A neighborhood where pride shuts out decay

April 21, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Richard Holley arrives on Crawford Avenue because this is where he lives. I arrive, from a distance of 32 years, because I used to live here, and because $750 million says I should come back. Richard Holley confirms the money's worth it.

We bump into each other Tuesday afternoon at the corner of Crawford and Groveland avenues, in Northwest Baltimore. He asks if I remember him and tells me his name. Immediately, it bridges a distance of 35 years, when I went to Garrison Junior High and Holley was my ninth-grade Spanish teacher.

Now he lives two doors from my old house on Crawford Avenue. He's lived here since 1964, which was two years after my family moved out. We were part of the great white flight to suburbia. Holley was part of the great black flight to fair housing.

A lot of white people back then worried that black people would ruin neighborhoods. Some people today still make this claim. They should come to Crawford Avenue.

I've been coming back ever since I left, driving through every couple of months. There are places that stay in your blood, places where you've spent such a treasured part of your life that you never completely let go. That's how this neighborhood is for me. It's just off Rogers Avenue, about midway between Reisterstown Road and Liberty Heights Avenue. It looks more beautiful today than in my memories of three decades ago.

"A great neighborhood," Holley confirms. He's sitting in his car, carrying a bunch of stuff any home owner would need to putter around the house. It's what he does now, in his 58th year, now that he's retired from the city school system.

He taught at Garrison for a long time, then moved to a few high schools and finished his career as principal at Calverton Middle School. He saw the system at its best, when there was a mix of kids from all different backgrounds discovering each other, and he saw it at its worst, when 12-year-olds would arrive at Calverton and brag about having their own probation officers.

He arrived in this neighborhood when it was lovely, and he's stayed to watch it age gracefully. It's all there to see: manicured little lawns, immaculately clean streets, the look of caring on all the little bungalows and semi-detached and row houses.

"We had a problem," Holley says, "about 10 or 12 years ago. There were a couple of housebreakings. But they caught the guy. Turned out it was some kid who lived around the corner, who played Little League ball for me. But the neighborhood's doing great."

One reason is the pride of home ownership. People who own their own homes learn to treasure their neighborhoods. They have an investment that transcends mere money. About 64 percent of American families own their own homes, but in Baltimore, the figure is less than 50 percent. It is not mere coincidence that this city has neighborhoods that once blossomed and have spent at least a generation now in various stages of decay.

This is why, on Monday, the Federal National Mortgage Association announced it would provide about 10,000 low-to moderate-income Baltimore families with $750 million in mortgage loans over the next five years.

When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke made the announcement, he talked about neighborhoods in transition, about homeowners who move out and become absentee landlords to a succession of renters. No landlord, and no renter, will ever have the same feeling for a place as a resident who owns that place. That's simple human nature.

My old neighborhood -- unofficially, it's called Grove Park, after the neighborhood elementary school -- gives us evidence. From the earliest days of the racial transition, the homes have always been owned by those who live there. People knew they were staying, and they took pride. It's 32 years since I left, 30 years since Richard Holley moved in, and the old place continues to blossom. Is home ownership the final panacea? No, of course not. Holley, the veteran of three decades in the school system, stands on Crawford Avenue and talks of the breakdown of families, of drug traffic and of 12-year-old kids with dreams of dropping out of school in a few years to pursue careers in the narcotics trade.

Home ownership isn't this city's salvation, but it's a step in the right direction. The decay of neighborhoods isn't about race, it's about pride. Those who think otherwise need to come to Richard Holley's neighborhood.

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