Hard part still ahead for 'urban lab' Sandtown: Hope on the horizon

November 23, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Judy Washington's prospects looked even worse than her neighborhood's when she came home from prison to the tattered West Baltimore community of Sandtown-Winchester.

Born in a taxicab and raised in Sandtown, Ms. Washington, 38, had wandered down a path of self-destruction that paralleled the demise of her neighborhood from a workaday community with steady paychecks to a backwater of joblessness whose currency was heroin and cocaine.

Pregnant at 15, she quit school after eighth grade, had two babies, took up with a drug dealer, drifted into cocaine use and became a dealer herself, more at ease with a .357-caliber Magnum pistol than with her children's homework. By her mid-30s, Ms. Washington was both a grandmother and an inmate at the women's prison in Jessup.

But today, Judy Washington is married, drug-free, studying for her high school diploma and gainfully employed.

Ms. Washington still walks the rowhouse streets of Sandtown, but with new purpose. She recruits neighborhood people for a federally funded program that brings health care to pregnant women and young mothers.

"I thank God I had a second chance," Ms. Washington said. "I need to give back something positive to the community because I corrupted so many people's lives. I can't make it right, but I can give back something."

The same long odds against success that faced Ms. Washington when she came home from prison three years ago confront Sandtown itself, 72 square blocks of deteriorating rowhouses, corner stores and more than 50 churches just west of Pennsylvania Avenue. The neighborhood is home to more than 10,000 people, almost all of them black and many of them poor.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and James W. Rouse, the Maryland developer and founder of the Enterprise Foundation, have selected Sandtown as an urban laboratory -- one that already has received attention from Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Cabinet secretaries and network television crews.

The mayor and Mr. Rouse have set out to prove that government, private interests and community residents working together can eliminate blight by mounting a frontal assault on all of a neighborhood's problems at once. To do that, they hope to attract more than $200 million in government and private funds to Sandtown over the next five years.

But the hard work of change has barely begun.

"We will be able to do enough physical transformation that people will see a difference over the next year or two," Mr. Schmoke said. "In terms of less tangible indicators of progress, I think it will take a little longer.

"Within a five-year period, we will be able to say that this is a transformed community," the mayor said.

But if Sandtown is to be a model of urban change, the Judy Washington success story and others like it must endure -- and they must be repeated hundreds, even thousands, of times.

Island amid blight

Not long after Ms. Washington came home from prison, flatbed trucks were hauling in the first building blocks of a revitalized Sandtown: pieces of the factory-built townhouses that became the $17.4 million Nehemiah project (named for the Old Testament figure who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem).

Sandtown was once a solid, working-class area in segregated Baltimore. Black Baltimoreans attended the old Douglass High School there, worked at Schmidt's Bakery and other neighborhood businesses, and shopped and partied on Pennsylvania Avenue, then a famous strip.

The evaporation of blue-collar jobs and the flight of the black middle class plunged the neighborhood into a downward spiral beginning in the 1960s. Then, in 1989, the church-based Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) and Enterprise, Mr. Rouse's effort to produce housing for the poor, joined forces to counter the trend. It was the seed from which the larger project to transform Sandtown grew.

The joint venture erected 227 townhouses on a large tract in the middle of Sandtown where the old bakery and other crumbling buildings had stood. Construction was completed this year, and the units are filled with homeowners.

The Nehemiah houses are a neat island amid a sea of general shabbiness. Most rowhouse blocks in Sandtown include a handful of painstakingly maintained homes, many dingy rental units and scattered eyesores abandoned by absentee owners.

Mr. Schmoke has pledged to rehabilitate Sandtown's 670 vacant houses by next spring, but that is a promise that almost everyone is grateful he made and almost no one expects him to be able to keep.

Idle men hang out on corners, and the neighborhood's most vital commerce is the drug trade. Police say the open-air drug markets have moved toward the fringes of Sandtown, farther from the Nehemiah project, but many residents are afraid to go out at night.

Given Sandtown's long list of social ills, the Schmoke-Rouse goals for the neighborhood are ambitious: to create a safe, attractive environment in which children are prepared to succeed in school, find jobs or go on to college, and support families.

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