line the shores from which Mr. Johnson's ancestors fished at the turn of the century.

Once dubbed "Camelot on the Bay" by National Geographic, this city of 33,000 is increasingly divided into two separate, unequal communities -- one rich and one poor, one white and one black.

In the last 25 years, an influx of affluent white professionals, sailors and tourists has left Annapolis' oldest neighborhoods more segregated than ever. Blacks were forced out by the high rents and property taxes of the historic downtown and Eastport, while the income gap between those who remain and the newcomers continues to widen.

"Young black families are not able to stay down here anymore,"says Mr. Johnson, 43, who is black and rents across the street from the house his grandfather built in 1937. "This neighborhood is changing so much. It's hard when you remember how it used to be."

The rebirth of Annapolis' neglected, genteel streets is a phenomenon that has been occurring from coast to coast over the past two decades. From Baltimore's Inner Harbor to Philadelphia's Society Hill, from Boston's South Side to Santa Barbara's Pueblo Viejo, downtown districts are enjoying a comeback.

Still, the redevelopment of once-shabby older neighborhoods has its trade-offs. The up side is clear -- construction, higher property assessments and an in-migration of young career couples have brought much-needed income to cities. The down side is less visible -- the squeezing-out of the urban working class, usually black and Hispanic communities.

When his uncle died and left the property Mr. Johnson's grandfather built to other relatives, Mr. Johnson, a roofer, realized that he'd never come up with the down payment to buy the house. Last month, a white professional couple from New Jersey, who arrived with an architect in tow, signed a contract on the house that was listed at nearly $200,000.

Only a decade ago, most of Mr. Johnson's neighbors were black. Eastport, a marshy peninsula between Back Creek and Spa Creek, had been a stable, racially mixed community of watermen, teachers, domestic workers and employees of the Naval Academy.

Some blocks were all-white or all-black; still all the children played together, and everyone knew everyone's name.

Connections between working- and middle-class blacks andwhites have frayed with urban renewal, historic preservation and the arrival of ever more wealthy commuters from Baltimore and Washington, civic leaders say.

Blacks make up a third of Annapolis' residents, yet their history and presence are often missed by outsiders.

In the downtown areas frequented by tourists, a black community that had a long and rich history was displaced during the 1960s and '70s. The story was repeated in Eastport in the 1980s as developers headed there in search of cheaper land.

Even in the poorest section of the city, black families worry that they see the early warning signs of displacement.

"Everywhere there's water in this town, it becomes prime real estate," says Charles James, 48, who moved from a rowhouse near College Creek that has been renovated. "The whites buy it up, and eventually the lower-income blacks can't afford to live there."

Racial dividing lines

The splintering of Annapolis into racially segregated communities began soon after the Civil War. But it took the city's new popularity as a boating center to dissolve its interracial working communities.

Long before Emancipation, a number of free black artisans and merchants opened shops on Main Street and lived nearby in modest brick and frame homes. Today those dwellings are decorated with wreaths of dried flowers and cost up to $250,000.

As late as the 1970 census, half the downtown residents were black. Most have left.

"No African-Americans have been able to come in as property owners," says Leslie Stanton, one of the last black homeowners on Cornhill Street.

"At one time, I wanted to buy some other property, but the prices are really beyond what I would like to pay."

He remembers when the narrow, crooked streets leading to the State House -- Fleet, East, Cornhill and Pinckney -- were all black enclaves. Now he can count his black neighbors on one hand. Hardly any still live downtown and work at the Naval Academy, state government or the many restaurants, he says.

What happened? The loss of the city's once-thriving black communities and businesses is the result of simple economics and tangled politics.

It began in the 1960s, when boarded-up stores and junky signs lined Main Street. "You couldn't see the street for the signs," recalls historic preservationist St. Clair Wright.

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