Ever so slowly, the Pen Lucy neighborhood is undergoing a face-lift -- thanks to the help of some of God's people.
Five Cator Avenue homes that once were stains on the community and havens for illegal drug activity now stand proud with splashes of paint, new drywall and other repairs by volunteers, including priests and nuns from the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.
North Baltimore's Roman Catholic cathedral is working with housing and neighborhood groups to buy a dilapidated house each year and to make it livable again with gallons of sweat and thousands of dollars. By reselling those houses at reasonable prices -- and focusing on a single block -- the cathedral hopes to make a lasting impact on the neighborhood northwest of Memorial Stadium.
"We've even had drug dealers come up to us and say, 'You're ruining the neighborhood,' " says Robert Nowlin, who moved into the first home renovated and sold under the program. "For us, that's the highest compliment."
Mr. Nowlin says cathedral volunteers, working with the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center and the Pen Lucy Improvement Association, have given him an opportunity to buy a solidly built home. The renovations also are helping the community take back its turf by giving residents a deeper sense of pride -- the kind that will compel them to call police about drug dealers, he says.
The program sprang from a meeting of a cathedral social justice committee, which wanted to do something about homelessness. After discussing ideas with St. Ambrose workers and others, members settled on the plan to use volunteers and a revolving fund to fix up homes.
The cathedral bought the rundown homes for about $10,000 apiece. And it gathered volunteers to spend about a total of 3,000 hours on each home, while hiring contractors to handle complex jobs such as electrical and plumbing repairs.
About $30,000 is spent to restore each home. After the work is completed, the homes are sold for about $38,000 each, with proceeds going to a revolving fund to buy and repair more Pen Lucy properties.
"The idea is to get a house that people can afford to buy. That's the goal," says Susan Tippett, a cathedral member and a coordinator of the repair program.
Transformations forged by the program are just short of miraculous, says Herbert Pope, 61. He moved with his wife, Celeste, in March 1993 from West Baltimore to a renovated home in the 600 block of Cator Ave.
"I didn't want this house when I first saw it," he says, recalling the bare floors, shabby walls and leaky roof in the pre-renovation days. "I'm not going to say my wife nagged, but she was pushing me to get away from where we were."
Mr. Pope, a retired heavy equipment operator at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., returned to the house months later.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw it," he recalls, sitting on the couch of his neat, carpeted living room, surrounded by pictures of the couple's children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. "They had a bunch of teen-agers, nuns, priests -- everybody was working."
The Popes paid $37,000 for the home. Included was a refrigerator, microwave oven, gas-powered steam radiators -- which keep the home toasty in the winter -- and a deck in the small, fenced back yard.
Best of all, the fears that the former West Baltimoreans had about violence in their new neighborhood have not been realized. Mrs. Pope remembers holding the phone near the door and telling a resident to listen -- to the quiet.
It hasn't always been that way. Before cathedral volunteers arrived, the area was notorious for drug dealing and gunfights between the Old York Road boys and the McCabe Avenue gang, who brazenly roamed the streets.
Problems still remain -- despite the housing renovations and what residents say is higher police visibility in recent years.
Drug dealers hang out on Old York Road, between Cator and Dumbarton avenues, residents say. A large, vacant house at Old York and Cator causes concern among neighbors, who want it demolished. And gunshots were fired through Mr. Nowlin's window after he challenged drug dealers on his street.
"I would hate to think of what this block would be like if we hadn't done this," Mr. Nowlin, who is blind, says of the renovation program. The Cathedral-community program hopes to repair boarded houses in the 700 block of Cator and to upgrade and furnish a playground on Old York Road.
The area now is a place where older residents can sit on their porches on a sunny day, as they did on a recent Friday afternoon, and where small children can play outside without their parents worrying about drug violence.
"Everything seems so calm," says Mrs. Pope. "Every now and then, when I'm in the house, I might hear a gunshot from around the corner, on Old York Road, but you don't hear it that often. I guess they'll get that together, too."