Ethnic area changing, but still has its charms

NEIGHBORHOOD PROFILE

January 08, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

Maybe Highlandtown doesn't exist anymore.

Not the way it did for generations of people who lived it and loved it from the time housing started going up in the first decade of this century.

The gleam on the white marble steps has dulled.

And too many of the good people -- the families who got out and scrubbed those steps every Saturday with the same fidelity that brought them to church on Sunday -- have died or moved.

Left behind are scores of rowhouses hung with "For Sale" signs, some 600 properties scattered from Patterson Park to the city line at Dundalk, real estate that once gave waves of immigrant laborers from Germany and Italy and Poland and Greece a foothold in the New World.

Today, say folks fighting to keep Highlandtown vital, too many of these houses are falling to sharks who only show up for the rent.

And that is a shame because while the old neighborhood is worn from the struggle, the fight is far from over.

Housing remains affordable for working people and the area is generally safe. Despite a few vacant storefronts along Eastern Avenue, a host of services remain a short walk away and more than a few of yesterday's charms, like alleys lush with rosebushes and fig trees, persist.

Highlandtown cease to exist?

Blasphemy!

"We're trying to maintain it, we're trying to stabilize it because as you know -- neighborhood by neighborhood -- we're losing the city," says Helen Johns, 55, a lifelong resident and community leader in the Greektown area near Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

"In order to keep good people in, you've got to get the bad people out," she says. "We have absentee landlords who don't care who they rent to. If you have dirty person and a good person living side-by-side, the good guy is going to move first. The city finally put a man down here to clean the streets, but we had to fight to get him. Baltimore used to boast about its ethnic neighborhoods. We're trying to hold on."

Hold on tight, says Robert L. Mead, because things are getting better.

That might be easy to say for a guy who doesn't live in the neighborhood, but as the publicist for Southeast Development Inc., Mr. Mead has been seeing positive statistics where older residents see decay.

The nonprofit development project, with offices at 3614 Eastern Ave. and a $500,000 government-subsidized budget, is dedicated to increasing homeownership and employment through counseling and low-interest loans.

Last year, it tracked 968 people who moved into the greater Highlandtown area, roughly bounded by Patterson Park Avenue on the west, Baltimore Street on the north, the city line on the east and O'Donnell Street on the south.

Influx from Balto. Co.

Of those 968 buyers, says Mr. Mead, half moved into the city from increasingly urbanized sections of Baltimore County such as Dundalk and Essex. One quarter of the buyers were single adults with the rest split between couples without children and families. Some 38 percent, he says, had incomes over $50,000 and nearly half were college graduates.

"The ones we interviewed said affordability and a desire to own their own home was the biggest reason they moved into southeast," Mr. Mead says. "Nothing looks as good if you're comparing it to golden memories, but the people who bought houses in Highlandtown last year felt better about it than [the attitude] blue-collar residents had in the early '60s."

According to the Southeast Community Organization, which spawned the development office, homeownership throughout the lower east side -- from Little Italy all along the harbor rim to Highlandtown -- fell from 74 percent in 1980 to 70 percent in 1990. In the past two years, home prices fell 6 percent.

That is the momentum that Southeast Development Inc. aims to reverse.

Promoting homeownership

This month, it is making loans available to cover settlement costs, up to $5,000 to be paid back over 10 years at 5 percent interest. The house being purchased cannot cost more than $85,000 and the buyer must contact the Southeast Development office before signing a contract.

Come February, an advertising campaign will promote low-interest mortgages and special second mortgages, ask people to sell their homes through the development office and educate suburban real estate agents to the good things to be found along the side streets of Eastern Avenue.

Also, a counselor will be on board to help renters become owners and a newly revitalized federal program that permits rehab money to be wrapped into a mortgage will be aggressively marketed.

"We're even going to start looking for and working with the right kind of landlords," Mr. Mead says.

What might you get for the $40,000 to $50,000 it may cost you for a brick rowhouse with white marble steps that respond well to Ajax and elbow grease?

If you're from Greece and your English isn't so good, you'll arrive in a land where almost all your needs -- from prayer to newspapers -- can be met in your native tongue.

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