Residents are organizing to rescue their neighborhood from urban ills #


August 22, 1993|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

On a clear summer evening, Dawna Cobb pushes her 2-year-old son, Lucas, in a stroller, as 5-year-old Anders, skips along during a walk down Abell Avenue. As supper-time scents mingle on the tree-shaded street and guitarists strum a Beatles tune from their front steps, she points out the brick rowhouses of noted residents: a poet, a playwright, a John F. Kennedy authority.

Ms. Cobb, a 37-year-old attorney, didn't meet people with such diverse interests while growing up in a small town in New York. But she and her husband, teacher Paul Hulleberg, wanted to give their children that opportunity. So they settled in Charles Village -- home to writers, medical students, Johns Hopkins University professors and the city's highest concentration of Asians.

"It felt right for us," Ms. Cobb says later, watching children -- black and white -- play on the swings at the neighborhood park. "Some people are afraid of the city -- the city is equivalent to crime. But there's an incredible sense of community here."

For Ms. Cobb and many of her neighbors with a taste for city life, that feeling has come largely from uniting to battle the crime, litter and neglect that have threatened the neighborhood in recent years.

Throughout the area, property owners have begun organizing to polish a tarnished image. They're walking the streets to root out trouble, starting a local children's soccer league and giving worn-down properties a much-needed face lift. The activism has spread to South Charles Village -- the area south of 25th Street -- where community groups still in their infancy hope to bring the neighborhood a sense of identity, and to keep residents and businesses from leaving.

But few expect improvements overnight. Families often lose their appetite for city life and move to the suburbs when their children reach school-age.

And homes are staying on the market about twice as long as they had before the real estate industry slowed in 1990 -- a development that could depress prices and change the neighborhood's character. In the first eight months of 1993, the average Charles Village single-family home sold for $93,880, down from $98,760 over the same period last year.

More than two decades have passed since urban pioneers began rediscovering Charles Village, which was planned after the Civil War as Peabody Heights, a suburb where stately, three-story homes sold for $4,000 to $7,000.

Today, Hopkins students rent rooms in converted rowhouses and mid-rise apartments. Elderly people cultivate tidy gardens. And families and artists have renovated deteriorating homes, meticulously restoring oak mantels, stained-glass windows, pressed-tin ceilings and ceramic-tiled vestibules.

Still, along main thoroughfares such as St. Paul Street, homes with gleaming facades sit next to others with peeling paint and weed-choked gardens. Panhandlers approach shoppers on a block that houses a Chinese restaurant, a grocery store, a pub and other businesses. Residents sometimes wake up to find belongings stolen from porches or cars.

More "For Sale" signs have popped up outside the Victorian-style rowhouses that sell for up to $250,000 along St. Paul Street and the more modest homes that sell for about $72,000 on Guilford Avenue. The Central Maryland Multiple Listing Service Inc. shows 111 single-family homes and 62 multiple-family homes for sale.

That's an increase of about 25 percent since the real estate market slowed, and it reflects the overall market, says Nancy C. Hubble, president-elect of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

"Houses are taking longer to sell," said Ms. Hubble, who has sold thousands of Charles Village homes, some several times over, in more than 30 years. "The neighbors are concerned, but I don't see a decline in the neighborhood."

Several months ago, Ms. Cobb, president of the Abell Improvement Association, and other residents feared that homeowners were fleeing for suburbia. A local real estate broker, asked by the association to investigate, found instead that 70 percent of owners were selling because of a job change, 10 percent because of marriages and 5 percent for other reasons.

One recent example of the trend: W.H.C. Wilson & Co. sold a Victorian-style rowhouse in the 2800 block of St. Paul St. four years ago to the head of medical services at Wyman Park Medical Center and his wife, a social worker. The couple has been transferred to Philadelphia and are selling the home -- with oak and mahogany floors, an exposed brick wall and a three-story atrium -- for $198,000.

Sandra R. Sparks, executive director of the 25-year-old Greater Homewood Community Corp., an umbrella group of community organizations in North Baltimore, blames several factors besides the economy.

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