Shortly beyond 8 o'clock yesterday morning, on Stricker Street in West Baltimore, there comes such a hocking and a plocking from hammering and nailing as to make the very gods of urban renewal wake up and salute.
Of course, I learn this second-hand. Myself, I don't show up on Stricker Street until 9:30 yesterday morning, in mid-hock and mid-plock, but everybody who was there earlier says it was stirring to watch everything commence.
The hocking and the plocking? It was nothing more than bringing life to a neighborhood. It was about 200 people, volunteers all, going into 15 vacant houses for Sandtown's Building on Hope Project, and beginning the process of making them livable again.
It was the likes of Norman Belder, a history teacher at Clarksville Middle School, in Howard County, standing in this dark, filthy, abandoned house in the 1500 block of Stricker St. and working a drill into a wall while hoping the very floor beneath him wouldn't suddenly give out.
It was Drew Hostetter, a corporate controller at Maryland National Bank, with a tool belt wrapped around his waist, and dust falling through the battered floor boards one flight up, declaring, "It's not just building a home, it's building a community."
And it was Eugene Wooland, who's lived in this neighborhood for 64 years and makes his living fixing homes, remarking, "This is what's gonna bring this neighborhood back to life, you understand? Landlords won't fix up these houses, and the people don't care. They don't. The houses don't belong to them, so they ain't got no responsibility. This will give 'em responsibility, you watch."
Actually, it gives something to everyone. I make the little joke about arriving late to show not only my own arm's-length approach, but most people's. It's easier to stand on the sidelines and cheer them on, or scoff at them, or ignore them completely, than to join in the grubby effort.
The sidelines, naturally, begin somewhere in suburbia, where many have written off the places like West Baltimore. Some of this comes down to race, and some is the neighborhood's poverty and drug traffic and so forth, from which everyone naturally cringes. But there is a choice faced by all: Kiss off the city, or do something about it.
Yesterday morning, they were doing something about it. In fact, for the rest of this week, from 8 in the morning until exhaustion arrives, these 200 volunteers will be blitzing their way through 15 houses in a follow-up to last summer's Jimmy Carter work project here.
It's part of an effort to rehabilitate 100 homes in the neighborhood, which needs it. The average cost of buying a rowhouse in Sandtown is $7,421, the cheapest price in town. But few who live here can afford even that.
The estimated family income in the neighborhood is about $8,200 year. On average, about 70 percent of this goes for rent. The crime makes everybody shudder, and the drugs have become a way of life for much of a generation, and the self-destruction is visible everywhere: Not only vacant houses but trash piled in alleys, sidewalks cluttered with junk, and people at the end of their rope.
Consider all of this, and it's easy to scoff at the rehab efforts. Easier to watch a city breaking apart. Easier to stand on the sidelines and watch others get their hands dirty with the hammering and nailing. But then you listen to a guy like Oscar Woodard, 40 years old, who works for the city and lives in the neighborhood.
"When people take pride in what they do, it's a great force," he was saying yesterday. "Knowing you have your own house is a great force. My mother and my father never had one their whole lives. You know what it's like walking on a street with boarded-up houses? It's like a ghost town."
He wore overalls over a bare barrel chest and carried tools in his hand. A few feet away, a volunteer was talking about demolition work on some chimneys. Others, men and women, black and white, were getting brooms for sweep-ups.
"It's hard to believe so many people caring about the neighborhood," said a resident, Janice Allen, looking out her front door.
She said this over the sound of hocking and plocking. Such a racket! It was hammering and nailing, but it was also a city street coming to life, which made it the sound of music.