Ethnic diversity, sense of community cause residents to heed urban call AT HOME IN THE CITY

May 22, 1994|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun Staff Writer

As the sun sets in Little Italy each day, Roy Eppard emerges from a century-old rowhouse on Albemarle Street and takes off running.

He waves to neighbors perched on stoops, breathes in fragrances from Italian restaurants and heads along President Street by the water. Jogging at a steady clip, he sidesteps tourists at the Inner Harbor, mingles with runners at Rash Field and gawks at the city skyline and dozens of yachts. Then it's on to Fort McHenry via Key Highway.

The commercial property manager and his wife, Catherine, could have chosen a big suburban house over the two-bedroom Formstone they started fixing up two years ago. Parking is tight, property taxes are highest in the state and neighbors live or run businesses just a shout away. But during his daily runs, the Washington transplant drinks in the sights and sounds at his doorstep and feels convinced he's home.

"I love it. It's really ethnic," says Mr. Eppard. "I'm a very social person, and the 'burbs don't do it for me. I don't like the open space. Here, everyone looks out for each other. Everyone knows each other."

Residents have been fleeing the city for decades, many seeking more space, better schools and less-expensive services in the suburbs. Three months ago, spurred by fears of crime and feelings that Baltimore's renaissance had stalled, a group of activists formed Citizens United for the Revitalization of Baltimore to solve neighborhood problems and improve city life.

"In the '60s and '70s and '80s, there was a real excitement about living in Baltimore," says Townes Coates, of Charles Village, the group's president. "Now, it's a matter of renewing that spirit. People are in charge of their own neighborhoods and can no longer expect government to do everything for them."

City officials are trying to lure middle-income residents back to the city by giving tax breaks to homesteaders and buyers of new and renovated homes, helping with closing costs, reducing taxes due at settlement and supporting home building in Pigtown, Coldspring and Mount Washington, among other sites.

But officials would have an easy sell to the countless people like Mr. Eppard. Whether newcomers or Baltimore-born, many in the city share a fierce loyalty. For them, there is no place else to live.

They say the city gets a bad rap. They claim other places can't compare in terms of neighborhoods and safety. They shudder at thoughts of suburbia, homogeneous shopping malls, cookie-cutter houses and beltway commutes. In their view, the city is a colorful place of tight-knit, tradition-bound neighborhoods, diverse cultures and architecture -- with shopping and jobs near public transportation or a short walk away.

At the same time, many residents complain loudly about public schools, worsening crime and high property taxes -- despite Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's promise to cut the rate by a nickel.

Here's what some city people had to say about where they live, and why.

Check the alleys

The alleys in Belair-Edison impressed Kelley Ray. While house-hunting, she was struck by the tidiness of the brick, Northeast Baltimore rowhouses.

"Even the alleys," says the 32-year-old Johns Hopkins Hospital employee. "That tells you something about the people who live there."

Ms. Ray says her first home cost $30,000 to $40,000 less than she would have spent on a comparable townhouse in Baltimore County, where she'd grown up. Even with higher taxes, she says she has reasonable monthly payments, less than some friends pay in rent for suburban apartments. She lives near a park and just a few miles from work.

"It's a perfect neighborhood for first-time homebuyers who want to be close to downtown," she says. "The city gets a terrible rap, but we do well compared to other highly urban areas. There is a perception of extremely high crime, gangs and trash.

"The reality is there are some areas that have problems and there is middle-class flight, but a neighborhood like mine is trying retain those people."

A view of the harbor

David Naumann's rowhouse in Canton has been burglarized twice, first when he was renovating what had been a vacant, dilapidated shell nearly three years ago. After he rebuilt it and moved in, burglars broke in and left with a load of appliances.

"If crime were a little more under control, a lot more people would be staying in the city," says Mr. Naumann, 35, a Baltimore native and owner of the Bay Cafe in Canton. "It seems half the people stay until they're married with kids."

In spite of the burglaries and his complaints of the cost of taxes and auto insurance, Mr. Naumann has no plans to move. His neighbors seem like family. From his third-floor bedroom, he's got a view of the harbor from Fort McHenry to Camden Yards.

"I still think there's a lot of hope for this area and many other great areas of the city," he says. "I just wish that the mayor and a few other people would get on the ball as far as straightening out some of the crime."

'Feeling of community'

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