A New Chance for the Eastside

February 10, 1994

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke plans to propose the newly drawn East Baltimore renewal area -- along with West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester -- for a designation as a federal empowerment zone. Such a designation would give the city $100 million to accelerate job creation and improve the delivery of a number of social services.

The challenge, however, is not to dream prematurely of uses for a possible federal windfall but to guarantee that the ambitious East Baltimore plan takes off, even if the city does not win one of those keenly contested designations. This is particularly important because East Baltimore has seen many of its hopes for improvement --ed.

In 1950, 27 blighted blocks bounded by Caroline, Preston, Chester and Chase streets were chosen for an experiment called the Baltimore Plan. A costly film was made about the project and triggered national interest. Forty-four years later, the deterioration of that area shows how even the best efforts can be defeated when abject poverty, crime and drugs conspire with the disappearance of community consciousness.

The new plan offers another chance. The 180-square-block tract targeted by the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition for improvements is a huge one. Many of its residential blocks have been steadily declining in recent years. Vacant houses and abandonment are a major problem.

Yet there is hope for the area. The city's plan to demolish most of the crime-plagued high-rises at the Lafayette Courts and replace them with new, low-rise public housing units dovetails with the hectic building that is going on around the Johns Hopkins medical complex. A extension of the Metro should be completed in another year, making this major employer more accessible. Meanwhile, the Kennedy Krieger Institute is expanding rapidly.

Broadway, the home of both of those institutions, was a vibrant and desirable residential area not so many decades ago. Monument Street boasted thriving retail and service businesses. The deep decline of the general area began after the 1968 riots, when the Gay Street corridor experienced major fire and riot damage. For a while, there was hope that subsequent piecemeal improvement programs might reverse the area's fortunes. Alas, that never happened.

The East Baltimore plan presents a challenge to all its partners -- the city, the state, the Hopkins medical institutions and an array of civic groups. The future of the area truly depends on their success. This time failure cannot be tolerated.

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