The Pope of Whitelock Street is practicing Duke Ellington tunes on a baby grand piano in the front window of his Reservoir Hill rowhouse. Atop the piano is a statue of St. Francis of Assisi. Beyond the statue lies a desolate stretch of Baltimore known as the 900 block of Whitelock St., the desert in which Catholic priest Thomas F. Composto has tried to do good since 1968.
A former Jesuit, expelled by his order for reasons neither he nor the Jesuits will explain, Mr. Composto keeps his chops sharp to pick up extra cash at senior citizen sing-alongs. Other money comes from counseling work and teaching courses on ethics and death. A few years ago, he was a maitre d' in Glen Burnie.
All to sustain himself for his life's work as staff and soul of St. Francis Neighborhood Center, a Catholic mission born amid the despair of Whitelock Street during the social activism of the 1960s.
Trying to do good on Whitelock Street for nearly half his life -- almost 27 years of patience and labor that earned him the title of pope -- has not been especially kind to Tommy Composto.
The city had so little faith in Whitelock Street that all that was left to do after two decades of indecision and decay was to knock it down and start over.
"Whatever we tried to do, it just didn't seem to ever work on Whitelock Street," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.
The city housing department is accepting bids from developers for a combination of private housing and businesses. What the agency won't take is carryout restaurants, drug testing or rehabilitation centers, any place selling liquor, or halfway houses.
"I just hope they don't take as long to build the block up as they did to tear it down," said Ronald Thompson, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1958.
Residents such as Mr. Thompson, who remember the glory days of Zurosky's meat market, G-Cleft Records, Montgomery's Barber Shop and Jerry Cohen's variety store, are eager to see business return, but finding merchants willing to take a chance on Whitelock Street may prove difficult.
Built in the first years of the 20th century, the 900 block of Whitelock St. percolated for decades as the Main Street of Reservoir Hill, a sprawling community of stately townhouses and about 8,500 residents between the Jones Falls Expressway and Druid Hill Park.
Where the Herling Brothers once delivered kosher meat to your door by bicycle, drug touts now direct a steady stream of customers from all over the city to supplies of cocaine and heroin.
"There aren't a lot of developers beating down the door to put up commercial buildings on Whitelock Street," said David Elam, a recently departed housing official.
The south side of the block came down in August, leaving rubble and bulldozers beyond the end of Tommy Composto's piano.
The north side is expected to tumble next month. When it does, St. Francis Center at 936 Whitelock St. will go down with it, along with the next-door dental office it spawned to serve the working class and poor.
Goodbye to a home
When St. Francis and its rough basement chapel go, Tom Composto will say goodbye to the only real home he has known since leaving his mother and father to enter the seminary.
"St. Francis has paid attention to the ordinary, everyday people," he said. "All the people who've helped over the years have added to it, but it's hard to find people who don't quit after awhile."
You could call him stubborn.
Hard-headed would not be too harsh.
"Or you could call me dedicated," he said. "I'm combative because I've been hurt personally by higher-ups in public service or church service who wouldn't do what they dedicated themselves to doing. Most of them just want to climb. So many people have used this neighborhood as their social laboratory, and then they leave."
Although Mr. Composto is losing his home, a deal with the city gave him another one around the corner, at 2405 Linden Ave., for $500. It is something of a wreck, but he intends to fix it up and install a new chapel with $71,500 a judge awarded as compensation from the city for the taking of 934 and 936 Whitelock St.
His decision to stay is a renewal of his original commitment to Whitelock Street, even if some days that commitment doesn't go much beyond smiling and saying hello to a child who must navigate around gangs of drug dealers on the way to school.
"We've tried to be a voice for the marginal people of this neighborhood, to let them know that somebody gave a damn about them and cared enough to stay," he said.
The day Tom Composto first pulled up to Whitelock Street -- back in the days when Reservoir Hill was the darling of young Catholics enamored of social justice -- a large, skeptical resident stuck his face into the seminarian's car window.
He demanded: "Are you a priest?"
Pointing to the St. Francis Center, the man asked: "You going in there?"
And then: "You going to go away as soon as we get to know you?"
Mr. Composto remembers answering: "It's not my style to hit and run."